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.”
Paperwork and patience
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.”