n a small rural area of unincorporated Montgomery County, residents lives are stacked six-feet high in piles of flooded debris that stretch a country mile. Pictures of mothers and fathers with their children rest on top of toys and books and movies. Refrigerators, mattresses, kitchen tables, sheetrock and wooden floors cover the muddy grass.
A stench radiates off the piles, like a gallon of spoiled milk left too long in the fridge. Standing water fills small pockets of earth, serving as a breeding ground for mosquitoes that swarm residents. Residents who, weeks after the floodwaters came, still can’t return home.
Tents are erected in front of many houses and mobile homes—the structures themselves inhabitable, the families left with nowhere to go. Nearly everything they own sits in those piles.
Two large backhoes slowly make their way down the street. One by one, a long mechanical arm extends to grab another claw full of soggy memories that are hauled to a dumpster. Aside from the loud cracking of crushed memories, it’s quiet here. The residents have little to say amongst the devastation brought on by Hurricane Harvey. But they all share the same tears and pain from the disastrous storm.
Harvey brought catastrophic destruction across Southeast Texas—damaging 130 mph wind gusts that ripped through Rockport; flooding across the Greater Houston area; bayous, creeks and lakes all sent rising above their banks. The San Jacinto River Authority was forced to release water from the Lake Conroe Dam into the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, which pushed floodwaters into the working-class neighborhood of River Oaks Drive. Floodwaters completely submerged mobile homes, knocked others off their frames and swept them away. Homes that were built on stilts to prevent such catastrophes saw water creep through the floor.
Three weeks after Harvey hit, Gustavo Rivera is still cleaning his parents’ home. Rivera, a 38-year-old contractor who specializes in home remodeling, has yet to touch his flooded mobile home that once sat firmly planted next to the house. Floodwaters filled his home, pushed it on its side and swept it 50 yards away into the backyard. The only thing that stopped it from floating away was a single power line that once lit his home.
The last time Rivera was in there, he scrambled to save what he could before the rising floodwaters forced him to his parents’ balcony 10 feet above the water. He’s lost everything: the pictures of his 14-year-old son growing up, the power tools he needs for work, the bed he turns to for rest after a long day’s work.
“I feel powerless. I have nothing but the clothes that are on me and the little that was donated,” Rivera said. “You use your home to go look for comfort and relax, to rest when you’re not at work. What do you come home to now? To nothing. Everybody here comes to an empty house, a shell.”
He doesn’t sit around long. That’s when the constant barrage of thoughts—What’s next? Where will you go? What will you do?—fill his mind. He volunteers to help his neighbors. In his parents’ driveway, he set up a donation center for residents who need everyday essentials to maintain some sense of normalcy. Most of the items were brought in by volunteers.
Down the street, Francisco Valdez stands in front of his daughter’s flooded trailer. A dark line near the roof shows how high the water rose. Everything inside is destroyed.
Valdez was still helping her rebuild from the 2016 Memorial Day floods when Harvey hit. Water was halfway in her home then; Harvey sent water five feet higher. Valdez, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said the last time he saw such destruction was from Hurricane Rosa in 1994.
Further down, 18-year-old Rosa Sanchez is camped in a tent with her parents and 11-year-old sister. Her family evacuated Aug. 24, the day before Harvey made landfall. They returned a week later to a horrific scene: flooding had completely submerged their mobile home, pulling it off its frame and destroying all that was inside.
Her family’s home also suffered significant flooding in the Memorial Day floods. They finished renovations just five months ago. Then came Harvey. Rather than rebuild, they hope to find new land in an area that isn’t flood prone. Two major floods are more than enough.