Houston Landlords and Banks Need Pressure, Tenants and Owners Need Help

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle
Community organizer Alain Cisneros talks to Rockport Apartment residents about the damage to their homes following Tropical Storm Harvey.

Houston  Going into Beaumont on Interstate 10, one exit after another was still closed off. Water was still standing. Trailers in a park near a small lake were still submerged with water coming up to the shoulder of the highway. Spotted along the route in one random location after another were abandoned cars and trucks, some with hoods propped up, some in the middle of the median, and others seeming to have almost made it to high ground, but then flooded.

Coming into Houston city limits on the north side of I-10, trash heaps, dumpsters, and tractor trailer rigs were now the landmarks. The giant Fiesta grocery store that was once our rendezvous point for driving into town to see the Astros play, was now a clean-out and construction zone. Motels were lined up with doors swung open and heaps of trash in their lots. Once in town, everything seemed almost normal in the city center. Talking to one storm refugee, he commented that he was flooded out and got out of his apartment after hours of bailing and waiting for the end and realizing that the water just kept rising, but once out of his place, he couldn’t see a pattern. One building would be gone and another untouched.

Much of the Houston recovery tragedy is invisible from the highway of course. I talked to Alain Cisnerous and Caesar Espinoza with F.I.E.L., which in Spanish is Familias Immigrantes y Estudiantes en La Lucha or Immigrant Families and Students in Struggle. The organization had been founded a decade ago with the original mission of helping immigrant students figure out financing to afford college, but had more recently focused on DACA and more general issues facing the immigrant community. Needless to say their plate was already overflowing their capacity.

And, then comes Harvey. They told me stories that were outrageous. In southwest Houston, a largely Hispanic area in many sections with thousands of apartment complexes, flooding had been severe. FIEL had visited with families trying to escape the water who had gone to the upper floors of their buildings for shelter and found they were nothing but shells, framed with wooden studs. Families that ended up at the convention center and elsewhere with apartments that were uninhabitable were getting texts and calls from their landlords about rent payments and late fees that would double their normal payments. In one case, a family unable to return would now owe $1200 a month because of fees and penalties on rent that had been $500. This is outrageous.

I asked whether Houston’s progressive and well-regarded mayor, Sylvester Turner, had jawboned the Apartment Association on the issue of opening up vacant units for the displaced and waiving rent and fees for abandoned units. They answered, no. Mayors and New Orleans and Houston had done so after Katrina for refugees. Why not Houston’s own people who are now under the gun? Had banks offered forbearance to mortgage payers who were underwater, literally, and waived foreclosures? Once again, they indicated nothing had been done like this to their knowledge, though ACORN had easily been able to win a number of six month extensions after Katrina. Was there a daily meeting in the Mayor’s office to coordinate the recovery, like Houston’s former mayor, Bill White, had organized? Was there a coalition of nonprofits making sure that equitable plans were produced for rebuilding and distributing relief money? No, no, not that anyone I met knew.

There is probably a lot of this happening somewhere at some level, but it definitely has not sunk down to the grassroots where FIEL and others are working. Lessons have to be learned from disasters, but I was disturbed in Houston that so many of them were so easily being forgotten.

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Building Drainage Systems for a Changing Climate

New Orleans Pumping Station

New Orleans   On August 5th only weeks ago, New Orleans was caught in a downpour of between 9 and 10 inches in some parts of the city that overwhelmed the sewer and drainage system. The city has been in crisis since that time, as citizens come to grip with what they thought were the strengths of the system versus its real abilities and classic fail. The outgoing mayor’s reputation and legacy, on the rise for his handling of the Civil War monuments, has now drowned since the Sewerage & Water Board was on his watch and under this thumb. The level of contradiction and incompetence revealed in the aftermath of the flooding has left many in the city on edge during hurricane season with the anniversary of the August 29th Katrina hurricane in 2005 only days away.

Remarkably, what was once vaunted as one of the most effective drainage systems in the world, now is a poster child for urban myth. I’m especially sensitive to the mythology here, because I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker as well. After the May floods in the 1980s, I had sucked in a line that the city could handle 3 inches per hour. After the August floods, I had repeated the fiction, and had to retract my line, when the local papers kept reporting that, yes, the system was supposed to be world-class, but that meant it could handle 1 inch the first hour of rain, and clear ½ inch every hour after that. A 10 inch rainfall in their version of the events was a “sky falling” catastrophe that even the best systems could not handle without flooding, especially given the epic level of the rain.

Now with Hurricane Harvey knocking hard at the I-10 Louisiana Welcome Centers across the Sabine River, we read that the Mayor’s office and the local Sewerage & Water Board are having trouble verifying any technical assessment that would have rated the system’s water carrying and clearing capacity even at the level of 1 inch per hour and so forth. This has all of the alarming aspects of an urban myth repeated so often that no once bothered to check the sources until they were finding their life jackets and canoe paddles with the water rising at the front door.

Meanwhile I’m due in Houston this week. Harvey is expected to dump 3 feet of water on Texas. The Houston drainage system is legendary for its limited handling capacity and frequent flooding from homes to interstates on the least heavy rainfall. My friend and comrade sent me a dawn text that they had already had 21 inches hit the city by Sunday morning. He was happy to report the water had covered up his street, but was not up to the porch steps yet. Before you applaud the progress in Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, you probably need to know my friends live in the Houston Heights, near the apex of the rise. Their story is a high ground story, not one from the lowlands.

But, it’s fair to say that no city, even Houston and New Orleans in the swampy tropics of America, can handle a foot or more of water without some flooding at this point. My question is what are we learning? With climate change we are going to have more of this more often, not less. Are we talking about infrastructure investment and capital programs that will give drainage systems the capacity to handle even a couple of inches of water per hour, much less what we are seeing now with some regularly.

In the classic formulation attributed in the French Revolution to King Louis XIV, “here comes the deluge….” We’re not ready, but can we become able?

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