HOUSTON — The last time Dora Yudelevich saw her home, before she and her family were forced to flee on Sunday, water was up to her waist, her neighborhood looked like a raging river, and Tropical Storm Harvey continued its unprecedented downpour. When she returned three days later, the streets were dry, the sun was out, and the house she’d lived in for 25 years was ravaged.
By Thursday morning, furniture, mattresses, and garbage bags filled with ruined possessions were piled five feet high on the curb, beside the car that had been drowned beyond repair. Inside the house, Yudelevich sorted through cabinets and closets, pushing through the long process of deciding what to keep and what to toss. In one room, relatives placed water-damaged photos on a table to dry.
“I’m devastated,” said Yudelevich, who arrived in the US from Chile in the ‘80s, later opened a clothing store, and worked seven days a week into her sixties. “You feel like at this age you're ready to retire, then you lose everything. We had no savings other than this house.”
It was a sentiment felt across the city Thursday as residents returned to the homes they'd fled amid rapidly rising floodwaters caused by the most intense rainfall in US history. Six days after the storm began, the roads were clearing, the shock was fading, and the adrenaline-fueled haze that had consumed residents was lifting, leaving them to face the reality of figuring out how to fix the damage the storm had wrought on their lives.
To the west of the city, water levels remained high enough for boats to float through neighborhoods. To the north, a flood-damaged chemical plant was igniting into flames and poised to explode, forcing a mandatory evacuation in the surrounding area. And to the east, a potential crisis was developing as municipal pump failures left stranded residents without access to clean drinking water.
But in America’s fourth-largest city, the recovery process was underway.
Firefighters went door to door in the most hard-hit neighborhoods, checking for injured survivors and those who couldn’t escape in time. As one unit, led by District Chief James Pennington, marched down the sidewalk in the Meyerland neighborhood, knocking on doors and peeking into windows, the firefighters passed scores of residents and subcontractors clearing out debris from houses that, from the outside at least, looked no different than they had a week ago — other than the mounds of wooden beams, soaked couches, chunks of drywall, busted televisions, and rolled-up carpets that lined curbs on nearly every block.
This map shows the cumulative calls for help compiled by the Harvey Relief and Harvey Rescue volunteer groups in bubbles, with the shaded percent median household income.
“A few days ago it looked like we were living on a lake,” said Susan Reeves, who’d waited out the storm on the second floor of her house. “Today you wouldn't even know it.”
For many Houston residents who spent the past several days with the single-minded focus of staying alive and dry, it was now unclear what to do next.
Justin Anderson, a construction worker, was riding on a bus on his way home from work Friday when the flooding made the streets impassable, leaving him stranded at a transit center downtown. He spent the next few nights at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the city’s biggest shelter, before making his way back to his first-floor apartment in the Memorial neighborhood. It was ruined. With no place else to go, he packed a few clothes and valuables into a small duffel bag and went back to the shelter, where he offered to serve as a volunteer.
Thousands of evacuees remained at the convention center, many arriving from other shelters on Tuesday and Wednesday. Some, who had been staying with friends and relatives, dropped by to file applications for temporary housing vouchers with FEMA.
“It’s a waiting game,” said Damien Lawrence, who has been staying at the shelter since evacuating his first-floor apartment on Sunday. “To rebuild your life, it takes resources.”
Lawrence filed his application online Wednesday but was unsure how long it would be before he received a response from the federal agency. He contacted FEMA by phone, waiting on hold for 90 minutes only to be directed from one operator to another before the call eventually dropped. By Thursday, Lawrence said he still hadn’t been able to return to his home and didn’t know the extent of the damage.
“You deteriorate mentally,” he said, as he sat on a bench in front of the convention center watching the crowds pass. “You lose all sense of hope. Sometimes it feels like you gotta do it all on your own.”
Lawrence had food available to him here, along with extra clothes, clean water, and a large contingent of volunteers at every turn eager to help him find what he needed. What he yearned for most, though, was peace of mind and a sense of when his life might return to some semblance of normalcy.
“That feels like a long way off,” he said. “I don’t know what happens next.”If you've been impacted by the storm in Texas or have a tip about rescue, relief, government, or aid efforts, call the BuzzFeed News tipline at (646) 589-8598. Find us on Signal, email, SecureDrop, and more here.
Albert Samaha is the criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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