Returning home in Houston: “There's just no saving any of it”

September 3, 2017, 8:50am

When Erin Moeller got back to her home in League City, a small city just southeast of Houston, the waters had receded. But something nasty stayed behind.

“We have sewage backup in our house,” Moeller, a technical writer for NASA at nearby Johnson Space Center, told VICE News. “That’s what got into my closet and soaked into the clothes that were near the ground. There’s just no saving any of it.”

For homeowners, the floods have left behind not just mud, debris, and sometimes sewage, but also a financial and bureaucratic mess. Between gutting a house, filing insurance claims, and trying to get whatever assistance FEMA can offer, some of those who left their homes for higher ground during the storm are now returning to face another set of ordeals.

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Moeller was finally able to get home last week after spending three days with her son and four dogs — two were hers; two that she was dog sitting — at a coworkers’ house. Her home had been flooded by about a foot of water.

“On the first day that my house was accessible, the carpet was out, the sheetrock was gone, cabinets were thrown out on the curb,” Moeller said. “People were working for 10 hours straight.”

Everything must go

The first thing that needs to happen: Anything that’s gotten wet needs to go. Homes will need to be gutted — drywall removed, appliances tossed, fans and dehumidifiers installed.

In the Southeastern heat, mold spreads quickly. It’s important to gut everything before the mold totally destroys a home and everything in it.

“The first experience of walking into your house and seeing your house totally rearranged by water — it’s an emotional experience, to be sure,” said Greg Colston, a New York architect who went through it when his New Jersey home was flooded by 23 inches of water by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “You’ll see the water line on the walls and windows. It was very haunting.”

Repairing water damage is not cheap. Colston said homeowners can expect to spend about $75 to $100 per square foot of renovated space. For an average single-family home of 2,100 square feet, if the entire first floor fills with water, the average repair bill could run nearly $80,000. The median income in the Houston area was $61,465 a year, according to 2015 Census data.

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“Typically one need not replace windows or light fixtures, as most flooding does not reach that level,” he Colston said. “But new kitchens, flooring, insulation, electrical runs and outlets, many times wall tile and bathroom vanities, and of course sheetrock, paint, and all affected doors.”

And this assumes that labor and materials are available.

Finding solid contractors to gut homes will be a challenge. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, fraudulent contractors scammed New Yorkers, providing shoddy work to people with flooded homes, or asking for payment up front and skipping town before the job was done.

FEMA: “Well-intentioned, but they’re a labyrinth”

Houstonians will also be navigating government bureaucracy as they deal with personal tragedy. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that more than 440,000 people have already registered for FEMA aid. How each of those people goes about seeking aid will determine whether they get it, and how much they get.

FEMA issues grants to homeowners under the Individual Assistance Program. But that funding, capped at $32,000, is designed to give people money to stay afloat, not rebuild — it’s money for getting a temporary roof over your head and buying dry clothes. And getting funded close to the cap is a challenge.

Zack Rosenburg, a co-founders of SBP, a national disaster relief nonprofit that helped with rebuilding efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy says of FEMA: “They’re well-intentioned, but they’re a labyrinth.”

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“We see strong people — people who are used to being providers — have to ask for help, and some of them get rejected,” Rosenburg says. For many, just asking for help can be painful; getting rejected is worse.

Once someone takes the initial offer from FEMA, that amount is final: There’s no appeals process. If that amount isn’t near the cap, Rosenburg recommends that flood victims apply for aid through the Small Business Administration, which can provide low-interest loans — to individuals as well as small businesses. (SBP’s resources are available here.)

Insurance settlements

Even for the relatively few Houstonians who have flood insurance, cleaning up after Harvey will be a financial burden.

Fewer than 20 percent of Houston homeowners have flood insurance, according to the Associated Press — and fewer are enrolled in flood insurance than were five years ago. For the 440,000 people who are registered through the National Flood Insurance Program and the those insured by private companies, funds will be slow the disburse — claims take time to process and meanwhile, mold will spread and damage to homes will continue to get worse.

Many will find themselves dipping into their own savings to repair the initial damage before the flood insurance payments come through. And when a settlement offer is finally comes through, it might not be enough.

Best practices are to file claims quickly, document the damage thoroughly, hold onto receipts, and appeal if the settlement offer is too low.

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“Because so many consumers experienced severe claims problems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, we urge homeowners dealing with losses caused by Hurricane Harvey to be vigilant with their insurance companies, including the insurers settling National Flood Insurance Program claims, to ensure that these homeowners receive a full and fair settlement,” said J. Robert Hunter, the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, in an interview with CBS, “

After the rampant fraud that’s taken place in the wake of past storms, federal prosecutors are setting up an office to try to limit all the staples of post-storm fraud — everything from contract corruption to identity theft.

Contractor shortage

Legit contractors will be in short supply. Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, told USA Today that about 136,000 structures — or, 10 percent of all structures in the county database — suffered flood damage due to the storm. Contractors will be in extremely high demand.

And there’s a shortage of construction workers in the U.S. — a shortage that’s been affecting the housing industry even when a hurricane hasn’t barrelled through a major American city. The homebuilding industry still hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession, which hit construction workers particularly hard. The National Association of Homebuilders estimates that worker shortages are now at their highest level since 2000.

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After Katrina, construction workers — many of them undocumented — flocked to New Orleans to pick up work in the rebuilding effort. Nearly a quarter of the Katrina reconstruction workers were undocumented Latinos, according to a 2006 study from researchers at Tulane and the University of California, Berkeley. There are some 1.15 million undocumented workers in Texas; 23 percent of them work in construction, Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, told the Washington Post.

In the meantime, people are taking things into their own hands.

“People are coming together and rebuilding homes — gutting houses, in areas that they’re able to,” said Sarah Syed, a community organizer in Houston who is trained first responder. She was out in the floodwaters, helping to coordinate early relief efforts in Houston.

Those ten people who helped out Moeller weren’t contractors. They were her NASA coworkers. They’ve set up a Facebook group where they can request and offer help — and since the Johnson Space Center’s closed till Tuesday, they’re out gutting each other’s houses, installing fans and dehumidifiers, offering each other help in any way they can.

“They are working like fire ants,” Moeller said. ““Luckily I have not been infested personally with any actual fire ants during this ordeal,” she added. “So I’m lucky in that regard.”

After all the work she and her coworkers put in, Moeller expects her home to be habitable in about a week. But getting her home back to the condition it was before the flood will take significantly longer.

“Not having flood insurance, it’ll be a bare bones house for a long time,” she said.