Immigration

After Texas Freeze, Immigrants Play Critical Role In Repairing Tens Of Thousands Of Homes

Two weeks after the devastating winter freeze, Texans are facing tens of thousands of home repairs, and many still don’t have running water. Immigrants will play an outsized role in helping families get their houses back in order, while also dealing with destruction in their own communities.

Houston plumber Eduardo Dolande shows where pipes burst inside his own home during the Texas freeze.

For the last two weeks, Houston plumber Eduardo Dolande has been working long hours to help repair burst pipes in local homes and businesses.

In his own neighborhood of Cypress alone, Dolande, who has worked as a plumber for 21 years, said he's helped about a dozen families with their pipes — as a favor, free of charge. The destruction he’s seen inside some homes looks like something out of a movie, he said.

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“It's just wet sheetrock everywhere, and then the insulation that was up in the attic was on the floor,” Dolande said, “It just looked horrible."

One of the damaged homes was his own. At one point, he ran out of supplies to fix his own pipes after using them to help his neighbors. His plumber friends eventually helped him find some replacement parts, which have been in short supply since the storm.

He had to cut open parts of his ceiling in two bathrooms and other parts of the house to reach busted pipes and repair them. Since he knew to turn off his water before the freeze, the damage in his own home was minimal — but the family still had water all over the floors while they tried to fix multiple burst pipes.

Dolande said his neighborhood was also hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, but that the freeze was worse because it took people by surprise.

“No power, no water,” Dolande said. “People get desperate over that.”

“I've never seen that much damage in homes,” he said. “Never.”

In the aftermath of the storm, plumber Eduardo Dolande also had to fix the pipes in his own home.

Texas' largest insurer, State Farm, has reported more than 40,000 claims in the state related to the winter storm. That's ten times the total number of burst pipe claims they saw nationally in 2020.

And immigrant workers — like Dolande, who is from Panama — are critical to repairing that damage, according to Jeremy Robbins, director of the New American Economy think tank.

“As people are trying to build back, they're trying to repair their houses, they're trying to figure out how to survive the damage, immigrants are playing outsized roles in so many of the professions that are essential to the Texas economy,” Robbins said.

The group’s analysis of 2019 American Community Survey data found that in the city of Houston, about 40% of plumbers and 63% of construction workers are foreign born.

Eduardo Dolande said he had to cut holes in his bathroom ceiling to reach broken pipes.

In Texas, 27% of the state’s plumbers and 40% of construction workers are foreign born, though immigrants make up about 17% of the population. And the share of immigrant workers is even higher when other labor-intensive jobs are taken into consideration.

“If you look at drywall installers or ceiling tile installers and tapers, more than 75% of them nationwide are immigrants," Robbins said.

These workers will play a critical role as second responders, since many ceilings — like Dolande’s — have been damaged from burst pipes.

Robbins also pointed out that many of Texas’ construction workers have Temporary Protected Status, or are undocumented. Proposed legislation could help protect these workers and offer them a chance to settle down, advance their careers and better access government aid and services.

New American Economy reports that about 5,000 of the 31,000 Temporary Protected Status recipients in Houston work in construction.

Eduardo Dolande and his wife, Mitzila Guerra, became United States citizens after immigrating from Panama.

Steven Scarborough, strategic initiatives manager for the Center for Houston's Future, said without immigrants, weeks-long repair wait times would last even longer.

“Imagine all these stories you've heard, how long people (are) waiting for plumbers, and increase that by 37%,” he said.

Though these immigrant workers are essential to storm recovery in Houston, many come from communities that tend to be disproportionately impacted by catastrophic events.

A Rice University survey found nearly two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants in Houston could not come up with $400 to pay for an emergency expense. And those families are also less likely to reach out for aid in a crisis, Scarborough said.

Eduardo Dolande — who first came to the United States as a tourist in his early 20s and became a citizen through his wife, Mitzila Guerra — said he hopes people can see that immigrants like him, including those without legal status, are helping the city rebuild.

“We are everywhere. We are helping everybody,” Dolande said. “Whether they say they don't need us, or they don't want to accept it, it is so obvious.”

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