Harvey devastates homeowners without insurance
Oct. 7, 2017 at 9:03 p.m.
Aubrey De La Garza, 3, whimpered as she plucked a purple toy alligator from what was left of her mother's bedroom.
The toddler's life was turned upside down when Hurricane Harvey sent a tree crashing onto her family's three-bedroom trailer in Bloomington. The family is living in a hotel paid for by the federal government and is still struggling to cope with the reality of losing the home.
"It's hard because you look at your kids and you don't have a home for them," said the little girl's mother, Erica Andrade, as she tried to hold back tears while her daughter picked through belongings.
Andrade, 27, doesn't know what her family will do next. She didn't have home insurance and doesn't have the resources to start a new life without financial help.
She isn't the only one.
So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has received more than 18,500 applications for financial help and inspected almost 7,500 homes in Victoria County, where the vast majority of homeowners didn't have flood insurance. Some people who owned trailers or already paid off mortgages didn't have home insurance at all.
Now, homeowners with inadequate or no insurance will have to rely on charities and FEMA for help - which doesn't guarantee they'll be able to get enough money to restore homes to original conditions.
"People have this misconception that FEMA is going to be the savior, and it's not," said Loretta Worters, who works for the Insurance Information Institute. "It's not their responsibility."
FEMA isn't meant to replace home or flood insurance, Worters said. The federal agency will pay for people to stay in hotels and cover limited repairs to make sure homes aren't dangerous, which can include fixing plumbing, leaking roofs and foundations.
But the money won't cover the cost to rebuild an entire home. Kevin Hannes, who works for FEMA, said the average payout is about $4,500.
"FEMA will not make you whole," Hannes said. "FEMA will give you seed money."
Government officials are working to create programs aimed at helping residents make more permanent repairs, but the details are still being worked out.
Until then, Victoria County residents have few other resources, with the exception of volunteer groups. Since Hurricane Harvey struck, Carl Dube has worked feverishly to clear trees, install tarps and remove soaked drywall from about 100 homes in Bloomington, one of the poorest parts of Victoria County.
The volunteer, who works with the Mennonite Disaster Service, said only half of the homeowners he helped had home insurance.
"I've not been in a community where this high of a percentage of residents are in poverty," Dube said.
There are no grocery stores or banks in the rural town, where many of the homes were passed from generation to generation. In some cases, mortgages were paid off decades ago, which meant lenders didn't require homeowners to keep insurance.
"Homeowners insurance is not on the top of the list compared to food or gasoline or medicine," Dube said.
In all of Victoria County, which is home to more than 90,000 residents, only 1,219 homeowners had flood insurance policies, according to FEMA data. The federal agency did not have data to show how many people had regular home insurance.
"In their own mind, people say, 'It's not going to happen to me,' so they don't take the steps that are necessary," said Worters, whose agency's mission is to educate people about insurance.
Worters said all homeowners should purchase regular home insurance, but it's also a good idea to buy flood insurance - even if homes aren't in flood-prone areas.
General home insurance covers wind damage but not flooding. Homeowners must buy additional flood plans, which are run by the National Flood Insurance Program but are sold by private insurance agents.
Depending on where a home is located, flood insurance costs annually anywhere from $500 to $2,500 in high-risk areas.
"Do you want to make yourself whole again?" asked Worters. "This is one way of doing that."
But for some Victoria County residents, scraping up the money to pay bills, buy groceries and purchase homeowners insurance is difficult.
After walls collapsed and water soaked Andrade's trailer, she is focused on saving what she can that wasn't ruined by the Category 4 storm. She can't replace clothing or household goods with donations because she has nowhere to store new belongings.
With less than a week until hotel vouchers from FEMA run out, Andrade's family is planning to stay with family and friends.
Now, Andrade is just trying to work all the hours she can to save up enough money to put a down payment on another trailer house.
"I live paycheck to paycheck," Andrade said. "I don't have money to spare to start something new."
Day 1: Here comes Harvey
Day 2: Brace yourself
Day 3: 'Prayers protect us'
Day 5: 'At least God let us live'
Day 6: 'It's the luck of the draw'
Day 10: The Long Road Ahead (w/video)
Day 12: For some, normal still far away
Day 15: FEMA frustrates Harvey victims
Day 16: Displaced and in disarray
Day 18: Nature interrupted (w/video)
Day 19: 'It was like we had been bombed'
Day 42: 'Harvey broke me'