The Forgotten Storm

(CBS)
This post was written by CBS News' Hari Sreenivasan, who reported from Texas on Hurricane Ike and now looks at how recovery efforts have progressed.



This week, almost three months after Hurricane Ike battered Texas, it was clear that the rebuilding and repair is happening far slower than the rest of the country imagines it to be. David Stall, the Shoreacres city manager we spoke with had a poignant observation in our Evening News piece when he mentioned that it seems like when the lights came back on in Houston, people just began to think that everything was all better. The facts are that for his community, and several others along the Texas coast, life is far from normal.

The human costs are chronicled in both our pieces on the as well as The Early Show through the eyes of the Brown family. Michelle Brown didn't want to speak with us about things when we met her on her driveway. After a few minutes of conversation it became apparent why. I'm certainly not a psychologist but it doesn't take one to realize that she and her family are still in states of shock, grief and trauma over what has happened - not just to their house, but their home.

Eleven-year-old Morgan still hasn't set foot in her room. Morgan's room, like every other one in the house, became a blender where mementos and keepsakes were swirled together with the garbage from Galveston Bay. The water forced it in by breaking windows and prying entire walls away from the frame of the house. The contents have laid there untouched since the water receded. Everything is lifeless except for the mold and fungus which slowly grows by the second.

Brown says she is caught in a game of insurance company hot potato. Homeowners insurance tells her it was a straight flood, flood insurance tells her the storm was wind driven, and wind insurance tells her homeowners insurance is where the buck stops.

Insurance companies have heartwarming advertisements on TV where friendly insurance adjusters provide hot chocolate to someone wrapped in a blanket after a storm, but they aren't quite the good neighbors they paint themselves as in cases like Mrs. Brown's.

She is on the list for a FEMA mobile home, and hopefully by the time her story makes it on TV, she'll have one parked in her yard. You can see the homes being towed on the highways in the region, so yes they are coming. However, living out of a hotel room, an apartment, a motor home or an RV, even if it is on your own driveway, is not living at home. It is simply staying alive.

FEMA says they estimate about 3,000 families will be getting these homes, half of which have already been delivered. After the debacle in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where toxic levels of formaldehyde were found in many of the trailers supplied by the agency, FEMA says they are checking every single unit before it is placed in a neighborhood. They have spent more than a billion dollars in Texas, and could spend up to $2 billion more, but that money just can't seem to get here fast enough.

There are of course people who are thoroughly satisfied with the aid that FEMA and the state of Texas have provided them with temporary housing in the way of rent for an apartment or a mobile home in their front yard. Would they rather be home? Yes. Are they strong enough to make it until their home can be rebuilt? Yes.

You see the businesses in Bridge City struggling to survive. The Dollar General stands empty with the lights on; the Little Ceasars now operates on wheels in an empty strip mall parking lot. The owner of the mall told us that one of the tenants not only lost their home but also lost all their store's inventory to the flood waters. Without flood insurance, they were forced to move elsewhere, with no business, no home.

Pondering A Return

Two out of every three residents in the bedroom community of Shoreacres isn't back. Along its stretch of coastline, some of the nicest and biggest houses took the brunt of Ike as the eye of the storm passed by their windows. The city manager mentioned to us that his annual budget is only about $1.2 million and they have already spent more than $2 million on cleanup efforts. Where are they getting their money? It is paid partly on faith and partly by the future. The faith is that FEMA can reimburse them and they are setting aside their future reserves if that doesn't happen.

View David Stall's slideshow of Ike's devastation

Walk into City Hall and you can see the mountains of paperwork and files for every resident of town. You can watch residents come in to file appeals with the FEMA for whether their home was damaged 40 percent or 50 percent because it would change the amount they qualify for. Many older homes will have to be lifted to meet elevation standards in a flood plain, an expensive project for any homeowner. Until they know exactly whether they will have the money to repair or rebuild, these residents will not return.

The future for some of these towns will be tenuous. For a small hamlet like Shoreacres, that has no major commercial center, revenue is tied to property values. Come January 1, when the values of these destroyed structures is reassessed, the revenue base will shrink, and mean that the rest of the residents taxes will likely rise to cover the difference.

Sometimes the things you don't think of all that much end up being the big costs. For Shoreacres, one of two water pumping facilities was destroyed when bay water crept down into the fresh water wells. Right now the town can survive because not all the people are back but it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair. There are more than 90 regulatory street signs that need to come back up and each one needs to be made and staked into the ground, a time consuming task that will cost thousands of dollars.

The Cycle

Our initial coverage of hurricane Ike was blown off the map by the first gales of the financial storms we are now living through. Our teams covered the preparation in the lead up to the storm, landfall as Ike came ashore, and the devastation the storm left behind. We showed you beach communities on the Bolivar peninsula that were scoured clean of structures.

A month ago we went back, and showed you how dilapidated the region still was, where so many of those structures washed ashore, how there were so many people still missing and some of the economic impact affecting the region.

It feels a bit like Déjà vu after covering Katrina. While the images were perhaps not nearly as gut wrenching from Hurricane Ike, the pain these folks are living through is just as real, and the process of recovery seems just as slow. All the while, our collective attention span for caring what happens to the victims of a tragedy a week, a month, a year after the disaster only seems to get smaller.

Click here to visit the American Red Cross.
  • Daniel Carty

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