The day before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston in late August of last year was one of the most beautiful that Patti Dennenberg can remember in all her 58 years. But those limpid blue Texas skies wouldn’t last.
Within hours of the Category 4 storm making landfall the following evening, water started filling up her single-level home. It wasn’t until the winds reached 130 mph and the murky torrent began encroaching her back porch that Dennenberg realized the danger that she, her husband, and their two grown sons were in. Soon, water overwhelmed their furniture, which they’d stacked on cinder blocks and giant cans of green beans. And it just kept rising. The family waited helplessly to see just how much would rush into their home.
It was the worst storm to ever hit Houston. And the Dennenbergs were feeling its full wrath.
Around midnight, they climbed on the granite island in their kitchen to escape the flood, which had become waist-deep. Marooned, they desperately called 911 to be rescued—but couldn’t get through. The younger son, then 21, worried as he watched the water creeping up around him. So he waded through it and clambered onto the flat roof of their home. That was when they realized that they all had to get out before the water got any higher. Their lives depended on it.
“We had nowhere to go,” says Dennenberg. “But at that point we knew if we didn’t get out now, we were never going to get out.”
The worst part was that the Dennenberg family had been in this terrifying position before. Their low-lying, Houston neighborhood of Meyerland had completely flooded during storms on Memorial Day 2015 and then less than a year later on Tax Day. But with Hurricane Harvey, they were truly under siege.
Harvey, which touched down on Aug. 25, 2017, was the second-costliest hurricane to ever hit the U.S., surpassed only by Katrina. Its fury would claim more than 100 lives and, in Houston’s Harris County alone, lay waste to more than 204,000 homes. Although it was downgraded to a Category 2 storm a few hours after touching down, it took the most unusual step of lingering, dumping an unprecedented 40 inches of rain in some parts of Houston—flooding homes, offices, and streets, and bringing the city to a halt. It was the manifestation of one of America’s worst nightmares: a catastrophic hurricane inundating a densely populated city with more 1 trillion gallons over four long, harrowing days.
And it could be a harbinger of even more destructive disasters to come—and the enormous challenges American cities face going forward.
That’s why about a year after Harvey, I traveled to Houston. I wanted to see what recovery in the nation’s fourth-largest city looks like—and understand the plight of residents who will be wrestling with the financial and emotional tolls of the storm for years to come. I chose the prototypical, middle-class suburban neighborhood of Meyerland, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Houston, because it took the full force of the storm and suffered through three devastating floods in as many years. The hardships that these residents are grappling with are those shared by victims of more recent hurricanes—Florence in the Carolinas and Michael in the Florida Panhandle.
Such catastrophes, not long ago considered once-in-a-lifetime events, are becoming disturbingly frequent. Scientists predict that hurricanes will continue to become even more common and powerful in coming years. And a deadly combination of population increases in many of the most hurricane-prone regions of the U.S. and overdevelopment is putting many more people directly in harm’s way.
“Meyerland is happening all over America,” says Sam Brody, a flood risk reduction professor at Texas A&M University. “The losses due to flood damage are going to be significantly greater in the future.”
In other words, “you’ve got a tinderbox ready to ignite.”
‘We’re trapped’—why some homeowners are forced to rebuild
If the tree-lined streets of Meyerland a year after the great hurricane have a soundtrack, it would be an endless symphony of hammers, power tools, and saws. It seems to come from every direction.
It’s the sound of resilience, one shared with most communities that have withstood natural disasters. Roughly 1,900 of Meyerland’s 2,300 homes flooded from Harvey, due in large part to the breach of the Brays Bayou, the 31-mile river that cuts through the region. Despite the very real danger that disaster will strike yet again, many of the badly damaged homes are being rebuilt. Construction permits are taped prominently on almost every window of the blocks closest to the bayou. Some streets are lined with the naked earth of vacant lots, where flooded homes were razed, ready for new homes to be built in their place.
Reconstruction after a natural disaster takes an emotional as well as financial toll on residents. You see it everywhere you look here.
It’s etched on the face of Patti Dennenberg, dressed in a long-sleeved, black shirt and a loose-fitting pair of pink shorts, as she invites me to see the remains of her four-bed, three-bath home. The residence flooded with about 4 feet of water.
This is the first time she’s set foot inside the brick home with the scraggly front lawn in nearly half a year.
“It’s just so sad to walk in here,” says Dennenberg tearfully as she surveys her mostly barren living room. It smells musty.
The bottom halves of the walls in the home are stripped to their bare studs, exposing pipes and dangling, multicolored wires. Piles of fluffy pink insulation adorn the floors. There are holes in the ceiling where it looks like light fixtures have been ripped out. A slim closet door lies haphazardly on its side in front of the fireplace.
After Harvey, “the house was history,” says Dennenberg, who works in advertising. She and her family have been renting a small two-bedroom apartment nearby. “We knew it and there was nothing we could do.”
She’d like to cut bait, despite strong ties to the neighborhood—this is where she grew up. But the Dennenbergs, like so many other storm victims, can’t afford to leave. They owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. So they’ve chosen to elevate the place and make expensive repairs, despite their apprehension. They hope to move back in next March.
“I have no other choice unless I want to walk away, ruin my credit, and never be able to buy another house,” she says.
Before Harvey, the median home price in Meyerland was $429,900. Afterward, prices plummeted to just $318,000 in the past 12-month period ending in mid-October. Many of the homes in the neighborhood were so badly damaged they’re being marketed as teardowns and sold for the value of their lots.
Before the storms, the Dennenbergs’ house was worth roughly double the $300,000 they paid for it in 2005. After Harvey, the city valued it at $100.
It was uninhabitable.
One of the most heartbreaking parts for Dennenberg is that her home had recently undergone a top-to-bottom remodel. In the kitchen they installed new cream-colored cabinets and a gray granite island—the same one her family wound up trapped on during Harvey—and they updated their dream master bedroom.
But that’s all ruined now. Only the top level of the kitchen cabinets and the tile floors survived the storm intact.
Dennenberg has been avoiding the wrecked home with its bad memories, but her husband, Michael, 61, is still running his IT business out of the dilapidated remains of his office. He has nowhere else to go. He’s surrounded in the ruined space by open boxes and piles of paper.
“I’m numb,” he says. “But we have a plan to go forward. We’re going to put this place together again, and hopefully it won’t happen again.”
Do people still want to live in neighborhoods that keep getting destroyed? Absolutely
On a rainy morning, building consultant Lawrence Dean, 43, meets me in front of a muddy, vacant lot in Meyerland with an old oak tree out front. The swampy ground didn’t look like much, but construction is slated to begin next month on a 3,800-square-foot, four-bed, 4.5-bath house that will be elevated 5 feet. He’ll share the home with his wife and two children.
This is their dream home.
We “wanted to be in this neighborhood because it’s centrally located to both of our jobs and has excellent public schools,” says Dean, who has a 5-year-old son and a year-old daughter. “This was an opportunity to build a [more spacious] home from scratch to optimally fit our needs … at a price point that’s closer to our budget.”
After we left his lot, Dean took me on a driving tour of Meyerland. He pointed out the site of an elementary school that was flooded and torn down. He drove through a swath of the neighborhood that seemed barely touched by Harvey, just a few blocks away from utter devastation. And we stopped in front of the newer, much larger, multistory homes in various stages of completion as well as some of the older, original homes.
“On the one hand, [the neighborhood’s] evolving into something new and different. … They’re not all cookie-cutter [homes],” says Dean of the new construction. Yet, he rued the loss of many of the beautiful, midcentury modern homes that the neighborhood is known for. “There’s an architectural character that’s being lost and is changing.”
The new, larger homes are worth around $1 million, almost double what the nicest older homes were going for even before the floods.
And more are on the way. Randi Cahill, the architectural liaison at the Meyerland Community Improvement Association, says she’s still receiving around 40 applications a month for home elevations, teardowns, and new construction.
Why are people willing to stake their futures on a neighborhood that has been largely ruined by three devastating storms?
“People are willing to forgive a flood for a new or fully renovated house,” says Beth Wolff, a Realtor® in the area. As for the long-term health of the housing market and the life of the community—well, that’s anyone’s guess.
“We’re still in a stage where we’re still not sure where things are going to land,” Wolff says.
Can Houston really protect its residents from more killer storms?
Folks like Dean feel safe with their decision to live in Meyerland due to the elevation of their homes. The idea, of course, is that if another big storm hits, the water is unlikely to rise high enough to get inside. Homes are being raised on just about every block now.
Houston is famous for its lack of construction zoning rules, and its unfettered building booms. But after Harvey, new, tougher regulations were enacted, requiring newly constructed and expanded homes in high flood areas to be elevated 2 feet above sea level. The latest regulations, covering the widest territory yet, went into effect on Sept. 1.
While these elevations may ultimately save lives and homes, they’re a big financial burden for many homeowners. The Dennenbergs are being forced to elevate their home just over 5 feet, at a cost of $150,000, in order to get the permits they need to rebuild their home.
Despite having flood insurance, the Dennenbergs are still out of pocket $200,000. (FEMA is covering only $30,000 of the renovation.) That covers replacing four cars destroyed in Harvey, buying new furniture, and paying rent on the apartment they’ve been staying in since the storm.
“It will cost us way more than [what insurance paid out] to put our house back together,” Patti Dennenberg says with a hitch in her voice.
Even with the protective measures being put in place by the city and state, the question hangs in the air like morning mist off the Texas Plains: Will they be enough to shield residents from future storms? Voters recently approved $2.5 billion in flood infrastructure bonds for roughly 230 projects over the coming decade and beyond. The county also partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers and began physically widening Brays Bayou well before the storms. However, the roughly $480 million project isn’t expected to be completed until 2022.
Even once it’s done, it won’t be enough to protect against another strong hurricane.
“If another Harvey happens, our system can’t handle it,” says Matt Lopez, Precinct 3 coordinator for Harris County Flood Control District. “We have limited funds.”
Houston is particularly susceptible to flooding because it’s a flat city that sits at a relatively low elevation, about 40 to 50 feet above sea level. In heavy storms, its series of natural bayous and man-made channels, which typically store water, can’t handle the influx and will overflow. Expanding these water systems has proved costly and challenging—and there often isn’t enough available space to do so.
Plus there’s simply more water to manage these days, due to all of the overdevelopment, especially over prairies and agricultural land on the city’s west side. Nearly 30% of the wetlands in Houston’s Harris County were lost between 1992 and 2010, according to a Texas A&M report. And when porous land is paved over to make way for homes, sidewalks, and parking lots, rainwater can no longer be absorbed into the ground.
The water has to go somewhere. And during a big storm, that means downhill—fast and with incredible force. Those communities sitting downstream or at the lowest elevations, like Meyerland, can find themselves exposed. And helpless.
‘I can’t take this anymore’—why longtime residents are cutting bait
Not everyone is choosing to stay and rebuild. I met photographer Marc Nathan, 65, outside his modest ranch house, which was ravaged by all three storms. Nathan, whose shock of white hair was accented by a colorful, patterned, button-up shirt, stepped onto the porch and pointed out the discoloration 3 feet up on the rust-colored brick wall. It marks how high the floodwaters rose in Harvey.
After Harvey, he and his wife put the single-level house in Meyerland up for auction. A neighbor bought it cheaply and plans to tear it down to put up a new home on the lot. The couple are having a townhouse built far from any bayous in a part of Houston that has never flooded.
But that doesn’t allay the anxiety that this father of three grown sons feels every time the sky darkens and there’s a rumble of thunder.
“After the first storm, every time it would rain, I’d be watching the radar, watching the news, looking out the window wondering if this going to happen again,” says Nathan. “It’s actually like PTSD. You are really fearful.”
This was his parents’ home. He moved there in 1968, when he was in the ninth grade. In 2000, he bought the home after his mother passed away.
During the Memorial Day flood, it took on 15 inches of water. Then it got 5 more inches the following year. He and his wife did some major remodeling to get the house back in order, using the flood insurance money he received and about $80,000 of their savings. And then less than a year later, Hurricane Harvey hit.
Everything was destroyed. Nathan, his wife, and their golden retriever, Fiona, survived by heading up to the attic with an ax, just in case they got trapped and needed to go through the roof to get out. They were rescued by the Cajun Navy, a volunteer group of boaters.
“We knew it was going to be bad. We didn’t know how bad it was going to be,” Nathan says. “It’s difficult going through it one time. … The second time you’re scratching your head, going, ‘What the heck is going on again?’ The third time was ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ mentally, physically, emotionally.”
So when the couple received a letter from the city stating that they had to either elevate his home 7 feet or tear it down, they decided to walk away. It was too costly, too dangerous. But it was a painful decision.
“I loved that neighborhood more than anyone can imagine,” Nathan says.