BLOOMINGTON – Every time Carol White pulls up to her home on Old Bloomington Road, she cannot help but smile at the color.
After Hurricane Harvey made landfall two years ago today near Rockport, the 74-year-old Bloomington woman said she was left with an overwhelming sadness she could not explain nor escape.
But the Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers who built her and her husband a new home changed that. One week in particular, a group of girls gave the house its crimson color as she watched from a trailer she and her husband crammed into after their three-bedroom mobile home was destroyed during the hurricane.
“There is a Scripture that talks about how laughter is good medicine, and that week, they came and just laughed and sang all day while they painted,” she said. “Whenever I see the red, it just makes me smile, so I say that they painted my house happy, but they painted my heart healed – of the pain, the hurt, the sadness that I felt.”
The Whites were among 33% of Bloomington residents who were displaced when Hurricane Harvey inched through South Texas, County Commissioner Danny Garcia said after the storm. Statewide, the storm left behind a staggering $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Foundations that thousands of families spent their lives building were cracked. For some, the number of pieces was simply too much to bear.
“That was the first time in my life that I really didn’t know what to do,” said 77-year-old John White, who has been a school bus driver in Bloomington for more than a decade. The kids call him ‘Mr. Grumpy,’ a nickname he affectionately credits to his granddaughters.
The Whites returned to their home after the storm to find belongings scattered all over the yard. Inside, sunlight poured through a foundation split from top to bottom, and water ran down the walls through a caved-in ceiling and mangled roof, causing black mold to invade.
“If we tried to go around the trailer or in it, we would get headaches and he’d break out; his hands would start peeling like a scaly animal,” Carol White said. “He kept wanting to go back in it and get stuff out, and finally I said, ‘You can’t. It is not worth dying over.’”
The couple’s son brought down a trailer from Colorado for them to live in on their property, but the bed was too short and there was nowhere comfortable to sit.
“We were thankful but very uncomfortable at our ages,” John White said. “We weren’t going to tell our son that after he went through all the trouble.”
His wife said she woke up every day for almost a year and a half after the storm and asked, “God, am I ever going to know normal again?”
She is not alone. People were still homeless and displaced more than a year after Harvey, while others fled to start over elsewhere. But the region has made progress since the storm – carried on and rebuilt, slowly but surely.
“I think our community has been much served because of the commitment of those that continue to come to the table,” said the Rev. Glen Dry, the president of Experience Excellence nonprofit, who revitalized a previously dormant Community Organizations Active in Disaster group after the storm.
The Whites moved into their new home in December after spending 14 months in a trailer on their property.
About 808 volunteers with the Mennonite Disaster Service traveled to the Crossroads to help families clean, repair and rebuild 143 homes, including the Whites, according to the organization’s most updated data.
Until the Victoria County Long-Term Recovery Group secured the Whites’ assistance, the couple applied for FEMA repair funds, which amounted to a little more than $3,000.
“It wouldn’t cover hardly any of it, so we put it in savings and didn’t spend a penny,” John White said. The couple donated that money to the Mennonite Disaster Service when they were offered a home rebuild.
FEMA has allocated $13.99 billion in federal and state grants, U.S. Small Business Assistance low-interest disaster loans and National Flood Insurance Program payments since the storm, according to the agency.
The week that the Whites were approved for a low-interest, 30-year disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, they got a call from their case worker at the Victoria County Long-Term Recovery Group, asking whether they would accept a home from the Mennonites.
Carol White had to sit down when she heard the news.
“We were so comfortable in our home before the storm,” White said as she leaned back in a large recliner next to her husband. “It wasn’t new, but it was paid for, and it was home. But we’re so comfortable now that how could we complain, you know? We’re very blessed.”
Ahead of Sunday, the Texas General Land Office anticipated exceeding the goals it set for the two-year Hurricane Harvey recovery mark of having 1,000 homes approved for construction and 100 homes complete by Sunday through the Homeowner Assistance Program, said Brittany Eck, the agency’s director of communication.
The program is reserved for 48 counties and backed by $1.334 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The keys to the 100th house were given Thursday to 77-year-old Virginia Torres in Austwell.
Her daughter, Monica Torres, who is her caretaker and has lived with her since before the storm, said she does not know whether they would have gotten through the process if it were not for people like Carol White, who is a longtime family friend.
“She is one of the ones I turned to for consoling me. I was like, ‘What do we do?’” Torres said. “She just kept telling me, ‘Monica, have faith and pray about it. You will make the right decision for you mom.’”
Torres’ mom did not want to lose the house she had lived in since 1963. Initially, they tried to fix the home, which had a caved-in ceiling, damaged roof and extensive mold, but went through more than $10,000 on contractors before running out of money.
“I was worried about my mom feeling sad about knocking her house down,” Torres said. “That was her home, and it took several months to decide whether we were going to do that or not.”
The process for each Homeowner Assistance Program application is multifaceted, involving a series of documents they have to submit for approval and a number of environmental and eligibility inspections.
“People always ask me how to go about doing it, and I tell them, ‘You have to have a lot of patience. It is a lot, a lot of paperwork, but once you get in the system, it is a constant flow and not an overnight thing,” Torres said. “It is hard when you get knocked down so much, especially with older people because they don’t know how to use computers or even use fax machines, but you just cannot give up.”
In the 48 counties where the program is administered, 995 homes had been approved for construction as of Friday, Eck said. By Monday, they expect 120 homes to be completed.
“We’re at a time where we’re about to start snowballing in terms of the homes being built,” Eck said. “Things are moving pretty fast at this point.”
The office’s Homeowner Reimbursement Program is also trekking along. Officials changed how the program was administered two months ago by going beyond receipts documenting Harvey repairs, Eck said.
“When you are going through the trauma of disaster, the last thing you want to do or think about doing is saving all your receipts,” she said. “We’ve started evaluating all things based on repairs that can be documented through visual inspections in addition to receipts.”
The office made the evaluation adjustment after consulting with other states that have administered similar programs, Eck said. This is the first time reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses have been offered after a disaster in Texas using Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery.
“The people that were pre-approved before that switch, we actually went back and re-evaluated to make sure they received the max funds that they are eligible for,” she said. “It has been a challenge, but we have tried to make adjustments to make it as easy on the applicant as possible.”
Eck said the number of applications in some counties is approaching the threshold for the Homeowner Assistance Program, but the agency is still taking applications.
“This was a $125 billion storm, and we got about $3 billion for housing,” she said. “We anticipated the need to be greater than the funds available, however … We want people to apply to demonstrate ongoing need and try to address that need.”
Some counties had more applications than others, so the office could eventually reallocate funds not used by some areas to others still documenting need, she said.
The Torres family spent the weekend moving the few belongings they have into their new, entirely handicapped-accessible two-bedroom house on North Gisler Street.
Virginia Torres, who has survived multiple strokes, said she now thinks of the house she spent more than half a century in as only a memory.
Her daughter ushered her into the new one with a sign that read, “Welcome home! Happy ever, after Harvey.”
What is she most excited for?
“This is going to sound silly, but I am excited about the bathroom because I can just get in the shower and don’t have to worry about climbing over the bathtub,” she said. “All the bars are there, and I have a huge ramp.
“I still can’t believe I’m going home.”
To learn more about how Hurricane Harvey impacted the Crossroads, explore the Victoria Advocate’s special projects: Storm of the Century, Understanding Harvey, Harvey: The first 72 hours and the latest series, Hidden in Plain Sight.
Rain poured down the old shingle walls of the Callis Street house owned by Jesus Ruiz Jr., 67, when Hurricane Harvey hit two years ago.
Harvey had blown into town with wind gusts that reached 83 miles per hour, and before they died down, they cracked and carried shards of glass and sheets of rain into Ruiz’s house.
Two years later, Ruiz, a disabled veteran, remains essentially homeless.
Ruiz, who lives alone in the house, evacuated before the storm hit and returned when the flooding subsided and the roads were passable again. He found numerous damaged trees in his yard, which he and friends immediately began clearing. Shingles were missing from his roof, windows were blown in and his walls were waterlogged. He has since torn out the cabinets, countertops and particle board flooring in his kitchen and has lived without a functional place to prepare a meal.
“It’s very uncomfortable with no kitchen and no fridge; I eat out all of the time, and I’m tired of it,” Ruiz said. “It’s stressful, and I have PTSD, which makes it worse.”
Ruiz served as a structural mechanic in the Marine Aircraft Wing from 1970 to 1974. He served in several countries and across the United States, but on April 14, 1974, he fell mysteriously ill. He spent about six months in a hospital in Japan where he ran a high fever and dropped down to 95 pounds. Bedridden, he was sent back to the United States on a stretcher with a service-connected disability.
Ruiz had worked for about seven months on aircraft used to spray Agent Orange during the war. His health improved enough that he was able to leave the hospital, but he has been sick ever since. And many of his symptoms have worsened with age. He suffers from fibromyalgia, insomnia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he takes 14 medications a day.
“I’m sick all the time, but I’m still here,” Ruiz said. “It takes a toll on your body.”
About a month after Harvey, volunteers provided a tarp for Ruiz’s roof to prevent further damage. He still makes monthly payments for his owner- financed house, but he often sleeps at a friend’s house and returns home during the day or he stays at his parents’ house outside Corpus Christi.
Shannon Longoria, who handles intergovernmental affairs and community relations for the Texas General Land Office, said the agency began pushing the Home Reimbursement Program in areas with low utilization, and they have seen upticks in those areas, including Victoria.
The Victoria County Long-Term Recovery Group has worked to bring together governmental agencies and nonprofits, including many churches and faith-based organizations, to coordinate aid efforts.
“I think we should be proud as a community that as we continue to hear about needs from families and individuals, we have worked side by side to address those needs,” said Rick Villa, development coordinator for the group. “Because without that collaboration, the number of families and individuals receiving help would not be as great.”
Ashley Razo, the case manager/supervisor for the Long-Term Recovery Group, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency identified 19,683 applicants for aid in Victoria County. Volunteers with World Renew, a nonprofit Christian ministry, conducted assessments later that identified 330 underinsured or uninsured people or families in need of assistance, some of whom might have received resources from FEMA that did not allow them to complete their recoveries. Of those 330, the Long-Term Recovery Group opened or assigned cases for 110 of them. Not including cases outsourced to disaster case management partners, the group has opened more than 200 cases and closed about 60 of them since forming in June 2018.
The group and disaster case management partners pursue all governmental and nonprofit resources available to applicants. When those options are exhausted, the case managers refer them to the group’s Unmet Needs Committee for review. To date, the committee has provided about $2.7 million in assistance to residents in Victoria and surrounding counties. Victoria County residents not eligible for other assistance also can apply for a home in Hope Meadows. Construction on the $4.6 million, 40-house subdivision in Bloomington is underway, and the group is accepting and reviewing applications.
“I feel there is perhaps an underserved population that does not have the information about available resources,” Villa said. “Some people made their best efforts to handle their recovery but exhausted all of their funds, insurance or whatever assistance they received. They are still reaching out to us weekly.”
Since public service announcements started airing, the group has received 20-30 phone inquiries a week. Its four disaster case managers can open 35 cases at one time, but they have surpassed that number slightly because some cases are simply waiting on approval. Typically, new cases are not assigned until old ones close, so the group refers about half of these inquiries to the disaster case management partners, particularly when the cases are located in counties outside the group’s coverage area. The group is still in need of monetary and material donations, Villa said.
“Nearly two years since the disaster, we are Victoria Strong,” Villa said. “The outpouring from public, faith-based and other nonprofit organizations has been consistent.”
Community leaders are looking ahead, which Villa called “impressive.” A Rebuild Texas grant has enabled Victoria County to purchase and renovate the Victoria Advocate building to create the first disaster recovery and response center in the region.
“It’s a huge undertaking and a huge statement of getting prepared for future disasters,” Villa said. “I applaud the leaders and partners for having such vision and investment to dedicate to creating the first regional disaster center. The community is very blessed and very fortunate.”
Ruiz applied for assistance from the Texas General Land Office’s Homeowner Assistance Program, but his application was denied because the program did not accept contracts for deed. He appealed and was denied again. Ruiz rented the house for more than 14 years before his landlord sold the property, along with two other houses located on either side of his. At that time, Ruiz entered into a seven-year contract for deed with the Corpus Christi investor who purchased all three properties. He enlisted a local law firm to draw up the necessary paperwork.
The land office amended its policies regarding contracts for deed and 99-year lease agreements May 1, said Brittany Eck, director of communications for the Texas General Land Office. Many of these nontraditional leases were not around when the program began. So, in an attempt to help more people become eligible for the program, the land office sought amendments to the program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved them. The land office is now able to consider these applicants for the program.
“We sent notifications to individuals declined for these reasons to reapply and come back in,” Eck said. “So we’re trying to spread the message.”
The land office team encouraged Ruiz to reapply for assistance through the homeowners assistance program. His appointment is Sept. 23.
“I’m hoping now I will be accepted,” Ruiz said. “It’s very stressful and puts me in a state of depression a lot.”
A little-known Kansas company is at the center of a controversy about whether Victoria County spent Hurricane Harvey recovery money in the taxpayers’ interests.
To learn more about the company, formerly called the Virtus Group and now known as Commercial Restoration Company, the Victoria Advocate contacted 58 Texas counties the Federal Emergency Management Agency said were affected in some way by Harvey. The newspaper found that Chambers and Refugio counties bypassed bidding laws and entered into contracts with Virtus Group that were nearly identical to what Victoria signed about the same time.
Like Victoria, the counties, both with much smaller populations, said they hired the Olathe, Kan., company at the recommendation of their insurer, Texas Association of Counties. Chambers County paid Virtus about $1.9 million, while Refugio County paid $893,047.36.
Victoria airport commissioner and businessman Dennis Patillo, one of the first to raise concerns about Victoria’s Harvey spending, said he wanted to know more about how the county selected Virtus.
“When vetting for a big project like that, it is a substantial need to see that our money is spent wisely and competently,” Patillo said. “I’m still waiting to hear those answers.”
In June, some airport commissioners criticized how Victoria County managed Harvey-related remediation and repairs at the Victoria Regional Airport.
In response, county commissioners defended the process as proper because state law allows them to bypass bidding in an emergency and all payments went through the independent auditor’s office.
But the Advocate reported in July that the auditor at the time rubber-stamped payments to Virtus totaling about $2.1 million without questioning them. This was in part, officials said, because they were submitted by Joyce Dean, the former director of administrative services. Dean, the Advocate reported earlier this month, criticized county employees who questioned this arrangement with Virtus.
Patillo said he was frustrated by how long it was taking County Commissioner Kevin Janak to review the spending. Janak formed a small internal group in March to sort out the Harvey project after Dean retired in late February.
“We are told that there is an investigation ongoing that is now in its eighth or ninth month that Kevin Janak is leading,” Patillo said. “I congratulate him for doing it, but the fact that it’s taken so long really exacerbates people’s concerns that ask, ‘Were there checks and balances in the system?’”
Patillo repeated his call for an independent citizen task force to review the Harvey spending.
“I think that everybody – elected officials, county employees and taxpayers – would all be served best with complete transparency,” he said. “As a way of looking forward, we are going to face another emergency in the future, so we can look to this to see how we can improve.”
The Texas Association of Counties was going to explain to the Victoria Advocate how it selects the contractors it recommends counties use but then changed its mind.
It said it selects contractors that are reputable, financially stable and capable of responding to a disaster with the necessary materials and personnel, but it refused to explain how Virtus had demonstrated any of those characteristics.
Virtus formed in 2013. Five years later, the company changed its name to Commercial Restoration Company, and its website contains neither descriptions nor photographs of its previous work, unlike the website of Gerloff Company, a San Antonio-based contractor that restored Port Aransas school district buildings after Harvey.
In an email sent to the county the day Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, 2017, an association representative recommended both Virtus and Gerloff. Dustin Gerloff, the vice president of Gerloff Company, said Victoria County never called.
Neither Virtus nor Commercial Restoration Company is rated by the Better Business Bureau, and the company has at least one pending lawsuit filed against it in Comanche County, Okla., in which a woman claims she was injured while Virtus was working on her home.
Bill Sutter, the CEO/founder of Virtus, declined to say how Virtus’ relationship with the Texas Association of Counties or Victoria County began or whether the company completed the work in Victoria County or intended to do so.
“We cannot comment on anything because of our nondisclosure agreement,” he said.
Airport commissioner Patillo said he found it troubling that Virtus would not be more forthcoming.
“It’s important that we learn something about this company,” he said.
Virtus denied paying the insurance association for its recommendation, and the association denied accepting payment for recommendations.
“No, we don’t pay anyone for advertisements. If they had done so, it would have been their recommendation, but certainly not something that we paid for,” Sutter said.
Government ethicists say if it is not already illegal for an insurance company representing counties to accept payment for recommendations, it is inappropriate.
Contractors such as Virtus have found ways to get into Victoria County’s good graces without money directly changing hands in the past.
For example, during a continuing education event in Beaumont hosted by the Texas Association of Counties, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a national firm that provides legal services to the county, representatives offered a free limousine ride to dinner and then to a casino for commissioners and Dean, Commissioner Gary Burns said. Burns said he declined because the offer made him uneasy, while Dean and the remaining commissioners, who still hold office, accepted.
According to the Texas Ethics Commission, no elected official or county employee can accept any gift or benefit if it might influence a government decision unless the item is worth less than $50 or is “payment for meals, transportation or lodging expenses in connection with a conference or similar event in which the public servant renders services.”
Although a gift might be legal to accept, it might not be prudent to do so, said Robert Wechsler, Harvard College and Columbia University Graduate Law School graduate who has published several books about the ethics of local government.
“The appearance of impropriety is damaging to the public trust,” he writes in a 2013 book titled “Local Government Ethics Programs.” “If a government official appears to have a conflict, even though the situation is not clearly prohibited by an ethics code provision, and that apparent conflict is not handled responsibly, it has the same effect on the public in terms of their trust in those who govern as it would if the conflict were prohibited by law.”
Virtus’ man on the ground in Victoria after Harvey was Shawn Jernigan, and he appears in photos at Dean’s wedding in March of this year.
Hana S. Callaghan, the director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said to investigate whether this was improper, the public should ask, “Was this a long-standing relationship separate from their business relationship? Was the county employee in any sort of decision-making position?”
In a brief interview, Jernigan said he did not know about Victoria, nor did he know Dean before Harvey. He did not answer why he attended the wedding.
Dean has declined to comment on the controversy.
Every time Victoria county Commissioners discuss Virtus, either commissioners and county employees present to the public a different amount paid to the company and where it came from.
Most recently, Commissioner Janak and Becky Smiley, who works in the auditor’s office, said the insurance association reimbursed the county $4,631,514.79 of the $4,636,989.82 the county spent doing remediation and repairs after Harvey.
On a spreadsheet above that amount, Smiley wrote that the insurance had paid $1.6 million to Virtus directly.
Smiley said after Monday’s commissioners meeting that the $1.6 million was in addition to the about $2.1 million the county paid Virtus. She said she included the amount at the insurance association’s request.
So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has obligated about $4.3 million to Victoria County.
FEMA describes this as “public assistance” and says fund are supposed to go toward debris removal, life-saving emergency protective measures and restoring public infrastructure.
FEMA also allowed some of the $4.3 million to go toward reimbursing Victoria County 90% of its $50,000 insurance deductible with the association, Victoria County Emergency Management Coordinator Rick McBrayer said.
McBrayer said the reason he sent an email to Jernigan on Feb. 27 asking for a more detailed description of Virtus’ work on an airport hangar was the county had selected it – along with other buildings at the airport – to demonstrate to FEMA it had met its deductible.
The Advocate tried to question the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which is in charge of dispersing FEMA public assistance funds, about the situation, but it did not respond by deadline.
Even though it is time-consuming, some counties said they are bidding Harvey-related work because they think it will increase their chances of being reimbursed by FEMA.
Matagorda County Auditor Kristen Kubecka said officials had to do one emergency repair because electricity went out in the courthouse, “but we will have to go out to bid for all the long-term fixes because they exceed $300,000 and FEMA has obligated funds toward them. The way FEMA works, you have to look at not only local and state procurement guidelines but federal guidelines and go with whichever one is the most restrictive.”
In about two months, Aransas County, where Harvey made landfall, will advertise for bids for a courthouse architect, said William Whitson, whose position overseeing recovery and FEMA reimbursement there was funded by a grant from a nonprofit starting in October 2017.
When the Advocate asked Whitson what he thought about Victoria County exempting itself from having to go out for bids and entering into a contract with Virtus, he said, “All I would say is that I would advise differently.”
Reporters Jon Wilcox and Morgan Theophil contributed to this story.