Tiny Gulf Coast Town Struggling With Ike Recovery

By LOMI KRIEL | April 2, 2012

Every spring, Karen Littlejohn boxes up her family’s winter clothes in their FEMA trailer, shuttles them to a tiny, dank room at church, places them beside the other contents of her life, and thinks, “Next winter we’ll have a house. If we can just make it through the spring.”

Meanwhile her son, Stevie Ray, to whom she gave birth in a trailer two months after Hurricane Ike, inches closer to his fourth birthday without ever having known a real home. Seasons come and go in this tiny Galveston Bay city of Shoreacres – once a middle class retirement enclave – and though many beautiful homes remain, so do the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, vacant lots and trash in formerly neat front yards.

For much of greater Houston, the 2008 hurricane is a distant memory. But for Shoreacres, a community of about 1,500 people nestled between the Port of Houston and La Porte, it’s a daily conversation topic that inspires heated emails and leaves residents in tears.

Eighty-three percent of the homes were flooded and one in seven destroyed, making this city Ike’s worst victim in Harris County. According to officials, 60 percent of the population didn’t return until a year later; nearly one in three never did. While the rest of Houston was moving on, residents here didn’t even have electricity.

But 3 1/2 years later, there are budding signs of hope. The small blue building housing the municipal court and City Hall boasts a sign: “Hurricane Ike Recovery In Full Swing!” A new police station, water plant, and road and sewer improvements are in the works. Though more than 60 households qualified for federal housing assistance, most long dropped out of the process, frustrated. But for the 18 who couldn’t, including at least seven still living, like Littlejohn, in FEMA trailers, the end finally seems nigh.

“We’re close,” her caseworker said last week.

“But we always thought we were close,” the 45-year-old mother said as her three children ran circles in the crowded space. “If we’d known we’d be 3 1/2 years in a trailer.”

“It’s been a nightmare,” said David Stall, the city administrator. “But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, finally. The recovery is coming.”

But why only now? Though the money was there – Congress appropriated $3.1 billion for statewide infrastructure and housing recovery after hurricanes Ike and Dolly – a haphazard manner of approving applications and administering contracts, clashes between federal and state officials, and a legal battle over whether the program was being fairly executed slowed it down.

Harris County officials began accepting applications for assistance in October 2009. But it took a year for the state to approve them, said Daphne Lemelle, who oversees Harris County Recovers, the agency over the unincorporated county. Of the 500 county homes that qualify, 155 were rebuilt – including three in Shoreacres – and 205 in construction. When the state General Land Office took over this part of the disaster aid program, five homes were finished and 117 under construction.

“If you had asked me 3 1/2 years ago if we’d still be sitting here with homes not done, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Lemelle said.

The majority of homeowners in Shoreacres had flood insurance, so many rebuilt on their own. Susan Densford, a 42-year-old real estate agent who purchased her house just five months before the hurricane, had 6 feet of water and three trees in her house. About $70,000 in insurance and $50,000 in savings later, it’s back to what residents here call their “new normal.”

About one-third of homeowners simply jumped ship, either abandoning their properties or selling them dirt cheap. Recently, Densford sold a once impressive house on half an acre for $20,000.

“People just want to move on,” she said. “They don’t want to deal with it.”

Ike destroyed the main water plant, so they’ve been relying on a backup; opening one fire hydrant stops water for half the city and water cuts out daily. City Hall, the police department and streets were damaged, and 80 percent of the pine trees.

Residents struggled, too. When heavy rains about a year after Ike caused light flooding, a member of the Planning and Zoning commission told friends, “I can’t do this again.” He shot himself dead in his yard.

“You could really sense the misery,” said Dolly Arons, the mayor.

Meanwhile, families like Littlejohn’s who qualified for federal aid waited – and waited.

Many tried to help themselves, chipping away at repairs they could afford while waiting for the state. But homeowners and city officials were told that could disqualify them.

“It didn’t make sense,” Arons said. “Why not let us help ourselves to the extent that we can and then reimburse us?”

But things, finally, are looking up.

In September, the state approved the city’s $5.2 million reconstruction plan.

In October, construction broke ground.

Soon, officials promise, it will be a city “reborn.”

Meanwhile, Littlejohn has allowed herself a small indulgence in preparation. She recently bought a 1950s-style bathtub on Craigslist. It waits outside their trailer.

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