Texas Residents Await Help 6 Months After Halloween Flood

By NICOLE CHAVEZ, DAVE HARMON, JAZMINE ULLOA, Austin American-Statesman | May 2, 2014

After riding out the Halloween flood on his roof with his wife and four terrified children, Abraham Perdomo would rather be living somewhere else. Somewhere safer, where his daughter isn’t afraid of sleeping alone and none of them have to fear every thunderstorm.

Instead, the 48-year-old construction worker has spent nearly every free hour working on his Austin, Texas house since the flood.

“I don’t want my kids to stay in a dangerous place,” he said on a recent afternoon, plopping onto an overturned paint bucket in his garage. “But we really had no choice but to fix the house and stay here.”

Six months after the Halloween flood that destroyed or damaged 659 structures in Travis County, the Perdomos are in the same post-flood limbo as hundreds of other families near Onion Creek who haven’t received city or county buyout offers but can’t easily leave because repeated floods have eroded their homes’ values.

“I don’t know if they’re going to buy us or what,” Perdomo told the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s really complicated.”

It gets even more complicated. Hundreds of residents will soon receive letters from the city informing them that they’re in a legal limbo. Federal rules prohibit anyone whose home was “substantially damaged” (hitting more than half of the home’s value) from making repairs without raising it above the flood plain first – which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But after the flood, the city gave them special permits to fix their homes.

The contradicting messages have confused and angered some residents, but city officials say it was a disaster-driven necessity. Strictly enforcing the federal rules would have prevented hundreds of flood victims from legally repairing their homes, said Kevin Shunk, a supervising engineer at the city’s Watershed Protection Department, and “we didn’t have anywhere else to put people.”

The city didn’t have the money available to offer buyouts to everyone immediately. City leaders authorized an emergency buyout for 116 homes after the flood, but more than 400 homes within city limits that flooded didn’t get an offer. The city suspended the federal rules for them, with the blessing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sets federal flood plain policies, Shunk said.

How long do they allow residents to live in a flood zone in violation of federal rules? Shunk said city leaders still haven’t decided on the next step, but “we’re going to have to deal with the ramifications” of that decision.

But long-term, the city’s goal is clear.

“The best solution for this neighborhood is a buyout,” Shunk said.

Using mostly bond money and federal grants, the city has been buying and demolishing homes in the area since the 1990s – 323 so far – after realizing that the flood maps in place when the neighborhoods were built in the 1970s severely underestimated the area’s actual flood risk.

After scraping together an additional $20 million immediately after the flood, the city has made buyout offers to 114 homeowners, and 94 of them have accepted, according to Watershed Protection Department spokesperson Stephanie Lott. The city had closed on 57 sales as of Friday.

Two homeowners wouldn’t consent to an appraisal and didn’t get offers, Lott said, and nine others rejected the city’s offer or didn’t respond to it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved nearly $12 million last month for additional buyouts near Onion Creek.

And last week, City Council Member Mike Martinez unveiled a proposal to finish the job, using $108 million from bonds and increased drainage fees for all Austin homeowners to buy and raze 443 homes within the 100-year floodplain near Onion and Williamson creeks. Martinez said he will ask the council next month to approve the fee increase, which would cost the typical Austin homeowner $9 per year.

“It’s 75 cents (per month) and it’s hundreds of people,” Martinez said. “It’s not a lot to ask.”

On Thursday, the council will vote on whether to spend $7 million to repair the flood-damaged River Plantation Drive bridge over Onion Creek – a major access point to the Onion Creek golf course community several miles upstream from Perdomo’s neighborhood – that has been closed since the flood.

For Christine Phillips, who lives about a block from Perdomo, the recent flurry of activity by the city is too little, too late. The 61-year-old said she’s been in and out of the hospital for months with such ailments as pneumonia and skin disease that her doctor blames on bacteria-laden water from the flood. For years she’s heard talk of buyouts, but she and her 65-year-old husband are still waiting.

“The city has done us wrong all the way around,” she said. The city hasn’t offered flood victims enough financial assistance, she said, adding that they have relied on the generosity of family and church volunteers to fix their home and replace what they lost as they fight with their insurance company over money she says they are due.

A few days after the flood, a group with the Billy Graham Crusades arrived at their home on Ladybug Street to help clean up. They wore bright yellow shirts, Phillips remembers, so she chose a cheery yellow paint for their walls. “I didn’t want to be depressed anymore,” she said with a chuckle.

Travis County has pursued its own buyout program for homes outside the city limits _ mainly in Timber Creek, a rural neighborhood dominated by mobile homes that was hard-hit by what the record flood. Up to a foot of rain fell in parts of Central Texas at the end of the wettest October on record, sending Onion Creek to a record-breaking 40 feet.

Throughout that neighborhood, which lies between Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the Texas 130 toll road, the skeletons of mobile homes blown apart by the flood remain six months later. One metal home sits intact, partially blocking Timber Creek Drive after being lifted by the water and dropped in the lot across the street.

County leaders approved $5.5 million for buyouts, and 30 homeowners have accepted offers – including Kelly Gorbet, who has lived in a 10-by-27-foot white tent next to his mobile home with his wife and their 25-year-old daughter since the flood. The gray mobile home they bought in 1995 is too mold-infested from the flood to sleep inside, he said.

Gorbet, 57, who waited out the flood in a tree as his wife found refuge at a toll booth on nearby Texas 130, said he jumped on the county’s buyout offer after turning down previous offers. He’s already found a house on 5 acres in Williamson County and plans to move in a week or two.

“I’m ready to go, man,” Gorbet said. “This has really worked out to be a real blessing to us.”

Back on Onion Creek Drive, Perdomo can see the future of his neighborhood by walking a block from his house.

His street echoes with the whine of circular saws and the bang of hammers as he and many of his neighbors who weren’t included in the current city buyout rebuild their flood-damaged homes – while a scattering of nearby homes sit abandoned and broken, weeds growing around them.

All around him are the signs of neighbors waiting to reclaim their homes: portable storage units holding salvaged possessions, driveways filled with Winnebagos and Airstreams that are home to those who still can’t sleep in their damaged homes. Like Perdomo, many of them say they’re just waiting for the city to make them an offer.

At the corner of Onion Creek and Wild Onion drives, the Serratos’ home looks like they just moved in – there’s little furniture and their possessions are stuffed in a few boxes and bags. The flood took everything except what they were able to grab as they fled.

The family of eight found shelter with some relatives – 16 people shared a home for three months, said Eric Serrato, 20, the eldest child in the family. He said the family is ready to take a buyout if it’s offered.

“Ten years ago, we got a foot of water (in the 2001 flood), last year it was 5 feet,” he said. “We are sure there will be another one.”

Half a block north on Wild Onion is the beginning of the buyout area, where the construction noise fades to silence. One home after another sits empty and dark, each with red-and-black NO TRESPASSING signs tacked above the garage doors. A few blocks over, at the corner of Springville Lane and Firefly Drive, a swath of freshly turned dirt marks the place where several houses stood until demolition crews took them down recently. Another demolition is scheduled for mid-May.

North of Springville lays the city’s preferred ending for this neighborhood: a meadow of grass and trees crisscrossed by abandoned streets, with only the remnants of driveways indicating where hundreds of homes once stood.

This empty space still has a dozen or more homes, where people who declined one or more previous city buyouts watched the neighborhood disappear around them. But most of them are empty now – the Halloween flood was the final straw.

If and when the city raises the money to buy out the rest of the homes in Onion Creek’s flood plain, the vast majority of residents here likely won’t have the option of refusing the offer and staying in their homes long term.

Most residents don’t have the financial means to raise their homes above the flood plain to comply with FEMA rules, and, even if they did, they would still be in violation of another federal rule that requires “safe access” during floods – the road to a home must be passable during a flood so emergency responders can get to a house and residents can get out.

Shunk said only a handful of streets in the flood plain around Onion Creek were still passable during the Halloween flood.

So if homeowners turned down a future buyout offer, the city could then decide to enforce the flood plain rules it’s currently not enforcing. Shunk said the City Council could use its eminent domain powers to condemn the homes if people refused to leave.

It’s unclear whether the city would take that step, just as it’s unclear whether some homeowners would decide to stay in a neighborhood that’s flooded three times since 1998.

“It’s a decision process for the city as well as the homeowner,” Shunk said.

Whatever happens next, many residents say the neighborhood they knew is gone.

The post-flood quiet bothers Stacy Ramirez, 25, who lives with her husband, father and brother on Katydid Lane. They lived with a cousin for three months (except her father, who refused to leave the house) until they could fix the house using the insurance money.

They returned to a changed neighborhood. Ramirez said she misses talking to her neighbors in the front yard and hearing children playing outside after school.

“After the flood, everyone left,” Ramirez said. “For us, the ones who are still here, it’s just emotional.”

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