| Built to Flood
Brutal Choice in Houston: Sell Home at a Loss or Face New Floods
KATY, Tex. — When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, floodwaters swept through Eileen and Jeff Swanson’s two-story brick home, blanketing the first floor in muck and nearly destroying a domestic existence 12 years in the making. Their china cabinet, in the family for three generations, was reduced to a sodden mess. A couch, once a soft red, had blushed into a watery burgundy; the carpet squished like grass at the bottom of a marsh. A dirty foot-high water line ran wall to wall, marking the local crest of an event that the National Weather Service called “the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history.”
After the floodwaters receded, the Swansons returned to a house ravaged, endless questions, few answers — and a looming decision.
They are not alone. Hundreds of homeowners in Canyon Gate at Cinco Ranch, a quiet subdivision in a west Houston suburb, are mired in a slow, frustrating effort to rebuild. Others have formed an uneasy exodus, their attachment to familiar places and routines irreparably battered by a storm that dumped 50-plus inches and caused widespread flooding. They are now selling their gutted homes at well below pre-storm prices.
The fundamental decision — stay or go — is one being faced by homeowners all around the Houston area. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of storms like Harvey, no neighborhood is immune from being flooded again. But the Swansons and other homeowners in Canyon Gate face a far more certain prospect: Their neighborhood is on land that was designed to be flooded. It is part of a reservoir that was built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to prevent catastrophic flooding downtown, a fact that developers did little to publicize when they built Canyon Gate in the 1990s.
On a blistering September afternoon at the Swanson house, 20 box fans and an industrial blower ran nonstop in a battle against rot and decay. The family was still consigned to five rooms upstairs, and Ms. Swanson, 48, a senior executive assistant at an industrial automation company, was downstairs watching a YouTube demonstration of how to hang wallboard. At the top of the steps, Mr. Swanson, 52, was compiling a mental to-do list: make another trip to Home Depot, haul more stuff to the storage unit, get back in time to help with the delivery of a stack of new wallboard. Their 23-year-old son Allen, who is severely developmentally disabled, was watching television. It was already a familiar routine. “It feels like our life is somewhere between, ‘Where do I start?’ and ‘Why isn’t this getting done,’” Mr. Swanson said.
There was a lot keeping the Swansons in Canyon Gate. They had paid off the house, purchased in 2006 for $225,000, just a few months before the flood. That freed them from a monthly mortgage. The home was close to Nick’s school and in a neighborhood they loved, and they had adapted the space to suit Allen’s disabilities — he has seizures, so they needed open areas where they could watch him from other parts of the house. In a hundred different ways, floods or no floods, this was their home.
And yet the case for leaving was clear. Two weeks before the floods, Mr. Swanson had quit his job as a security guard, with the intention of looking for work without so many late hours. The Swansons had some savings, but the money was meant to pay for their younger son, Nick, 17, a high school junior, to attend college. With only one income, there was little money left over for repairs and renovations that would cost upward of $60,000.
Hanging over the entire process was the knowledge that a similar — or even worse — flood could hit again, possibly even as soon as the next hurricane season. “I am pretty sure we would not have moved into this house if we knew,” Ms. Swanson said.
‘It’s Worth Saving’
Hugh Durlam knew he was staying. As a 13-year resident and former homeowners association board member, Mr. Durlam was completely invested in Canyon Gate. But he wanted to know what happened to others in the neighborhood. So on the Canyon Gate Facebook page he administers, he recently posted a survey asking homeowners if renovations were completed or close to completion, if they were still rebuilding, or if they had not yet started.
Of the 202 responses, all but two were involved in some kind of renovation.
“This is going to be a brand-new 20-year-old community. It’s worth saving,” said Mr. Durlam, who works for a Houston engineering firm. He supports a plan to deepen the reservoir and build a levee to protect the neighborhood, he said, “something that should have been done a long time ago.”
Christina Raena Micu isn’t certain about what to do next. When Harvey hit, she anxiously watched television footage of the storm from a Dallas hotel room, where she had taken shelter with her husband and two of her three children. Her 20-year-old son had stayed behind, sending dispatches as the waters invaded their neighborhood, before finally evacuating in chest-deep water with only a backpack.
Inside Ms. Micu’s home, everything on the first floor was submerged within or floating atop a couple of feet of muddy water. When she returned from Dallas, she rushed to her bedroom hoping her collection of childhood photos had somehow survived. She had left the photo albums in a pile on the carpeted floor with plans to one day organize them on a bookshelf. They were stuck together, the images swirled into watercolor blurs, too damaged to save. But what she saw next was more immediately concerning: mold.
“I have a 5-year-old son with asthma who has already been hospitalized once for it,” she said. “I can’t just move back in. It’s much more complicated than that for me.”
After she moved her family into an apartment about 10 minutes away, signing a one-year lease with some financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ms. Micu, a real estate investor, embarked on a monthslong renovation of her flood-soaked home, ripping out the floors and walls and repeatedly treating the house with mold bombs, foggers and air purifiers.