The rain was relentless. Hurricane Harvey stalled over Southeast Texas and brought torrential downpours that sent Dickinson Bayou roaring out of its banks in the early morning hours Aug. 27. The flooding was ferocious. Without warning, Dickinson residents were forced to flee as floodwaters filled their homes. The destruction devastating. A month later, flooded debris still line the streets throughout Dickinson as residents begin the slow process of rebuilding. These are the stories of three people—a mother, a homeowner, a priest—who survived the disastrous storm.
Photos: Devastation in Dickinson
Elaine Maxwell heard the low hum of a helicopter hovering above her home. She ran down her attic stairs into the floodwaters to get to the window near her front door. The current inside her home was stronger than she expected and sent her living room couch into her stomach, pinning her against a wall.
She managed to push it away and get to the window. She turned on her phone’s flashlight, hoping this time someone would see it and rescue her and Robby, her 17-year-old autistic son. That this time would be different. This time they would be saved.
The low hum disappeared and the water inside continued to rise. She waded through the black water back to the ladder that led up to the attic, where a single piece of plywood sat among the insulation that provided a cramped shelter for her and Robby. For 16 hours they sat: waiting, hoping, praying. It wasn’t long before exhaustion set in. It was just the two of them. Her husband and daughter traveled to Michigan for her father-in-law’s funeral before Hurricane Harvey hit.
And now they were trapped inside their home. During one of her frantic trips to the front window, Maxwell dropped her keys in the floodwaters, their one escape to get out of the double-bolted front door that’s meant to keep Robby from running.
“I couldn’t have opened the door even if I wanted to,” she said. “I don’t know where I would have gone even if I could.”
As the flooding rose, Robby grew stressed—he doesn’t do well in new situations, Maxwell said. The water had destroyed much of his room: his video games and TV; the map of Dickinson he drew on his walls, filled with street names and his school bus route. Robby didn’t care about any of that; he only wanted his watch that was lost amongst the flooding, and searching for it was like finding lost treasure at the bottom of an ocean.
The sound of airboats and helicopters cut through the rain. Maxwell could hear them passing outside, but they couldn’t hear her screams. Hour after hour passed with the two in the cramped attic.
The attic Elaine Maxwell and her 17-year-old autistic son, Robby, escaped to as floodwaters filled their home. The two were trapped for 16 hours.
Maxwell heard another helicopter and made another dash down the stairs, equipped with her phone and phone charger. But in her haste to catch the attention of would-be rescuers, she dropped her charger in the water. And when that helicopter flew away, too, her phone slowly died with each new text message and Facebook post. She started praying.
“I had already made peace with God,” she said. “I thought I was going to die up in my attic.”
Maxwell was on the phone when she heard the next helicopter.
“I’ll have to let you go,” she said. “I think I’m going to be rescued pretty soon.”
She hung up, but once again rescue never came. Her phone died, cutting off all contact with family and friends. She couldn’t tell anyone that she hadn’t been rescued, that her and Robby were still stuck in the attic, that her screams were going unanswered.
“God, please help me,” she yelled. “God, please help me.”
That’s when Robby, who’s mostly non-verbal, began to repeat her.
“God, help me!” he yelled. “God, help me!”
She looked at her phone. She tried again to turn it on, just long enough to send a message that she needed help. She pushed the button and her phone booted up. She sent a quick text to a family friend.
‘“We haven’t been rescued,” she wrote. “We are still trapped. Please send police.”
Sixteen hours after the nightmare began, rescuers shattered the double-pane window in her living room and bashed in the deadbolted door. Maxwell and Robby stepped down from the attic and to the rescuers below. They were taken to Dickinson City Hall, where a shelter had been set up for flooded residents. They were soaked, but they were free. A family friend who saw Maxwell’s pleas for help on Facebook drove to the shelter and offered them a home to stay.
Days and hours and people blur together now. Maxwell had nightmares for weeks. She couldn’t return to the house when the drywall and kitchen cabinets were ripped out. She still gets anxiety when she looks at the attic.
The contents of her home sit in a large pile near the street waiting to be hauled off to a dumpsite. Her air conditioner and dehumidifiers cut through the gutted walls to stop mold growth. Her family is still waiting on FEMA to find out if they’re going to rebuild, raise their home or condemn it. Maxwell is thankful she and Robby made it out alive, and for the people who rescued them. But the day still weighs heavy on her mind.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Maxwell said.
Back at her home, Maxwell pointed at the shattered window in her living room and recounted the moments of horror weeks before.
Across the house, Robby yelled: “God help me.”
The ringing phone vibrated against Annette LeBlanc’s wooden nightstand, next to a pile of books, a black alarm clock and a framed picture of Jesus. It was 1:30 in the morning: Who could be calling at such an hour, she thought.
“Mom,” the panicked voice on the other line said. “Are you awake?”
“I am now,” Annette said.
“You need to look outside,” her son, Bryan, said. “It’s pouring down rain.”
LeBlanc stepped out of bed and flipped on the light to her backyard. A steady rain poured and water pushed to the steps just outside her two wooden French doors, but nothing that seemed cause for alarm. That’s when she smelled gasoline.
LeBlanc walked out of her bedroom, past her little brown dog sleeping between a pile of pillows, and to the door that led to her garage. She flipped on the light to a stunning scene: a foot of water soaked boxes, toppled a stack of plastic bins and climbed halfway up the tires of her car. A gasoline stench filled the air.
It wasn’t long after the water outside her bedroom seeped inside and soaked her green carpet. She placed towels at the bottom of the doors, hoping to prolong the encroaching water. But it was a lost cause. The water kept coming and the towels started floating away. LeBlanc looked outside: She could no longer see her street, only the lights illuminating from her neighbors’ homes.
As the sun rose and shined light on the devastating flooding throughout her neighborhood, LeBlanc decided it was time to leave. Hours earlier she called the Coast Guard for rescue, and hours passed with no word of help. Rescue boats roared in the distance; some passed through her neighborhood. None gave any indication they were going to stop for her or the residents on her street.
Two of her neighbors gave up on rescue and evacuated by walking through the floodwaters to a car wash a mile away that served as a makeshift shelter. LeBlanc decided she had waited long enough.
“I knew I had to get out,” she said. “It was either wait it out or risk drowning.”
She stepped slowly into the murky warm water with Cha Keeta, her 17-year-old Chihuahua, and purse that she placed in a plastic trash can to keep dry. She cautiously waded through the waist-deep water to the long walk to safety. Her heart raced. She worried about snakes and critters in the water. She feared losing her footing and soaking her dog and belongings.
Her home of 24 years sat in water for three days. The water flooded her year-old car. LeBlanc, a 56-year-old legal secretary, owned her home outright after years of working two jobs. She doesn’t have flood insurance because her home doesn’t sit in a flood plain. In the two decades she’s lived there, she’s never seen water get inside.
Now she’s lost everything. Her belongings sit outside in a large pile that spans from her front porch to the curb.
She’s sprayed for mold twice, and discovered she’ll need another treatment after she found more spores growing during another walk through. Her air conditioner runs constantly to cut down the moisture that breeds mold. Oversized plastic bags line the gutted walls that connect the inside of her home and her garage to keep the cool air inside. Pipes and wires are exposed throughout the house. Her floors that once were covered in carpet and wood are nothing but chipped concrete and dirt.
Most painful of all, she lost Cha Keeta, who wasn’t able to deal with the stress of moving and being away from her normal surroundings, LeBlanc said. Cha Keeta now rests in a small grave along the fence in LeBlanc’s backyard, close enough that she can look out her bedroom windows and say hello.
FEMA awarded her $17,000 to rebuild, but she fears it’s not nearly enough. She stands in her kitchen, looking around at everything that once was, at everything she worked so hard for. All of it … gone.
“I hate coming here to see this, because I’m overwhelmed,” she said, tears filling her red eyes. “I don’t know how to do (any repairs). I don’t know how I’m going to fix it. And I’m just…”
She pauses and lets out a deep sigh.
“I have to start over.”
A thick layer of mud covered the white-tiled floor at True Cross Catholic School, a rotten sewage stench radiated throughout the building that stuck with Father Larry Wilson for weeks. Fish that swam in with floodwaters rotted in the gym. Snakes slithered through the cafeteria. Wilson walked through the front doors and into the library. The weight of the waterlogged books collapsed shelves. Children’s toys sat in the sludge.
Shrine of the True Cross church next door, which is home to True Cross Catholic School, fared no better. Water had risen nearly four-feet high between. Black mold grew on the walls. Wilson could hardly believe what he saw.
“It’s a strange feeling: Your ordered life is suddenly chaos,” he later said.
The skies were clear as Wilson finished his Saturday 4 p.m. Mass on Aug. 26, a day after Harvey made landfall 200 miles south of Dickinson. But later that evening, as he returned to his house behind the church that sits on the banks of Dickinson Bayou, he noticed the water in his backyard had risen further up into the yard than he’d ever seen in his three years living there.
As a precaution, he packed a bag of clothes, his clerics for Mass the following morning, and grabbed his rosary, iPhone and iPad and headed to his second-story office at the church.
By sundown, Harvey spit continuous rainbands filled with thunder, lightning and treacherous rain over the city. Wilson shut off the power to the church as the water approached. He lay in his office lit by a flashlight, watching as the storm lay waste outside.
On Sunday morning, instead of opening the doors for Mass, he walked out and waded through chest-deep water and floating debris to a rescue boat.
What is normally a peaceful day of prayer with his congregation is anything but. Wilson watched other rescue boats pass by, Coast Guard helicopters land nearby on a bridge on I-45. The flooding had spared nothing. He said a prayer for his city.
The cold rain pierced his face like tiny razorblades as the boat roared away from the church, past his flooded home where the gurgling air conditioner fought water, and into the bayou to shelter two miles away. He worried less about what he’d lost and was more concerned for the thousands who have lost everything. As soon as he arrived at the shelter, he began reaching out to the 2,500 families in his congregation through phone calls and Facebook. Some answered immediately; others took days. Ultimately, everyone was accounted for.
Wilson worried about the students who just started classes at True Cross Catholic School a week prior. Where would they go? Wilson reached out to nearby schools, but they many could only accept a couple of classes, not an entire school. Finally, a Catholic school in Texas City agreed to take everyone in. Some students returned to school without shoes; others lost their uniforms and arrived in T-shirts and jeans; some whose school supplies had washed away in the flooding. Not only had they lost their home life, but also the normalcy of school.
“That was the hardest thing for me,” Wilson said. “I did speak with them and let them know we are going to get back to where we were, we’re going to be fine.”
Wilson tried for days to get back to the church to evaluate the damage. But the stubborn water wouldn’t recede. One day turned to two. Two turned to three. Three to four. The water finally receded enough for Wilson to drive into the debris-ridden parking lot.
He stepped into the sludge and walked to the school’s front doors to survey the damage.
An afternoon storm roared across Dickinson, three weeks after Harvey, and Wilson felt his chest tighten as the lightning flashed across the gray sky. The storm soaked the debris lining the streets, entered the houses that are gutted inside and out––the same houses that homeowners are attempting to dry out before they can begin to rebuild. For many, including Wilson, the rain brought flashbacks of the devastating flooding that is only a month removed.
“There was something in that moment that literally brought fear,” Wilson said. “I didn’t realize how much (Harvey) had affected me.”
Residents still sit in line at the Old Amegy Bank to request help from FEMA. The federal agency is still processing claims. Some residents whose claims have been processed, like LeBlanc, fear they didn’t receive enough money to rebuild. Others worry that the volunteers and donations and supplies will dry up with the last of the flooding. And then what?
Large trucks contracted to pick up the debris piles slowly make their way through the town. LeBlanc isn’t sure when the pile in front of her home will be picked up. Neither do Maxwell nor Wilson. But each pile cleared means one more family that can continue recovering.
Various volunteer groups walk from house to house to help gut families’ homes––to haul out the old so the families can bring in the new. At the local Knights of Columbus hall, lunch and dinner are served each day to affected residents. Something as simple as a hot meal and friendly talk with neighbors means so much to these people who are left with nothing.
It’s a step-at-a-time process to return back to normal. And as the recovery continues, there’s one thing Wilson is sure of.
“We as a community will make it through and be stronger for it,” he said.