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


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.”

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