It's been three months since the Halloween flood waters tore through neighborhoods in southeast Austin, killing six people – including a mother and child and a minister – and scores of animals. But many residents who live along Onion Creek are still stuck in idle. Trying to figure out how and where to start putting one's life back together can be a paralyzing thing.
Tearing out the soaked drywall and insulation from the walls of their modest houses was the easy part. Now what?
The FEMA money that residents thought would help them rebuild their homes actually went to government agencies in Travis, Hays, and Caldwell counties to repair roads and bridges damaged in the flood. But last week, after pleas from Onion Creek residents, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Gov. Rick Perry sent letters appealing FEMA's rejection of individual financial assistance for flood victims. It turns out that 850 homes have to be damaged before federal dollars are turned loose for individual households. Even including the number of homes damaged in Hays and Caldwell counties, the total still fell below that threshold.
Signs point optimistically to a successful appeal. For now, though, residents are hanging on by their fingernails.
They're tired of calling 311 with questions that the polite people on the other end of the line can't answer. Why is my electric bill $1,000 when I'm not even living in my home? When are the horse carcasses going to be picked up? What's the plan for preventing another flood? What's the plan for preventing another disastrous response to a flood?
Two weeks ago, after media outlets reported on the decayed horses along the greenbelt and in the creek, city crews finally arrived to retrieve the dead animals. It had taken the city 11 weeks to determine which department was responsible for removing the enormous carcasses, which, understandably, posed logistical challenges.
It goes without saying that poor areas of town – any town – are usually the hardest hit by natural disasters. Most residents who live in this pocket of the city are working-class people without the means or the wherewithal to demand action from a city ill-equipped – as officials have since admitted – to handle a natural disaster or the lingering afteraffects.
"It's just taking too long and we – all of us here – need help," said Rosa Villegas, standing on the front porch of her home on Onion Creek Drive, off of Pleasant Valley. On this Sunday, the neighborhood was bustling with activity as residents busily repaired their homes, pounding hammers and blasting Tejano music that seemed to make the work go easier. Sunday is also food-distribution day, and Villegas, who is vice president of the newly organized Onion Creek Park Neighborhood Alliance, and her husband Cris Rubs had just wrapped up their door-to-door deliveries of food donated from Trader Joe's and other places.
Around the corner, Villegas and I met up with neighbors Lydia Huerta and Ruth Kaplan. Boxes of food and donated clothing were set up on a table on the sidewalk in front of Huerta's house. She and her young family have taken up residence in a trailer in the driveway and indeed, temporary housing trailers and storage units are a common theme in this neighborhood.
The three women recounted the horrors of the flood – Huerta and her family waited for help on a neighbor's roof – and expressed dismay over the city's response. Yet their concern is mostly centered on those residents who have lost their vehicles and can't get to work, and those with health problems now because of mold or perhaps other hazardous debris. They know of three neighbors who have lost their jobs since the flood, and many others are one step away from homelessness because they're behind on their mortgages or rent.
Fed up with the lack of coordinated information coming from the city, neighbors united together and revived the Neighborhood Alliance – an organization that Kaplan formed a few years ago simply by filling out a form. She started the group because she was having trouble getting answers from City Hall about the city's long-range home buyout program in this flood-prone area of the city. "An activist friend of mine told me that to have clout with the city, you have to have a neighborhood organization," she said. About a month after the flood, she turned the effort over to her neighbors while she began the process of moving out of her home – thanks to a successful buyout by the city.
"The only real way that the neighborhood can get help and recover is by banding together and by getting help from people who are experienced in these matters," said Kaplan, now a seasoned survivor after moving here from Louisiana post-Katrina. She's most concerned about the flood's long-term emotional impact on families. She says she can usually tell which of her neighbors haven't fully processed the disaster – they're putting grief on hold while they try to rebuild. "Most of the people in the neighborhood have never had a major loss like this, and I worry about them," she said, adding with a slight laugh, "I regularly go through all the stages of grief in one day."
For info, see onioncreekpark.com.
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