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After the Deluge: Flooding in Houston

June 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whether Tropical Storm Allison came roaring through Houston last weekend, this is what it left. Not only did it take the lives of 20 people, in its wake it also left broken dreams. In this northeastern neighborhood Becky Rivera and her parents watched helplessly as the floodwaters came up into their home.

BECKY RIVERA: It was about 1:30 in the morning when it started. About 3:00 in the morning, the house was already halfway.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Halfway underwater?

BECKY RIVERA: Halfway underwater. We opened the bars right there. My dad sat right there. My mother next to him, and I laid on top of the head board of my brother — the shelf that goes to the bed. And we just watched the water come up. We sat here, they sat here for a while, for about six hours until it finally stopped.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sat on the window sill for six hours?

BECKY RIVERA: Sat on the window sill for six hours. Devastation is what went through our minds. We lost everything that everybody worked for.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rivera’s parents are first generation immigrants from Mexico. They worked and saved a long time to buy this house in 1990. Now all they have left is an empty structure sitting on a wet concrete slab. And they have no flood insurance.

BECKY RIVERA: We’re just going to have to work and start over.

WOMAN: Clean everything. And keep what we can.

BECKY RIVERA: Clean everything. And keep what we can like I said and go from there. What else is there to do?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: No one knows exactly how many families are in the same shape, but city officials estimate the number to be in the thousands. Evan Powers lives down the street. Like Rivera, his family has no flood insurance and they have lost everything.

EVAN POWERS: Next month will be our tenth anniversary. Most of this is a result of our ten-year marriage, and it’s gone. Furniture, kid’s furniture, everything, everything, clothes, shoes, just everything.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Where do you start to rebuild?

EVAN POWERS: That’s a good question. That’s a good question. I have… Really, I have no idea.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was the worst flooding in the history of the city. For over a period of three days, three feet of rain pelted areas already saturated from storms days before. Much of the nation’s fourth largest city was build over a flood plain at sea level. And there are hundreds of miles of bayous that weave through it. They filled up and overflowed. The water had no place to go so tons poured onto streets and the interstate highway system, turning roadways into rivers. A crew from Houston Television Station KHOU was in a boat piloted by a volunteer when they came upon this National Guard truck loaded with evacuees.

SPOKESMAN: Watch out– your head.

SPOKESMAN: I want babies in this boat, I want babies now!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All week long, workers pumped flood waters out of Houston’s air-conditioned tunnel system designed to move people from one building to another in comfort. Houston officials say there is at least $2 billion in damage, but Mayor Lee Brown expects that estimate to go higher.

MAYOR LEE BROWN: Well, I’ve been in public service 40 years — most of that is in law enforcement. I’ve dealt with just about everything you can deal with, whether it’s floods, or storms, hurricanes, riots. You name it, I’ve dealt with it during my career. This is the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. Saturday I went up in a helicopter and drove over the city. We had whole subdivisions flooded with water — some up to the roof of the homes. One of our streets, I-10 was kind of like a swimming pool for 18- wheelers; over 20 18-wheelers floating in the water. Streets were closed, people on housetops can’t get off. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At Baylor College of Medicine, doctors and medical staff worked furiously to save years of critical research from underground labs that were devastated. Dr. Huda Zoghbi is a neurologist and researcher.

DR. HUDA ZOGHBI: We have investigators who work on AIDS, investigators who work on cancer, investigators who work on tuberculosis, chest infections, investigators who work in neurological diseases, degenerative diseases, developmental disorders that affect children. All of these things are collectively affected.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: From genetic sequencing to brain tissue research, years of experimentation at Baylor ended up underwater.

DR. HUDA ZOGHBI: Some of the samples that have taken ten to 20 years to collect, some of those have been lost, that you cannot put a dollar amount on. That is extremely valuable and that is obviously a major loss.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: More than 30,000 animals drowned, including a large number of valuable mice.

DR. HUDA ZOGHBI: These are mice that have been genetically engineered or altered to model certain human diseases. We study them to understand human diseases better, and those take a long time to regenerate, and losing some of those means losing the work of two or three years that got us to the point where we can work with them and understand the disease mechanism — that has been lost.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX, Ben Taub Hospital: Did they get you an outside telephone line?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Of the 12 world- famous hospitals in the medical complex, only Ben Taub Hospital had emergency generator power that worked. That’s because Ben Taub built its electrical wiring for the generator far above flood level. These critical patients were evacuated from Herman Hospital next door; in some cases they were carried on stretchers down nine flights, guided only by flashlights while nurses hand- ventilated them.

NURSE: We finally got our dialysis coordinated.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: Is this your dialysis or our dialysis machine?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Until Herman Hospital is up and running, Ben Taub is the only level-one trauma hospital in then entire Houston area. And while officials here think they have things under control for the time being, they are concerned what the next few days may bring. Dr. Kenneth Mattox is chief of surgery.

DR. KENNETH MATTOX: When the community suddenly realizes that their house is gone, personal frustrations, interpersonal violence; someone may now drive while intoxicated, when they normally wouldn’t. We’re anticipating a marked increase in trauma, in heart attacks, in asthma; in the community there is a high mold level because of all the rotting carpet and the like, so we’re going to see respiratory problems, other medical problems come out.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Theresa Alaniz and her daughter’s concerns were of a different nature: They were hungry. They came to this volunteer shelter looking for food. Like so many people in the city, their clothes, furniture, and personal belongings were destroyed.

SPOKESPERSON: We don’t have any food right now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A few minutes later, someone showed up with donations of a few items, so Alaniz left with a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, just enough for a day or two. It is those kinds of problems city and federal officials now have to address. Mayor Brown has started an adopt-a-family program, asking for those who have to help those who have not.

KYLE McCAIN: Hi there. Kyle McCain with FEMA, region six.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And this afternoon representatives from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, handed out flyers telling people how they can get assistance from the federal government.

KYLE McCAIN: This is the flyer that has the 800 number on it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There are so many people who lost cars in the flood that FEMA is going door to door to explain the process for getting a low interest federal loan. But the relief effort is so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who need assistance that it may be days before these residents will actually be interviewed. Allison is a name Houstonians will not soon forget.