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Thousands of Texans are still in temporary housing awaiting Hurricane Harvey aid

Five months after Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston with record rainfall and 130 mph winds, 33,000 Texans are still displaced and living in temporary federal housing. Meanwhile, 80 percent of hurricane victims did not have flood insurance, and for many, help is not coming fast enough. Produced in partnership with the Texas Tribune, Hari Sreenivasan looks at what keeps them from returning home.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first- Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last summer with 130 mile-per-hour winds and torrential downpours, forcing scores of people from their homes.

    Five months later, more than 33,000 are still displaced and living in temporary federal emergency housing.

    Hari Sreenivasan recently traveled to Houston for a series of stories about what things are like After the Storms.

    We start with a look at what’s still keeping people from returning home.

    This story was produced in partnership with The Texan Tribune, a nonprofit news organization.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This hotel room is what Jackie White and her husband, Michael, have been staying in for the past month. They moved here from another hotel, and for three months before that slept on their daughter’s floor, which, given Jackie’s arthritis, wasn’t easy.

  • Jackie White:

    This is more than enough for anybody to worry with and stress with.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Their ordeal began in August, when Hurricane Harvey swept into Houston, then stopped and dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the city. At its peak, about a third of the county was underwater. At least 30,000 of the city’s homes were flooded. White’s was one of them.

  • Jackie White:

    My daughter came. She and my son-in-law, they rescued us out of the house, because we couldn’t get out.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Days later, White returned to find her home in shambles.

  • Jackie White:

    This is what I have here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    White had worked for an insurance company, but she didn’t have flood insurance. She says, as a retiree, she just couldn’t afford it.

  • Jackie White:

    I had everything I needed, except flood. No flood insurance.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Eighty percent of Hurricane Harvey victims didn’t have flood insurance, like Jackie White. She wasn’t required to because her home is not in what the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers a floodplain, an area likely to flood.

    But FEMA has provided White money to replace furniture, make basic repairs to her home and one of her cars, and for temporary shelter.

  • Mayor Sylvester Turner:

    In the city of Houston, there about 4,300 people that are still in hotels. At some point, that’s going to end. So, housing becomes a critical concern.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

  • Mayor Sylvester Turner:

    In large part, we’re still waiting on funding to come from the federal level to the state, and then down to the local level.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is that frustrating?

  • Mayor Sylvester Turner:

    Yes, it’s frustrating, because we all have to move with a degree of urgency. People need housing. That’s my number one priority.

  • Rep. John Culberson:

    My brother is still living in a trailer in his driveway after having four, five, six feet of water in his house for 12 days.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Republican Congressman John Culberson represents Houston and says he understands the needs his constituents are facing.

  • Rep. John Culberson:

    It’s a catastrophe, whether it be private insurance has taken forever, mortgage companies won’t release checks, or FEMA or the federal government not moving fast enough. It’s intensely frustrating for my constituents and top of my list every day, all day.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Still, he says, getting money and resources to people who need them takes time.

  • Rep. John Culberson:

    You have to have an accurate count of how much property was damaged and how much money then is going to be necessary based on that count.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    More money is in the pipeline. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has set aside $5 billion to repair homes and businesses damaged by Harvey. Houston is likely to get about half of that.

    The U.S. House of Representatives also passed an $81 billion disaster aid bill in December. Assuming the Senate passes that measure, Houston will get a portion of that as well, along with Florida and Puerto Rico.

    But, for White, the help is not coming fast enough.

  • Jackie White:

    I’m struggling because I can’t get the assistance I need from FEMA. And they are not coming across with the help that I was expecting them to give us.

  • Kevin Hannes:

    We have to manage their expectations of what the federal government can do, what the state government can do, and what the local government can do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kevin Hannes is FEMA’s point person for Harvey recovery efforts. He says there are about 365,000 people registered with FEMA. And, so far, the agency has distributed $1.5 billion in grants, not including insurance payments or loans.

  • Kevin Hannes:

    That’s average grant of about $4,000. Now, many have received more. Some have received less. But it’s really that seed money to get started with their recovery.

  • Jackie White:

    People lost everything over here to your left.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jackie White is trying to get her life back to normal, but it isn’t easy. She has regular doctor’s appointments for herself, her diabetic husband and her brother, who is partially paralyzed.

    Now there’s an added commute between her hotel and her damaged home. In this sprawling metropolis, the car is king, but hers was soaked in three feet of water. It still smells of mold.

  • Jackie White:

    Reach out and touch.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    She does have some hope from a local nonprofit, West Street Recovery. The group formed during Hurricane Harvey, when Andrew Cobb and two of his friends set out by boat to begin rescuing flooded neighbors.

  • Andrew Cobb:

    And then, from there, we became a food distribution hub and cleanup distribution hub. And then we have just kind of followed the stages of the disaster recovery process.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Today, Cobb and his volunteers are finishing the drywall in what was once Jackie White’s kitchen. His group is trying to get three rooms ready so she can move in as soon as possible. The rest of the house will be fixed up later on, when Jackie can afford the repairs.

  • Andrew Cobb:

    The best strategy we have come up with so far is to what we call unstick people. So, if they just need money to help pour a concrete foundation, or if they need materials for siding, or if they need us to hang three rooms of drywall, then we try to we try to pick off those smaller projects.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This neighborhood in Northeast Houston was hit particularly hard during the storm. Becky Selle is working a few houses down.

  • Becky Selle:

    The entire front of the house had fallen off of the foundation, as well as part of the back of the house. And there is a lot of wood that was damaged and no floors. The electricity was damaged. This is pretty typical.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Deanna Adams is Jackie’s case manager from West Street Recovery. They’re working with about 180 clients.

  • Deanna Adams:

    The neighborhoods that we focus on are Northeast Houston is because it’s historically been underserved. So, historically, I mean, as you can see here, there’s not been a lot of cleaning of the drainage or maintenance of the drainage. Maintenance of the homes in some cases has been difficult because of financial issues with the residents.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A flood doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. But it seems that you’re saying that people who are already poor are getting doubly hurt in the recovery.

  • Deanna Adams:

    Honestly, I beg to differ. A flood does care if you’re rich or poor, because if you live in certain areas that are more flood-prone, and there hasn’t been zoning to say that either you can’t live in those areas or, if you do, we’re going to make sure that your houses up to a code where it won’t be devastated, that absolutely makes a difference.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As for White, she knows the clock is running out on her hotel stay. After extending the deadline several times, Hannes says FEMA will continue its temporary hotel housing program at least until March, but-

  • Kevin Hannes:

    Transitioning that program becomes very difficult the longer it goes on. And so I know, from a state perspective, as well as a federal perspective, we want to try to end that program as soon as possible.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That’s fine with White. She wants to move back into her house as soon as she can, but with great hesitation. This isn’t the first time she’s lost everything to a flood. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison flooded this same home.

    Why move back here if it can flood again?

  • Jackie White:

    I have no place to go. This is all I have to call home. I don’t have anywhere else to go.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There’s an inherent tension in the recovery process after Harvey. On the one hand, you want to get people back into their homes as quickly as possible, so they can get back to their lives. On the other hand, what if the home you’re sending them back to is likely to flood again?

    In our next report, we will take a look at what is causing this flooding and what is being done about it.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Houston.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Online, another, smaller tourist town in Texas was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. Now it’s trying to make a comeback. You can read that at PBS.org/NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment

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