By Pam – a current Texas resident
I lost everything in the storm; my car and my apartment were gone. Losing our personal possessions was devastating, but using this to motivate change is why I’m telling our story. Months before the storm even hit, I sustained multiple injuries in a devastating car accident, forcing me to rely on a walker for mobility. Then I developed a blood clot in my right leg as a complication from those injuries. When Hurricane Harvey hit, disabled, I watched in horror as contaminated storm water surged up through the foundation, bathtubs and toilets and under doors, floors and walls. The water rose higher and higher until our belongings came together as ‘soup’, in a place we had called home for seventeen years. The loss was unbearable as I watched precious home videos of my beloved mother with my only child destroyed; birthday mementos, pictures, valuables, and my treasured antique furniture collection inundated by water. An entire life time washed away in the blink of an eye. To complicate matters, my disabled son, born with multiple autoimmune deficiencies, asthma, and severe allergic reactions to cats and cigarettes was thrust into danger by the rising water and the loss of his safe haven.
After 54” of torrential rain, we were trapped inside our apartment; three feet of water outside my front door and parking lot under six feet. My upstairs neighbor, whom I had never exchanged more than a passing ‘hello’ with, heard me beating on our front window to help us escape the flood waters. His heroic effort saved us as he waded chest deep to carry me up to his second floor apartment. We were overwhelmed by his generosity to allow us to sleep on his couch even though he already had several family members and friends, escaping the storm, camped out in his living room. We all huddled together until high water rescue vehicles came several days later to take us to higher ground, but since the shelters could not accommodate our special needs, we stayed a few more days until we could reach my office, a homebuilder’s model home.
Since thirty five other employees with our company had suffered the loss of their homes during the storm, the company generously offered us the use of the model homes to live in until we could find suitable FEMA transitional shelter to accommodate our special needs. The storm was over and the recovery had begun but the hardest part of this whole ordeal was trying to explain our special needs to those who did not care or want to comprehend the seriousness of our situation.
We found a hotel room, but were quickly forced out after only being allowed to stay one night. The dishonest hotel manager claimed he had overbooked the rooms and needed us to leave immediately. Later, I learned he had charged FEMA and me for the one night. We went back to the model home for another week until FEMA found a new hotel to accommodate our special needs. We faced numerous hurdles living in the hotel room from September 2017 until April 2018. Some of those hurdles took the tenacity of a bulldog, as my family lovingly refers to me.
One hurdle was the cost of rent in our old neighborhood skyrocketed. Landlords saw the opportunity to increase rents which forced us out of the area. That same size apartment today rents for $1500, nearly twice as much as our previous rent. Another hurdle was being ripped off by an unscrupulous landlord taking advantage of the crisis after the storm. To rent an apartment that met our special needs, I was forced to purchase special paint and pay a contractor to paint the walls. The contractor exchanged our expensive paint with another toxic paint, exacerbating our asthma, and rendering the apartment uninhabitable for my son and I. FEMA allowed us to return to the hotel but we were still legally liable for a lease on an unlivable apartment. With the help of Lone Star Legal Aid and Fair Housing, we overcame this hurdle and were released from our lease, but our FEMA rental assistance was lost to this dishonest apartment manager.
Finally, we found a much smaller apartment in a 55-and-older community but were displaced from our old community and the social connections we had made over the past 17 years. Now we reside in an area that feels unsafe and inconvenient. Furthermore, since rent is adjusted for income, I fear once I start working full-time again, I might be kicked out. With this hanging over our head, we’re afraid to make this our permanent home as we don’t know what the future holds.
Even though shelters didn’t want us because of my son’s health issues, and landlords were reluctant to take a chance on us, most of our hurdles were aggravated by FEMA’s slow, archaic practices. Take for instance their Disaster Hotline. We sat on hold for up to 9 hours to receive an answer to questions only to discover it was misinformation; forcing us to travel up to 30 miles to a FEMA satellite center. There we encountered contract workers who didn’t have the necessary tools to process our claims while being forced to use a fax machine to transmit our claims from their centers to FEMA’s main process center, thus, causing massive delays and lost claims. Even though FEMA has an on-line presence, their computerized system doesn’t match their request for information to quickly process your claims as the documents needed to qualify can’t be uploaded. Instead you’re forced back to a community center. As a result of their inefficiency, FEMA kept denying my requests for assistance and my appeals. Once more Lone Star Legal Aid stepped in and was successful in their filing of an appeal to FEMA for more funds to help me get back on my feet.
It has been a year since Harvey hit and we are still struggling to overcome this disaster. Although FEMA provided monetary assistance, the funds we received were a mere pittance of what we lost – over $60,000 in damages. And the sentimental value of our losses and the months of misery and uncertainty we endured could not be compensated for by any means. Nevertheless, we are extremely thankful for the generosity of neighbors and friends who supported us during our time of need.