Poor Houston Residents Face More Challenges From Harvey

Aug 31, 2017
Originally published on August 31, 2017 12:09 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Harvey went from being a hurricane to being a tropical storm. Now it is a tropical depression that is moving north. It is bringing a lot of potential damage to states like Arkansas and Mississippi, certainly Louisiana right now. Here in Houston, the rain has finally passed, but the flooding is still continuing. And there are also dangers, including the potential for leaks and explosions at chemical plants.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's right. Officials say that there were explosions early this morning in Crosby, just northeast of the city. The Arkema chemical plant lost power and refrigeration, and it created a real danger for volatile compounds there. One sheriff's deputy was taken to the hospital after having been exposed to fumes, but others were reportedly able to drive themselves to the hospital.

GREENE: Now, this is happening, of course, as rescue and recovery efforts in this city still are going on. At least two dozen people are confirmed dead. And the letup in the rain is making it possible for some of the thousands who have been displaced to return home or at least make an effort to return home and assess the damage.

NPR's Nathan Rott is just to the south of us. He's in downtown Houston this morning. Hey there, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So getting around yesterday, as you - I mean, you would probably agree with me, no rain, people back out on many streets that had been rivers like two days before. It was - you could almost forget that there are still places in this city that are under a serious risk of flooding even though the rain has stopped.

ROTT: Yeah. It was almost like a completely different city compared to what it had been the last couple of days, traffic on the roads even. But yes, there are places that are still flooding. I actually went to one of those neighborhoods in west Houston. That's just north of Buffalo Bayou. Now, Buffalo Bayou's kind of usually this slow-moving river that sort of meanders its way through downtown Houston.

Right now, it is anything but meandering. It's one of the few spots here that's actually seen more flooding since the storm passed. And that's because officials are frantically trying to empty those two swollen reservoirs that feed into that river system. They've opened gates and are pumping water out so neither of those two reservoirs breech. Neither are expected to, officials are confident about that. But it's still an area of high concern, especially, you know, if you're one of those people that are living in a neighborhood below it.

GREENE: I actually - I haven't been able to get to this part of Houston. Can you describe what it's like in this part of town?

ROTT: You know, there are a lot of businesses there, but mostly it's residential, middle income or higher. In the places that I visited, a lot of the houses are really nice. Well, yesterday, we were looking at some that were, you know, it's really sad. They're flooded, but they're brick houses. And people that we were talking to there were coming and people were helping them on boats to go out and try to retrieve possessions, even pets that maybe they had left behind when they were evacuated.

And people were obviously upset about it, but, you know, the few folks that I talked to at least were trying to take kind of a glass half-full approach to this and say, you know, they have the resources to get through this. We should keep in mind, though, that 18 percent of this county - Harris County, where Houston is located - is below the poverty rate. And those are people that might not have those resources and are going to have a harder time recovering.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, we've heard a lot - from a lot of people who, you know, they rent. They don't have renter's insurance. They don't have flood insurance and, you know, couldn't afford a hotel room, for example, when they've been displaced. And that's the case for a lot of people here.

ROTT: Yeah. We talked to a lot of people yesterday that had that very case. We went to these other neighborhoods that are in northeast Houston, Liberty Garden and Kashmere Garden. There's destruction everywhere there. We are on a street that parallels another bayou that had flooded, inundating homes, moving entire cars. And people were just starting to come back to this area after being evacuated, mostly to emergency shelters. And people were just assessing the damage, sweeping debris from the streets, mopping out homes.

We saw one woman who was using a bright pink bucket to empty water out of the trunk of her car. Around the corner from that bayou, we saw this group of people who were standing outside of a brick ranch-style house with big windows. It's the biggest in the neighborhood. And we got out and walked up to an older woman under an awning. And it really - it looked like she was using that white column, leaning into it. It was the only thing holding her up.

You've been having a long day.

PAULINE SIMPSON: I cannot speak sometimes.

ROTT: I'm Nate.

SIMPSON: I'm just tired.

ROTT: She straightens herself up.

SIMPSON: Y'all want to come in and look? My house is not clean, but you're welcome in (laughter).

ROTT: If you don't mind, I mean...

SIMPSON: Oh, yes. Come on, sir.

ROTT: This is Pauline Simpson. She's the owner of the house, inherited it from her parents, who built it. Her mom was a nurse. And her dad was a construction worker. She says she asked her mom once when she was older why they built a home that was so big.

SIMPSON: She said because - just my children might have to come home.

ROTT: Pauline did. Walking into the home now, it smells like mildew. The home is humid, and the floors squish with each step.

The floor's even - it's just soaked.

SIMPSON: Yeah, the floors, yeah.

ROTT: The drywall on either side of the hallway is sagging up to about knee height. Beds, counters, couches, really anything that's raised in the house has piles of stuff.

SIMPSON: So we were just in here trying to throw up everything we can, some clothes and shoes.

ROTT: Down the hall, Simpson looks up at the trapdoor to the attic. It's half open. She says when the flood started coming, emergency crews came and told her to get out. A lot of her neighbors were already evacuating.

SIMPSON: I said, no, my child is on the streets. I said, I can't leave without my child. I know what to do - go to the attic.

ROTT: So she did. Her son came home, and they sat up there all night checking the height of the rising waters with a flashlight. Now, this isn't Simpson's first flood or hurricane. The house looks similar, she says, after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. That storm knocked her off her feet. She did not have insurance on the house back then, and fixing it after the storm drained her of all her savings. She says she didn't have another choice.

SIMPSON: This is our home. This is our home. I have to put it back together. This is our home.

ROTT: Simpson does have flood insurance now and home insurance, but they're expensive. She works full-time at Central Freight Lines in Houston driving trucks. She's been trying to save up money, but she says it's hard.

SIMPSON: It takes everything I have to keep this house insured.

ROTT: Do you ever think at a certain point you'd just be like, you know, it just ain't working?

SIMPSON: But if you can't afford to go nowhere else, what you going to do? No one will come buy this home because it's in the flood area. They're going to go do the same thing I went through. And so I just keep saying my prayers and just keep going.

ROTT: And, you know, David, Simpson isn't the only person in this situation. Other homeowners are in a similar bind all across Houston.

GREENE: NPR's Nathan Rott this morning, reporting from Houston. Nate, thanks a lot.

ROTT: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.