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‘Phone Call After Phone Call’: Frustrated Homeowners Organize For Harvey Recovery Funding

One of the demands of the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus is for more mental health services to be part of disaster recovery.

Caucus members gather at the home of Lawrence and Jacqueline Hester in Kashmere Gardens. The Hesters have waited years for repairs to their Harvey-damaged home.

At Lawrence and Jacqueline Hester’s home in Kashmere Gardens, visitors wear face masks for protection. With at least half of the house full of mold, the family lived in the front three rooms for more than two years — until December, when the local nonprofit West Street Recovery moved them to an apartment in Midtown.

During Hurricane Harvey, the storm seriously damaged their roof, causing the ceiling to collapse in their daughter's bedroom.

Other rooms had significant damage, too, including the bathroom and kitchen.

"This was a nice kitchen. I mean before," Jacqueline Hester said, before gesturing. "You see the walls here? Where the mold has actually set in the floor and the ceiling because water is standing underneath the home."

It's where the extended family celebrates holidays, she said, and her husband has lived in the house his entire life, for 59 years. His parents bought the home when he was born. The home never flooded until Harvey, Hester said.

Two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Harvey, many homeowners like the Hesters are still dealing with mold, warped floorboards and electrical problems. Frustrated with the City of Houston and its efforts to distribute federal recovery funding, they’re organizing themselves as the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus.

The caucus was formed by those homeowners still reeling from Harvey as a response to the slow distribution of disaster repair money — especially after some of the same homes flooded again in Tropical Storm Imelda, said Zoe Middleton with the advocacy group Texas Housers. One of their demands is for more mental health services to be part of disaster recovery.

"This caucus is as much about improving the program and building power for lower and moderate income survivors as it is providing emotional support, because of the toll that living in a disrepaired home or bouncing between places or being displaced can have on folks," Middleton said.

After the Hesters’ home sustained serious damage to the roof during Hurricane Harvey, the family has been battling mold and other issues.

In the case of the Hesters, the family didn't have flood insurance, and after the storm, they reached out to FEMA for help.

FEMA only provided the family $3,000 — not enough to fix the whole roof, Jacqueline Hester said. But the agency's objective is get people through the disaster, not to help them recover, according to FEMA spokesperson Kurt Pickering.

"It's a surprise to folks sometimes because they kind of expect the government is going to put things back the way they were," Pickering said. "That's not the government's role. That's insurance's role."

Then Hester called the City of Houston, which is administering Harvey home repair programs through the Housing and Community Development Department.

"They referred me to 411, 211, 311.,” she said. “‘Well we don't have any funds, we can't help you, we don't cover that.’ Or, ‘Let me give you to another company that can help you with your roof.'”

"It was just phone call after phone call after phone call after phone call and after two-and-a-half years, three years, you pretty much get overwhelmed, and we just didn't know who else to reach out to," she added.

Visitors wearing protective masks as they enter the home of Lawrence and Jacqueline Hester.

When the Forgotten Survivors Caucus got involved, opening the home for a tour to demonstrate the family’s need for repairs, Hester said the city’s housing director, Tom McCasland, came to meet with the Hesters. "He was very apologetic,” Hester said. (McCasland declined to comment for this story.)

Middleton said the Hesters' house is typical in the caucus — most of these homes still have serious damage.

"We've been following the outcomes of the program since it began, so that was a little over a year ago," Middleton said. "We're feeling really frustrated."

The caucus hopes to meet with the city's Housing and Community Development Department in March. As for the Hesters, they have given up on waiting for help from the city and are now working with a nonprofit that assists with home recovery.

"We just want to come back to a safe, clean environment where our kids can breathe freely,” Hester said.

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