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Hurricane Harvey: Some still recovering 5 years later

Hurricane Harvey was one of the costliest storms to ever hit the country, causing $125 billion in damage. | Brent Sullivan/The Cougar

Hurricane Harvey was one of the costliest storms to ever hit the country, causing $125 billion in damage. | Brent Sullivan/The Cougar

Hurricane Harvey was one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history. According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm caused $125 billion in damages, making it the second only to Hurricane Katrina in terms of cost. 

The deadly storm ripped through the southern U.S. in August 2017, impacting 13 million people and countless homes and businesses. Though the water has since receded, the scars have yet to heal completely. Many are still seeking compensation for property damages and others have completely lost faith in their state and local officials as a result of the storm. 

UH students were among those affected by the storm. Deniz Girismen attended UH during the storm. Her experience, like many others, began with waking up at 3 a.m. to find the city under water. 

“It was actually my birthday, a family member woke me up and all I could hear was the roar of rain coming down,” Girismen said. “Then we looked outside and it was just total anarchy with people trying to save their cars and belongings.” 

Despite the ongoing national disaster, Girismen would be able to celebrate her birthday thanks to the efforts of friends and neighbors who banded together to bake her a cake. 

But Girismen wouldn’t escape the storm entirely unscathed. Her father, who owned several rental properties in the area, suffered extensive damage to one of his units. 

“There was maybe eight inches of water in the unit,” Girismen said. “We had to replace everything, the drywall, the power sockets everything.”

The storm would set Girismen and her family back several months as they not only had to contend with the cost of the repairs but also the cost of being unable to rent the property out until the damage was fixed. 

Houston Public Media politics and government reporter Andrew Schneider is all too familiar with the storm’s lasting impact. In addition to reporting on the storm at the time, Schneider has also covered its effect on the greater Houston area through his work on “Below the Waterlines,” a series covering Harvey five years after the fact. 

For Schneider, what’s truly striking about Harvey’s aftermath is a lack of meaningful preventative effort on behalf of state, county and local officials.

“We are almost as far away now as we were immediately afterward,” Schneider said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about it, but that’s all there’s been.”

As it currently stands, three solutions have been proposed to ensure Houston is better prepared to deal with major flood waters. The first involves the construction of a third reservoir, but this has faced pushback from local homeowners who are concerned the project could lead to eminent domain cases. 

The second option involves expanding the Buffalo Bayou. This too has faced political pushback from homeowners.

The third option is centered around the construction of a storm tunnel that would carry rain waters from the city into the ship channel through a system of tunnels. The concern here, however, is cost. 

“The tunnel project isn’t facing quite as much pushback because it’s, well, underground,” Schneider said. “But there are still people that are very skeptical, principally about cost.”

One of those people is former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who expressed doubt about the feasibility of the storm tunnel in an episode of “Below the Waterlines.”

“I’ve always been skeptical,” Emmett said. “Just the gradient from Buffalo Bayou to the south isn’t very great, so how deep do you have to make that tunnel?”

Skepticism aside, as it stands now the storm tunnel seems to be the most viable option. As such, the Harris County Flood Control District has since begun a three-phase tunnel study intended to evaluate the viability of the storm tunnel plan.

Phase one was completed in 2019, and simply determined if the tunnel could be feasible. The second phase was completed earlier this year and focused on the development of tunnel concepts that could meet the needs of the city. Finally, the third phase is scheduled to begin in 2023 and is the final phase of the study before the project can be approved.

While the project is a step in the right direction, its pace has left Schneider concerned for the city in the meantime. 

“If three years from now we can get the project approved, then we need funding,” Schneider said. “If we somehow manage to get the money for this multi-billion dollar project, then that’s another 10-15 years we’ll be waiting for it to be built.” 

Until then, some Houston residents have decided to take the situation into their own hands, creating flood-deterring green spaces and so-called “rain gardens” designed to absorb and retain rainwater.

Although community efforts can be impactful, Schneider is doubtful that they can make enough of a difference to offset a disaster on the scale of Harvey. 

“These types of things can definitely help when it comes to smaller events, every little bit helps,” Schneider said.  “But the Army Corps said it won’t be enough to sufficiently offset flooding, and that’s probably true.” 

Despite this Schneider did go on to emphasize the importance of community involvement when it comes to natural disaster preparation, saying that residents cannot rely on government projects alone. 

Community efforts aside, for victims of the storm the response to Harvey on behalf of state and local officials has left a lot to be desired. A perceived failure to act in a timely and meaningful manner has shaken the trust many residents had in governments and institutions, Schneider said. 

“I saw a dramatic fall-off in trust in public institutions,” Schneider said. “That’s with respect to the city, it’s with respect to the county, it’s with respect to  the state.” 

That, says Schneider, is the unfortunate legacy forged in the five years since Harvey. Red tape, bureaucracy and political squabbles have left the city in a position no better than before the storm, all the while many of those affected are still picking up the pieces.

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Correction: This story initially failed to mention the Buffalo Bayou expansion. In addition, the homeowner’s concerns were primarily related to eminent domain, not property value.

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