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'We've Never Seen Anything Like This Before': La Grange Rebuilds After Harvey

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
Residents of La Grange are continuing cleanup efforts after Tropical Storm Harvey After brought record flooding along the Colorado River.

An 8-foot-tall shelf. That’s what it would have taken to keep Dolores Martinez's belongings dry in La Grange.

Martinez, 53, and her family had nearly 8 feet of water in their home when the nearby Colorado River crested at nearly 30 feet above its banks Monday. Then-Tropical Storm Harvey brought a level of flooding some who have lived their whole lives here say they’ve never seen before.

“We said, ‘Oh, let’s leave things up on the table and put things on the bed. Maybe we’ll come back to a foot of water or two,’” said Martinez, remembering how her husband and daughter prepared to leave the house Saturday afternoon after someone knocked on the door telling them to evacuate. “There’s no reason for the 8 feet of water that the house got inside.”

Scenes From Hurricane Harvey

The items left on the bed were untouched; the bed, it turns out, floated.

Never Before

“We’ve never had anything like this before,” said La Grange Mayor Janet Moerbe, who has lived in the town east of Austin for 41 years.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Johnathon Brooks helps gut the home of Keleh Barnett in La Grange.

Last Monday, the southeastern portion of La Grange, including an estimated 130 homes and 15 businesses, was underwater. While much of the focus in the aftermath of Harvey has been on Houston or coastal towns like Port Aransas and Rockport, La Grange also experienced unprecedented and devastating flooding.

Nineteen-year-old Keleh Barnett and her mother, Shirley Behrens, went to the local Walmart last Monday to get dog food and clothes. Barnett had evacuated her home the day before, along with her four dogs and two cats. She heard from friends that her home was submerged.

“I got everything I could get out,” said Barnett, who bought the home in February. “The house was a complete remodel. ... It was a 1980s old house and everything had to be ripped out.”

Tearing Down

On Thursday, most of Barnett’s home had to be ripped out again.

“Right now, we’re just going to pull everything out: toilets and bathtubs, pull the sink out, kitchen cabinets,” said Ron Behrens, Barnett’s stepfather. He and a family friend piled wallboards onto a muddy mound of belongings Thursday: a mattress, pillows, clothes and a string of twinkly cactus lights.

Pointing to a water line a foot above his head, Behrens estimated that the home took on 7-and-a-half feet of water.

“Gotta let it breathe,” said Behrens, who owns an auto shop in town. His home did not flood. “Gotta let it dry out inside the walls.”

A block from Barnett’s home, Jason Marburger was tearing down the Fayetteville Bank and Financial Center. Just nine months earlier, Marburger and colleagues from the Minarcik Construction Co. finished building the office.

“A lot of times we remodel a house, it might be 30 years later. This is just a year, nine months,” said Larry Vasek, who framed the structure.

He shook his head as he loaded more debris onto a wheelbarrow, dumping the building’s soaked insides into a blue front loading tractor idling outside.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Built just nine months ago, the Fayetteville Bank and Financial Center in La Grange sustained heavy damage during the Colorado River flooding.

Gregg Ferguson, who works at the bank, stood outside. A muddy toilet had been thrown on the lawn behind him.

“When we built this, they made us build 3 feet up because of the flood zone,” he said. “And I laughed at them. I said, ‘Y’all have got to be kidding me. No way in the world is it going to flood out here.’ The contractor said the same thing.”

The Fayetteville Bank and Financial Center took in nearly 4 feet of water.

“It took us two years from the ground [to start] this thing,” Ferguson said. “And it wiped out.”

'In 48 Hours, It’s Gone.'

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT

In her mud-caked living room, Martinez stared into a plastic bin of family photos. She pulled one out. In it, she’s dressed in a white gown for her quinceañera, several older relatives, including her mother and father, flanking her. The photo is nearly 40 years old and streaked with mud.

“As you can see, it’s not salvageable,” she said. “But if I can take a picture with my phone, at least I’ll have a memory.”

Martinez said her family does not have flood insurance. But her husband, who owns a local crane business, is a diligent saver. She said if the family has to rebuild, they are more fortunate than some.

“We’re going to try and see what the damage is,” Martinez said. “If possible, I would like to stay in my house. If it is not possible at all, we will probably rebuild, but maybe not in this area.”

Martinez said when her husband bought the house more than 25 years ago, it was much smaller. The family saved and over time they were able to add rooms onto the home.

“It’s a long time that it took us to get us where we’re at right now,” she said. She looked out an open window onto her back lawn where volunteers from a local high school were wiping down chairs and couches. Most of the furniture would likely have to be thrown out.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Marco Martinez, Dolores' husband, cleans up the family's home, which saw eight feet of floodwaters after Tropical Storm Harvey cause the Colorado River to surge to record highs.

“In 48 hours, it’s gone,” she said. “And it took us a lifetime to get us all these things.”

Martinez turned from her bin of family photos to another bin, this one holding porcelain angels her mother had bought her while traveling in Spain. She pointed to the angels. She looked perplexed.

“These were on our entertainment center in the living room,” she said. “And they didn’t even move.”

The angels, on which Martinez’s mother had written the names of her grandchildren, were untouched by the mud.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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