Storm With ‘No Boundaries’ Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike

Storm With ‘No Boundaries’ Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike
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From left, members of the Armenta family, David, Manuel and Antonio, surveyed the damage to Antonio’s home in the El Dorado-Oates Prairie neighborhood of Houston. Credit Julie Turkewitz/The New York Times

HOUSTON — Antonio Armenta paid $45,000 a decade ago for the little white house with the arched kitchen doorway by the train tracks in northeast Houston, where he raised his children on construction-worker sweat in the blue-collar neighborhood of El Dorado-Oates Prairie. He’s $400 away from owning it outright.

Viet Nguyen, a doctor specializing in family medicine, is raising his three children in a two-story brick traditional in the Southdale neighborhood of the in-town suburb of Bellaire, with its stately houses on tree-lined streets full of comfortable professonals and where the average house in 2015 went for about $700,000.

Now they are united in soggy duress, figuring out what they can rescue from flooded homes. It is a common experience in the waterlogged sprawl that is Houston and its suburbs. A wide swath of New Orleans was flooded after Hurricane Katrina, with some of the worst of it occurring in the white, middle-class Lakeview neighborhood. But many of the iconic images of the storm captured a divide of class and race — the desperation of the poor stranded at the Superdome and the devastated, largely black, low-income neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, which were among the ones most likely to suffer catastrophic flooding and the last ones to recover.

Tropical Storm Harvey, on the other hand, was more of an equal-opportunity assailant in Houston, attacking poor and rich with almost equal ferocity. Piney Point Village, a city of 3,125 people in west Houston described as the richest in Texas, flooded. So did Houston’s historically black and poor Fifth Ward, two miles northeast of downtown.

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a native of Houston who is one of the city’s most influential pastors, said the widespread nature of the destruction was unfathomable.

“I have never seen anything — and this goes back to Hurricane Carla in 1961 — remotely, remotely similar,” he said. He added: “North, south, east, west, the paralysis knows no boundaries.”

Of course, as residents begin to recover, there are huge differences between the options open to the poor and to the well-to-do. Mr. Armenta, who specializes in sheetrock finishing, has no insurance and no savings to rely on for rebuilding. Dr. Nguyen has savings for an emergency, and flood insurance. The Nguyens can live on their second floor. The Armentas do not have one. But what is clear is the devastation is connecting people of disparate means in one common experience: loss.

On Tuesday, with the storm not yet over, Mr. Armenta stood in a yellow raincoat in the moat around his house, next to a nephew wielding a machete meant to fend off crocodiles and snakes. “It’s the work of a whole life,” Mr. Armenta said, his head hung low. “So much sacrifice, just to lose it all in a moment.”

Mr. Armenta lives in an industrial patch of the city where the median home value is $82,000. It is home to mechanic shops and dump sites and is a place where working-class immigrants like him can afford to buy. His neighbors are tree-trimmers and house painters. Sixty-five percent own their homes. Mr. Armenta, a legal immigrant from Mexico, lives with his wife, Maria, and his three children: Leonela, Luis and Isaac.

For much of the week, El Dorado’s streets and modest yards were mostly under water. The entire neighborhood reeked of gasoline. On Tuesday, the crossing signal on the nearby train route rang for hours, filling the place with an ominous clang, clang, clang. At Mr. Armenta’s house, his nephew David, 34, waded through the water and plucked a ruined work boot from the muck.

Inside, it smelled like rot. The flood had ripped up the floorboards; the leather couches were soaked in water, oil and mud. And the detritus of family life lay about: soaked diaper boxes, scattered roller skates, tiny cowboy boots and a baby doll floating face down.

Mr. Armenta showed a reporter the now-dark bedroom he shared with his wife. “It’s sad. It’s sad,” he said. “Please don’t make me cry.”

Mr. Armenta came to the United States about a dozen years ago. He makes $19 hour. But work is sporadic, he said. He had tried to buy flood insurance, but the house was in such bad shape when he purchased it that no one would insure him.

Since then, he has fixed up the bathroom, laid the wood floors, and painted the living room walls. He is staying with Maria and their children at the nephew’s house down the street. The loss is likely in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Of course he will pay the last $400 on the house, he said. And of course they will rebuild here: “What choice do I have?”

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David Armenta outside his uncle’s home. Antonio Armenta paid $45,000 a decade ago for the house, and he has no insurance and no money to rebuild. Credit Julie Turkewitz

By Thursday, the water had drained and the neighbors had become a cleanup crew, spilling the now-soggy contents of their lives into the street — carpets, cabinets, drawers, all soaked in oil and water.

Inside Antonio’s reeking home, the Armentas took a sledgehammer to the walls, kicking them out a foot or two above the water line. Members of his church came by with ham, juice, bread and water. And after some back and forth with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mr. Armenta believed his family would get a month’s assistance to stay at a hotel.

“It’s a huge, mass cleaning effort,” said David, his nephew.

Dr. Nguyen and his family lived through a similar trauma. He knew something about rain and hurricanes, about the loud, disorderly chaos of storms. He had been through Hurricanes Alicia and Ike, and the floods of last spring had made a sodden mess of his yard.

But before the sun rose on Sunday, the rain was deceptively quiet. At 5 a.m., Dr. Nguyen peeked out the first-floor den windows. Steadily, the water was inching past the oak tree — where it had stopped in previous floods — toward the front door. By midmorning, the water was inside and rising.

“You didn’t hear the wind howling, or what you might think of with a storm or hurricane,” Dr. Nguyen said. “No, you didn’t hear anything, and just like that, the house was flooded.”

Dr. Nguyen, his wife, Ngoc, a registered nurse and graduate student, and their three children, Emily, Mason and Brayden, gathered their most precious household items, including photos of the children and a wedding photo from 17 years ago. They brought everything they could tote upstairs — soon the smallest pieces of furniture would be floating — and Dr. Nguyen made a trip to the garage to retrieve five life jackets and a raft, just in case.

With newscasters announcing the possibility of tornadoes, Dr. Nguyen’s youngest son, Brayden, 9, a weather and history buff, leaned into his mother, and asked, “Are we going to die?”

Dr. Nguyen said he spent Sunday in various stages of acceptance. His neighborhood now looked more to him like a bayou. It is a tight community, home to many medical professionals, where neighbors don’t just wave, but form friendships. “Old-fashioned” were the first words that Mr. Nguyen used to describe it.

Now, the home they bought in 2014 had been flooded, ruining everything on the first floor, along with a car and a sport utility vehicle. The water marks measured 31 inches.

“This has been traumatic. But I try to be practical about it, and remember what we still have,” Mr. Nguyen, 47, said above the roar of workers using industrial vacuums to suck the water out of his home.

On Wednesday, the front yards of Southdale were lined with heaping piles of furniture, linens, art — the stuff that makes a home, home. Much of the contents of Mr. Nguyen’s four-bedroom house were on the lawn under the old oak tree — leather sofas, flat-screen televisions, closet doors and a mountain of wood flooring and molding. Parts of the kitchen were now in the backyard, including stainless steel appliances, custom cabinetry and a wide granite counter. The kitchen had been remodeled in 2015.

The Nguyen’s perspective is built upon their Roman Catholic faith and family histories. Both Vietnamese immigrants, they came to the United States after the Vietnam War. Ms. Nguyen and her family lived in a Philippine refugee camp six months before a relative sponsored them in Houston; Dr. Nguyen and his family — he is one of 11 siblings — were sponsored by an Ohio church.

“We have seen so much more poverty back home, bad living conditions,” said Ms. Nguyen, 40.

Dr. Nguyen nodded. “Our parents were hard-working, what some might consider poor,” he said. “So I just think, yes, this is difficult, but everything can be replaced and there are people out there who have lost so much more than us and will have a harder time recovering.”

It is a common story in Houston, where one generation can often separate those aspiring to a comfortable life and those living it.

Mr. Caldwell, whose congregation is mostly black, noted that many impoverished residents had fled to shelters for safety, while wealthier people left Houston or hunkered down in hotels.

“Yes, there is a multisite ground zero disaster,” he said. “But how people are able to respond to it is what is separating the haves and the have-nots.”

He said the disparities now foreshadowed the recovery ahead, which is likely to take years.

“The painful reality is that your economic basket, or lack thereof, is going to determine what your options are and how quickly you’re able to bounce back,” he said. “The bottom line is that dispelling and destroying the disparities was high on the mayor’s agenda prior to this disaster. But surely the comeback trail will be full of bumps and holes.”

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