Life In Tents And RVs Is The ‘New Normal’ For Residents In Southeast Texas Towns Pummeled By Harvey
Of the 3,500 structures in Vidor, Texas – a town outside of Beaumont – more than 2,000 were flooded in some way by Harvey. The First United Methodist Church in Vidor served as a shelter for around 200 flooded out residents in the town of about 11,000 people. That includes the parsonage where Pastor John Mooney and his family live. Many of his church members' homes were also hit.
"The majority of them were actually rescued by their neighbor, by their fellow Vidorian folks with boats, so a lot of these folks, their homes were ruined, they were flooded, they were damaged,” Mooney says. “So a lot of them don't have anywhere to go."
Almost three months after Harvey, Mooney’s home is still uninhabitable. He, along with a handful of volunteers and some of his congregation, have been working on the house day by day, week by week.
“Honestly, I know in this neighborhood this house is a lot further along than your most houses,” Mooney says. “But there’s a lot of houses sitting around in shells more or less, because they don’t have the funds or the resources. There’s a lot to even get started.”
Mooney, his wife Sharon, their two young sons and their two dogs have been staying in a donated, 220 square foot camper parked next to their church.
The Mooneys make use of the church’s large fellowship hall for their rambunctious boys, two-year-old Austin and three-year-old Tony. At the end of the day, they even use the sinks in the fellowship hall’s kitchen for the boys’ bath time.
They’re trying to make the best of it, but Sharon Mooney says their sons – especially Tony – are starting to get pretty homesick.
“It’s gotten worse, you know. He’s been like, ‘I wanna go to my home.’ Sometimes when I pick him up from school, he’ll uh, I’ll say ‘Hey guys we’re going home’ and he would get so excited. And he’s like ‘My home, my home’s fixed?’ And I would just have to catch myself,” she says. “‘Oh no, baby, home’s not fixed yet. We’ll get it fixed. We’ll get it fixed.’”
Just a couple miles up I-10, in neighboring Rose City, Luanne Clymire has been living in a tent under her carport for the past two months. She’s not sure when her home will be fixed, so she’s prepared to stay in her tent through winter.
“Well we have a heater and let’s see, two, four, six, eight blankets,” Clymire says. “So it ain’t too bad. It ain’t too bad. You just dress warmly. Sleep in long clothes.”
Most of the homes in Rose City – which isn’t a city, but a very small town in between Beaumont and Vidor – are unlivable after Harvey. Trash and debris from gutted homes litter the roadsides.
With a population of just a little over 500, Rose City’s poverty rate is 9 percent. In Vidor, it’s 18 percent. A lot of people living in this area were already having a hard time before the storm hit. Local officials worry many people displaced by Harvey won’t come back.
Clymire plans on staying in Rose City and rebuilding, but she’s finding it hard to afford the repairs. Like many of the people we talked to, she doesn’t live in a floodplain and wasn’t required to have flood insurance. She says she did get about $20,000 from FEMA, but that just scratched the surface for the kind of work that needs to be done on her home, which received more than three feet of water. Most of the gutting and repairs have so far have been done by volunteer groups and her handyman.
“I guess it still hasn’t really hit me,” Clymire says. “You know about everything that’s been lost. It’s going to take a while to get this back together. A long, long while.”
About a block down from Clymire’s house, retired couple Patricia and Linton Cowart are determined to salvage their home of almost 60 years.
“Well, it’s been pretty taxing on me and my wife,” Linton Cowart says. “But you know, if you’re a Godly person, he will not put any more on you than you can take care of. There are times when I had forgotten that and I felt like if I had one more thing on me, I believe I’d die. But it’s true. A person can only do so much at a time, so if we keep working at it. Eventually, we’ll get it done.”
Linton says he and his wife have gone through just about every hurricane that’s hit Southeast Texas in the past 50 years, and their home had only suffered minor damages. Harvey was different. After dams were released on the Neches River, 11 inches of water came into their home. They were picked up by boat and they evacuated Rose City, but weren’t able to get back into town for several days after the flood.
“All of our stuff really got ruined,” he says. “Never in my wildest dreams would I say this could happen to us. But it did.”
The couple got $13,000 from FEMA, but, again they said it was just enough to get started. And, again, with no flood insurance, they’re also finding it hard to pay for the growing list of repairs needed for their home. Linton says right now, they’re also waiting to be approved for a loan through the Small Business Administration.
The Cowarts tried to live with their son in Tennessee but wanted to come back home to Texas.
“People are friendly everywhere you go. We just didn’t have the friends, though, like we have here,” he says. “So we were homesick. So I said, let’s go back and here we are.”
Back at the Methodist church in Vidor, the Mooney family is getting ready to host an early Thanksgiving dinner for their congregation and the community. They’re calling it “Friendsgiving.”
“I think a lot people are just going to be with their friends, or where they happen to be living,” Sharon Mooney says. “It’s kinda sad. But we’re hoping to at least help out with some people, getting them back in their house by Christmas.”
Patricia and Linton Cowart are at the dinner, sitting with friends they haven’t seen since they returned from Tennessee. Now that they’re back, the Cowarts are staying with a local couple. Their son is going to loan them his RV to live in for December and they imagine that’s where they’ll be spending their Christmas.
“If I’d have been much younger than I am, but I don’t handle things as well as I used to,” Linton Cowart says. “I see this ahead of me, and it’s just, it’s hard to, I’m not as strong, mentally or physically. But, we’re going to try. That’s all we can do.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Mooney’s working to get his family back into the parsonage by Thanksgiving.
If it’s not ready by then, Mooney’s hopeful that eventually – with a little help from friends near and far – they’ll get it done soon.