What the future of Houston's flood-prone neighborhoods will look like

Channel 2 reveals new permit numbers from neighborhood rebuilding after Harvey

HOUSTON – Three floods. Less than three years.

Meyerland is one Houston neighborhood that has never fully recovered from devastating floods dating back to Memorial Day 2015.

When Harvey hit, a lot of homeowners began to lose hope that their community would ever be the same.

Channel 2 Investigates is taking a closer look at the future of the quiet community along Brays Bayou.

Investigator Joel Eisenbaum looked at city permits for more than 500 properties, and he's revealing what local leaders are saying about the area's recovery.

You can talk about spirit, rebuilding and coming back, but four months after Harvey, the truth is: "It seems like more help should be coming," one victim said.

Plenty of people feel stuck, abandoned, particularly by the government -- federal, state and local.

Flood-ravaged Meyerland is represented by Houston City Councilmember Ellen Cohen.

"People ask, where is Ellen Cohen? She is not at these meetings," Eisenbaum said.

"Really?" Cohen asked.

In some circles, such as a flooding forum on Facebook, Cohen and other city leaders have been criticized for not being there.

"One, in my opinion, Ellen Cohen is in her office ... is in Meyerland. I would say I put together four or five meetings since the storm," Cohen said.

But a schedule provided by Cohen's office does not support that claim. Since the storm, it shows she's attended only two flood-related community meetings -- not four or five.

The honest truth is, Cohen can't fix this. The city doesn't have the money to make substantial changes in this corner of Houston or anywhere else. The big money, the buyout money, the elevating homes money -- it largely comes from Uncle Sam, or doesn't.

"I am now stuck with a house that is not going to sell," one victim said. "A lot of people have for sale signs up. They're not going to sell."

Wini Robertson is a woman who was almost done in by no rain as a kid, living in the great Dust Bowl. At age 99, she nearly met her end again during the flood.

"I don't swim and I began to wonder how fast this water is going to come up on me," Robertson said.

At 100 this week, Robertson's family honored her great escape with a photo. In truth, a neighbor saved her, but as thousands of others know, you can't rescue a house.

"She'd lived here for 60 years," Robertson's daughter said.

Robertson won't be back to the home where she raised her kids. Her house will sit empty like many others.

Because right now, it's either sell for pennies on the dollar or spend everything you've got to get back on track. Gambling grant money will come through later.

Channel 2 Investigates has spotted a troubling trend: So far, only 10.2 percent of the 521 structures we examined are being elevated or demolished. The other 89.8 percent of permits are to repair existing structures.

After three major floods, it's clear that plan doesn't work, but right now, nine out of 10 times, that's the fix. That's what folks can afford.

At this rate, Meyerland's future looks a lot like it does now.

"What promises can you deliver to me that things are going to change in Meyerland?" Eisenbaum asked Congressman John Culberson.

"Well, I'm one of 435 members of Congress, but I'm working 24/7 at 110 percent capacity my staff and I to make sure people get the money they need right now," Culberson said.

Culberson said a new FEMA director, a hurricane relief bill and a plan has promise.

"The secret is trusting property owners to be the best stewards of their own property and reverse the entire process, so the money comes to you at the beginning of the rather than end," Culberson said.

Culberson's bill fully funds Project Brays and puts it on the fast track. It also funds a study for the construction of a third reservoir, and a study on how to protect the ship channel from a catastrophic storm surge. All of those plans are still years from completion.

"Fix what's wrong ... getting water to Galveston to the Gulf of Mexico. If that's fixed, people will buy these houses again," Culberson said.

The problem is that project, to modernize Brays Bayou, is seven years behind schedule.

According to the Houston Association of Realtors, as of Dec. 8, 2017, in zip code 77096:

  • 216 homes are for sale
  • 65 homes are under contract
  • 107 homes have sold between Sept. 1 and Dec. 8, 2017
  • 2017 (Post-Harvey) average price: $281,760
  • Same period in 2016 average price: $303,010

According to Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, several religious entities suffered serious damage from Harvey:

  • United Orthodox Synagogue: Several feet of water. Reopening date TBD.
  • Congregation Beth Yeshurun: Severe water damage. Offices to reopen in March 2018.
  • Jewish Community Center: Multiple feet of water on first level. Reopened.
  • Jewish Community Center - Bertha Alyce School: Reopening January 2018.
  • St. Thomas Episcopal Church & School: Water damage. Using portable buildings.
  • Willow Meadows Baptist Church: Was an "island" in their neighborhood.
  • The WORD Church, Greenspoint: Entire church building flooded.
  • Masjid Abu Bakr, South Houston: Flooded.
  • Houston Vimutti Meditation Center, 77050: Took on water.

This week, the House of Representatives passed HR 4667. Culberson helped spearhead the bill.

According to Culberson, the bill covers:

  • Project Brays is now fully funded upfront.
  • All federally funded Flood Control projects in southeast Texas in disaster counties are also fully funded.
  • If the government flooded a home, like along the Addicks/Barker Reservoir, Trinity River, San Jacinto River or Nueches River, residents can apply for an SBA loan and they are still eligible for grants.
  • A study will be funded on building a third reservoir.
  • A study will be funded to look into an Ike Dike.

The Senate will take up its own version of the bill in January.

Additionally, Culberson told Channel 2 Investigates he is working with FEMA to pass what's called the "Charles Goforth Plan." It's a plan partially created by a Meyerland-area resident.

Items in this project include:

  • Allowing mitigation grant funds to be used to tear down a home and rebuild a new home elevated out of the flood plain. Currently, mitigation grants can only be used to elevate an existing home out of the flood plain.
  • Allowing FEMA to release funds to homeowners prior to beginning home repairs.
  • Channel 2 Investigates looked at all the permits filed with the city of Houston in zip code 77096 within the first 90 days after Harvey.

Search the map to see which neighbors are choosing demolition, elevation or to rebuild.