In Houston’s Fifth Ward, wrong side of the tracks meant devastation


Highlights

Neighborhoods rich and poor across the city were slammed, flooded out by Harvey’s record rainfalls

Fears that poor will be hit hardest as Houston slowly gets back on its feet

The rain started slow in the Fifth Ward on the night of Aug. 26. It began with a sprinkle before 8, built to a steady rain before 9 and then Harvey exploded. More than 7 inches of rain fell between 9 p.m. and midnight.

By 3 a.m., Hunting Bayou was 2½ feet out of its banks. Just seven blocks or so away, Sharon Lee woke up, put her feet on the floor and discovered an ocean of water was already in her apartment.

“We had to get out,” said the 53-year-old, who was taking care of her five grandchildren that night. “I was scared to death.”

RELATED: Austin medical centers treating evacuated patients

They stepped out the door and into a water-swept hellscape. The strong current took her walker as they made their way to the street, she said.

“The water came swooping in and I was clinging on for dear life,” Lee recounted, her voice heavy with emotion. “Oh, Lord.”

She said two family members took her hands and helped her make it to dry ground at the end of the street.

Just down the road, Craig Wanza’s home made it through the storm largely untouched. The water made it up past his truck and into his yard, but spared his house. The damage, he said, was limited to some roof repairs and a couple of sections of sheet rock.

“All things considered, for the suffering that a lot of people are experiencing,” Wanza said, “I feel blessed, lucky, fortunate, whatever you choose.”

RELATED: Tallying people who died in Hurricane Harvey poses challenge

Wanza and Lee live just a mile apart along Lockwood Drive, the same north-south thoroughfare in this impoverished yet iconic neighborhood, where the difference between losing nothing and everything depended on what side of the Union Pacific tracks you lived on.

“The overpass is the cutoff of the flood plain,” Wanza said. “There’s a skating rink, once you top the rail yard and all, that’s where the flood plain technically starts — and it backs up.”

All it took to see the difference was turning off of Lockwood and onto the side streets, lined with apartments, shotgun houses and modest homes.

On the north side, people along Crane Street where Lee lived carried their furniture and their belongings — their lives — outside and then threw them in dumpsters.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, never, never,” said another man, who lives in the same low-slung collection of 1960s apartments that Lee calls home. He refused to give his name, but was eager to talk. “I’ve seen high water, up to the doors, to the car to the truck, but to my roof? In the Fifth Ward? Come on.”

RELATED: Harvey has left ‘post-apocalyptic’ flood zone, South Hays firefighter says

On the south side, residents on Wanza’s largely spared Chew Street cleaned up and picked up. The sun was out and Harvey was gone.

It’s difficult to quantify the devastation the storm wrought across the Houston area. It dropped so much rain, an estimated 30 percent of Harris County’s roughly 1,800 square miles flooded and raised the sea level in Houston’s Ship Channel an astonishing 12 feet, according to the county’s Flood Control District.

Harvey’s wrath hit neighborhoods rich and poor across Houston. On the other end of the city, in West Houston, former Houston Mayor Bill White’s upscale Memorial City house and neighborhood also were badly flooded.

But the pain of recovery will be most acute in places like the Fifth Ward, which has long been one of Houston’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods.

RELATED: Houston police Chief Acevedo cited Austin experience when facing Harvey

For decades, the Fifth and the Third Ward anchored the city’s African-American community. The Third was home to historically black Texas Southern University, the city’s major black newspaper and the community’s elite, intellectuals and musicians. The Fifth was “the brawn to Third Ward’s brains,” Texas Monthly wrote in a 1976 profile of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who grew up there.

In a subsequent 1979 story headlined “Only the Strong Survive,” the magazine also described the ward was “the heart of the ghetto,” struggling with crime, drugs and joblessness.

Deprived and exploited by segregation, the ward was carved up by freeways in the 1960s and abandoned by many who could afford the suburbs. Crushing poverty remained: On the north side of the Union Pacific tracks, the average household lives on just $22,000 a year; south of the tracks, the figure is just marginally better, $27,000.

Here, many residents live check-to-check with little savings or insurance. Lee is disabled and needs a walker to get around. Her income is her social security disability check — $733 a month, which she fears will be inadequate as they work to start over.

“The struggle is real,” Lee said. “We need help, we need help.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

What a difference a year makes for 2016 Season for Caring recipients
What a difference a year makes for 2016 Season for Caring recipients

Liliana De La Paz Carrillo says nowadays she feels much more at ease. Last year, the mother of two young sons worried about being able to provide a stable place to live for them. De La Paz Carrillo and her husband, Juan Martínez Domínguez, purchased a mobile home in 2007 and made payments for years before they found out they didn&rsquo...
State trooper who took photo with Snoop Dogg sues DPS officials again
State trooper who took photo with Snoop Dogg sues DPS officials again

A state trooper is suing 18 different Department of Public Safety officials a second time, alleging that they retaliated against him after he sued them the first time and that documents about him were tampered with. Trooper Billy Spears was reprimanded in the spring of 2015 for taking a photo with rapper Snoop Dogg. Spears was...
Police detain two after East Austin burglary reported 
Police detain two after East Austin burglary reported 

Officers have detained two people after a burglary was reported in East Austin, police said. The incident was reported in the 4700 block of Ribbecke Avenue. Officers formed a perimeter around the area before ultimately detaining two people, police said. The investigation is still ongoing, police said.
Man accused of abandoning 6-year-old son in Georgetown hotel room
Man accused of abandoning 6-year-old son in Georgetown hotel room

A man is accused of leaving his 6-year-old son alone in a Georgetown hotel room and not returning, an arrest affidavit said. Gregory Flores, 45, of Georgetown was charged with abandoning or endangering a child, a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in jail. An employee of the Days Inn at 333 North Interstate 35 in Georgetown told police...
H-E-B’s annual Feast of Sharing serves food, fun for free
H-E-B’s annual Feast of Sharing serves food, fun for free

People — some to serve, some to be served — poured into the Palmer Events Center on Tuesday afternoon for H-E-B’s annual Feast of Sharing. Diners were greeted by smiling volunteers and the smells of a Thanksgiving meal, as well as H-E-B’s mascot, H‑E‑Buddy, a giant grocery bag that gave high-fives and hugs to families...
More Stories