Two Houstons emerge from Harvey aftermath: one wet, one dry
Posted September 5
HOUSTON — In a quest to help Harvey victims, Kelli Shofstall and her son set out on a 165-mile drive from Austin to Houston that led them through neighborhood after neighborhood where the streets were dry and no one seemed to need assistance.
It took more than a day of driving around, following outdated flood maps, before they found a water-filled road where they could ferry tenants to and from a marooned apartment complex using an inflatable yellow raft.
"My son and I joked that we sucked at relief efforts," Shofstall said. Christian Carr, 17, waded in his jeans into knee-deep water pulling the raft to see if anyone else wanted to float out of the Heights Park Row apartments.
More than a week after Harvey swamped the greater Houston area, the metropolis is divided into two cities: one still covered with water and flood debris, the other largely unblemished by the storm.
Some subdivisions remain submerged, and many streets are piled high with ruined belongings. More than 10 percent of the county's dwellings were flooded, and several prominent theater and concert halls were damaged, though major sports stadiums escaped unharmed.
In unscathed areas, the only reminder of high water may be a layer of silt on the streets, damp curbs or the mildew-like whiff of disaster.
On a leafy street corner in the city's Montrose section, a group of children set up a Labor Day lemonade stand in a neighborhood that generally has nothing worse than standing water for a week after heavy rain. Even after Harvey, homes were not damaged and streets drained quickly.
"We're lucky. We didn't lose power," said Sara Beck, whose 5-year-old son, Waylon, shouted "lemonade" at passing cars. Hushing her voice self-consciously, she added, "or even internet."
"They call it survivor's guilt," said Emily Covey. Her 5-year-old daughter, Elena, tucked the $1 she collected for each cup in a shoebox that she declared contained "hundreds of monies," a figure that added up to $161 at the end of the day, her mother said.
"Why did we not get it and all these people around us did?" asked Covey, who has several friends who still cannot get back into their water-logged homes to begin the cleanup.
The children planned to give the proceeds to a charity for flood victims. Their hand-drawn sign with a smiley-faced lemon included the hashtag "Houstonstrong."
Wearing hip waders and a construction dust mask, Gaston Kirby pulled a raft through waist-deep waters Monday to retrieve belongings from his home near the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, where officials were still releasing water that could inundate neighbors for well over a week.
Elsewhere, life went on as usual across much of the city. Coffee shops, restaurants and stores that had been closed for days began to reopen. Couples sipped wine as they shopped at Whole Foods in Montrose. A steady stream of joggers and cyclists passed through a park along the swollen Buffalo Bayou.
Some high-priced homes near the Buffalo Bayou are submerged in floodwaters that are still up to first-floor windows.
Janet Amirseif stood near her flooded street Sunday and said it would be a long time before her life returned to anything resembling normal.
"People in downtown? Nothing. Here, it's just mayhem," she said. "It's over? No, it's just started."
Homeowners, their friends, volunteers and contractors near Brays Bayou have been hauling soggy furniture to the curb for days and tearing out floors and busting walls so water-logged homes can dry out in preparation for repairs. Lawns are piled high with possessions — some accumulated over a lifetime, others purchased after a previous, less damaging flood.
Mattresses dominate the heaps, along with sofas, dressers, drywall and insulation. A closer look reveals old record albums, board games and hardcover copies of books such as "Isaac's Storm," about the 1900 hurricane in nearby Galveston that left more than 6,000 dead and ranks as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. At least three pianos were among the curbside cast-offs along a section of Tartan Lane.
James Kennedy had purchased a glossy black standup piano to replace one ruined in the Memorial Day flood of 2015. Now the $10,000 replacement was also out of tune and out of time.
On most Labor Days, Kennedy's three kids would be swimming at the community pool. He would be smoking brisket in the backyard, and Chablis and rose would be chilling in the cooler.
Instead, he was with his 13-year-old son, James Max, trying to salvage tools and anything else he could save while waiting for an insurance adjuster to arrive. Rock 'n' roll from the 1980s and '90s blared from a speaker in the garage.
Kennedy, who towed his wife and kids to safety on an inflatable mattress, had been working 14-hour days at the house since the flood hit. He bemoaned the loss of keepsakes like baby photos that can't be replaced or Grateful Dead albums, cassettes and ticket stubs from 103 concerts.
Looking over the pile of construction debris, water-stained photos and Rollerblades in his front yard, he found his son's tarnished sterling silver birth mug and pulled it from the trash.
"This has been a very character-defining thing," Kennedy said. "Some people have put their whole life on hold. Others took selfies, standing in water up to their ankles, and complained about having to redo their flower beds."
A few blocks away, kids tossed a baseball in a front-yard untouched by flooding and another man trimmed his bushes. Kennedy said it would be a long time before life on his street looks like that. He's already rented another house for eight months and thinks it will take that long to settle insurance claims and get a contractor to do the work.
His return will be short-lived, he said. He plans to move to higher ground.
Associated Press Writer Haven Daley contributed to this story.