1 year after Harvey, La Grange still in need of housing, volunteers


La Grange, TX (KXAN) — One year ago, La Grange and Fayette County residents were asked to evacuate their homes in anticipation of the flooding Colorado River during Hurricane Harvey.  

Other areas of Texas, namely Houston and the Coastal Bend, have been in the headlines over the past year for the hardship they endured during the storm and the effort it’s taken to rebuild following the damage. La Grange, with a population shy of 5,000 people, has received less coverage, but people who live there say the storm will continue to affect their community for years to come. 

Back in 2017, the city of La Grange told us that more than 300 people were initially left homeless by the storm and that more than 170 people in trailer parks and more than 70 people living in homes were completely displaced by the storm. Harvey also damaged dozens of businesses in the area. 

The Fayette County Disaster Recovery team tells KXAN there are still around 25 families displaced by the storm in temporary housing. Joy Cameron, president of the Fayette County Disaster Recovery Team said it is her hope to get everyone impacted by Harvey into housing within 18 months. She explained that the disaster recovery team has closed more than 30 cases in the past year and assisted with getting more than 50 people back into homes. 

The disaster recovery team is working on constructing the Hope Hill subdivision, which could house displaced families, but Cameron couldn’t say for certain when it would be open. 

The uncertainties have left some residents like Kellie Smith in limbo. Smith lived in the Colorado Landing mobile home park, which was flooded out during the storm. She immediately put her name on the list to receive FEMA housing after the storm, and in April she moved into a new FEMA-funded trailer. 

Soon after, she learned funding to keep the trailer there would dry up in February of 2019. 

Smith would like to live in the Hope Hill Subdivision, but is losing faith.

“I’d already lost one home and now I’m looking at losing another home,” she said, visibly dismayed. 

Smith looks around at her neighborhood — which she said used to be chock-full of mobile homes and is now dotted with more than 20 FEMA trailers — and said it’s still hard to believe something like the flood happened there. Piles of belongings tossed aside by the water and matted tree branches serve as reminders of the event Smith says “was like dreaming with my eyes open.”

She was evacuated at the time the water hit, but the flood plucked the wishing well in Smith’s yard all the way across a field, along with her entire porch.

“I couldn’t believe how far it went, but we were able to find it,” Smith said. She restored the well and it sits in front of her FEMA trailer. 

What does she wish for now? 

“My biggest wish is that it never happened,” she said. 

In addition to homes, businesses and other buildings are still in the reconstruction phase as well. The Second Chance Emporium, a nonprofit resale store which donates their proceeds back to other local charities, found its location a total loss after the flooding. 

Sunday, they were finally able to bless a new location where they will eventually rebuild another store. 

“We hope to see this as a rebirth in the midst of a time that’s been really difficult for our community,” said Father Eric Hungerford, the president of Second Chance Emporium. 

In the aftermath of the flood, Hungerford explained that the store and its employees switched from doing resale work to running disaster relief operations. 

He admits that a dwindling number of volunteers has impacted recovery efforts since the storm happened. 

“Items were just pouring in for weeks after the hurricane,” Hungerford explained. “But I think one of the things that have been challenging is that we haven’t had a whole lot of people come since then.”

Hungerford also noted that the post-flooding housing problems are made even more complicated by the fact that La Grange had a housing shortage even prior to the flood. 

 The patchwork of community members and organizations in the recovery effort have made progress over the last year, La Grange city manager Shawn Rayborn said.  He explained that the impacted mobile home parks have been cleaned up significantly. 

“The greatest hurdle is there is not enough time in a day,” Rayborn said, noting that a year later there is still a great deal of work to be done to bring in more long-term housing. 

This week, Rayborn will send out letters to citizens to see if they’d like to apply for Texas Department of Emergency Management buyout programs. This would allow residents who live in the floodplain to have their homes bought out so that they can afford new property on safer ground. 

Patrick Caballero, the Vice President of the Fayette County Habitat for Humanity Board, explained that his team would welcome any volunteers who’d like to help out — particularly on Saturday mornings. Habitat for Humanity is constructing their sixth, seventh and eighth homes for Harvey victims in La Grange currently. 

“This is a community that doesn’t want anyone to leave the community because of flooding, ” he said. “We want to remember this event, not as a flood event, but as an event where our community came together and helped one another out.”

As for Smith, she is still weighing whether she will be able to stay at the Colorado Landing in the long run. She worries about future flood risks there. 

She admits, she has no idea where she’ll live come March of 2019.

“That scares me but, it will work out, it always does,” Smith said looking out in the distance toward the Colorado River. 

If you’d like to help out, Fayette County Habitat for Humanity and the Fayette County Disaster Recovery Team are taking volunteers, especially those who know skills like electric work, carpentry and plumbing, or who’d be willing to learn those skills. These groups are all accepting donations, as is the Second Chance Emporium rebuilding effort. For the Second Chance Emporium, you can send donation checks to: Second Chance Emporium PO Box 189.

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