Rubbing her eyes, Rebecca Bagby tries to refocus on the point she was making.
She’s head-to-toe in the familiar neon pink of South Texas beachwear, but the leaning palm tree on her T-shirt sits alongside Rockport Strong in white text.
Nearly a year after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 25, 2017, in Rockport, Bagby is sitting among fellow REALTORS® in the local association office, recalling the aftermath of the storm.
“It’s hurricane brain,” Bagby says, abandoning her thought.
Supporting Future Disaster Relief Efforts
Through the REALTORS® Relief Foundation, the National Association of REALTORS® and members nationwide contributed to the rebuilding efforts of those affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017.
As the Carolinas cope with the impact of Hurricane Florence, donations can be made to the REALTORS® Relief Foundation at nar.realtor/rrf.
Rockport and its residents were left reeling when Harvey’s 145-mile-per-hour winds sheared buildings from foundations and uprooted 100-year-old trees.
“All the familiarity was gone,” says Gina Kirkland, an agent with Luce Properties in Rockport.
“We had no street signs, no landmarks,” says Bagby, an agent with Key Allegro Real Estate Company in Rockport. “I went out on a showing and got lost.”
Hurricane Harvey was the strongest storm to hit the Texas Coast since Celia in 1970, with hours of extreme winds and storm surges as high as 12 feet above ground level. It was the largest rainfall event in U.S. history, delivering a year’s worth of rain in a handful of days in some places. Historic wind damage and catastrophic flooding touched so many Texans that nearly 60% of residents in the 24-county affected area reported property damage or loss of income, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation/Episcopal Health Foundation survey.
A year later, 70% of affected residents say their lives are largely or almost back to normal, according to a recent survey from the same foundations. But like the storm itself, the lasting effects are localized, with each community defining for itself what resiliency looks like.
The Coastal Bend: Rockport, Port Aransas, and Corpus Christi
The day after landfall in Rockport, Dayne and Parkie Luce, of Luce Properties, visited what remained of their office in the bayside neighborhood of Key Allegro. Harvey had flattened the structure, blowing out walls and chewing wood to splinters. The rest of the neighborhood—beachy homes sitting on waterfront created by a web of canals—fared little better.
The Luces, along with their staff and agents, began the cleanup process. “All these people came and rolled up their sleeves and helped us extract documents,” says Dayne Luce.
“Rockport has always been a community pulling together,” says Parkie Luce, whose family rode out Hurricane Celia in 1970—a storm she says was the closest to rivaling Harvey here.
The new Luce Properties building was constructed in the same footprint and painted the same signature bright blue as before. The difference is the strength of the new construction, up to the latest codes and security against the next storm.
The Luce Properties building in the Key Allegro neighborhood of Rockport was rebuilt after being flattened by Hurricane Harvey.
“The new building codes proved themselves very worthy,” says Keith McMullin, broker with Port Aransas Realty. Older homes in Port Aransas were heavily damaged by Harvey, according to McMullin, but newer homes made it through with fewer issues. In fact, McMullin sees the contrast as a potential boon: How well new construction weathered a storm like Harvey could put buyers at ease who before shied away from the risks of owning on the Gulf Coast.
Planned and started in the 1960s, Rockport’s Key Allegro had a high proportion of aging construction. Its earlier generations of buyers are now in their 70s and 80s, and the scale of the damage meant not all of them could rebuild.
“Their grown kids came to get mom and pop out of there, which created listings,” Luce says. “And lots sell quickly.”
Protracted claims processes with the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) over payouts left some homeowners in limbo.
Luce stops to compose himself while describing the plight of a longtime Rockport resident in his 90s who raised a family there, was a local judge, and wants to move back but can’t fix his totaled home with TWIA’s offer.
Adding to frustrations, Harvey circling back to Houston and Hurricane Irma making landfall in Florida two weeks later drew field adjusters for insurance companies away from the Coastal Bend, stalling progress on claims or miring them in missing paperwork.
In these popular vacation communities, however, the recovery isn’t the same for everyone. “People are buying for-now homes while waiting for TWIA to come through for their main homes,” Luce says.
“Single-family homes and residential lots have gone up in price,” McMullin says.
A chair faces the bay on the deck of a Key Allegro home in the process of being rebuilt.
But condo developments that were damaged have been slower to rebuild, which McMullin attributes to more layers of insurance issues to sort through in addition to TWIA. Kirkland says there’s so much pent up demand for condos that she has a waitlist of people looking to rent them.
Rising prices, a shortage of condos, and older homes being more susceptible to storm damage has contributed to an ongoing workforce housing shortage.
“We’ve always had a challenge with workforce housing,” McMullin says of Port Aransas. “Land is expensive, property taxes are expensive, insurance is expensive. It’s more expensive to build here.
“Harvey made a bad problem exponentially worse,” McMullin says.
Schools, churches, and other community institutions also miss the families forced to move because of housing shortages.
In Rockport, Dayne Luce has noticed the impact on commercial activity. “All the entry-level employees are gone,” he says.
“Maybe two-thirds of businesses are back open,” Luce says. “Some won’t open. Others are downsized or have abbreviated hours.”
Workers and the commercial sector were also affected in Corpus Christi, which sustained less property damage but lost power for days. It was the first time property manager and commercial appraiser Bryan Johnson saw a natural disaster cause widespread late payments. “There was a large segment of people who couldn’t go back to work if they wanted to,” he says, describing the businesses that couldn’t open without power.
Johnson, who’s the chairman of the Corpus Christi Association of REALTORS®, estimates Corpus Christi is nearly back to its pre-Harvey state, but the smaller Coastal Bend communities that suffered the brunt of the damage still have years of recovery ahead.
Tray Bates, 2019 Texas REALTORS® Chairman and commercial broker in Corpus Christi, says he’s still working with some clients restoring property, but the damage isn’t comparable to what communities like Port Aransas, Ingleside, and Rockport have gone through.
“Emotions are still raw for those who have been affected by this disaster,” Bates says. “We recently visited with REALTORS® in some of these affected communities, and we recognize the need to be better prepared in order to serve members during times of disaster.”
Houston kept the spotlight, but the rural communities without the same voice—that’s where a lot of the damage is that people don’t know about. Bryan Johnson
“What comes back is built better than it was before,” McMullin says of Port Aransas’s progress. It felt like there was a fog hovering over the town for six months, he says. But investors recognize the promise of the area, with a rush of commercial activity and capital flowing now.
The construction across the highway from McMullin’s office is an example of the changes underway in Port Aransas before Harvey hit. Luxury, master-planned communities are rising along the Mustang Island beach below Port Aransas: Palmilla Beach, Cinnamon Shore, Sunflower Beach, and their successive phases.
“Ten years ago, we didn’t have places nice enough for some people,” McMullin says. “That’s changed. But the charm of Port A will stay the same.”
Houston: Cinco Ranch and Meyerland
It didn’t matter if the home got 2 inches of water or 2 feet, it had to be mucked—stripped of drywall, carpets, cabinets, and anything else soaked through by Harvey flood waters.
Homeowners got help mucking from anyone searching to be useful after days feeling trapped and powerless, says Jennifer Wauhob, an agent with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Gary Greene in Katy. “It was kind of amazing to watch.”
The first flooded and mucked homes came onto the market a month or two later, Wauhob says, and investors were ready to absorb the properties and quickly start renovations. For owners who opted to rebuild, it could be a longer process. “I have friends who flooded and just finished their kitchen in the last 60 days,” Wauhob says.
Wauhob does a good portion of her business in Cinco Ranch, a master-planned community 25 miles west of downtown Houston. The neighborhood lies in the flood pool behind Barker Reservoir—a fact that was virtually unknown before the Army Corps of Engineers chose to flood the area to save homes elsewhere during Harvey.
Association Reviews Harvey Efforts
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the Texas REALTORS® distributed more than $3 million dollars through the Texas REALTORS® Relief Fund to members and consumers.
Since then, the association has reviewed its disaster response plan to improve upon processes for accepting and reviewing applications and better serve as a central resource in communication and mobilization efforts. The association has also moved to create separate disaster relief funds for members and consumers.
While TREC’s Seller’s Disclosure Notice includes questions about whether a home is in a floodplain or has previously flooded, flood pools are not mentioned.
In addition to explaining the liability issues related to disclosure, Wauhob encourages sellers to provide as much documentation as possible related to testing, remediation, or any other work done to the property.
Many listings behind Barker Reservoir have language related to Harvey in the descriptions—never flooded, only flooded in Harvey, immediately remediated, and so forth—but not all sellers want to talk about it.
“We’re required to be truthful in our advertising,” Wauhob says. “We also represent the seller’s best interest, and as listing agents, can only state what they authorize,” If it’s not addressed, whether the home flooded is often the first question from potential buyers. And buyers surprised by a history of flooding when reviewing the seller’s disclosure might decide to walk away.
For Cinco Ranch, where homes are being built back just as they were and few markers of flooding remain, the memory of Harvey will likely fade quicker than in Meyerland, where owners are raising their homes to escape flood waters, either by choice or through force of regulation.
Much of Meyerland along southwest Houston’s Brays Bayou lies in the 100-year floodplain, which means the area has a 1% chance of being inundated by a flood in any given year. Meyerland has flooded multiple times in recent years: the Memorial Day and Halloween floods in 2015, the Tax Day flood in 2016, and Hurricane Harvey.
“After Memorial Day, we put our house back together at grade because that was the worst storm ever and our house had never flooded before,” says Ed Wolff, president of Beth Wolff, REALTORS®. “After Harvey, we elevated our house 6 feet in the air because it had been proven it could happen more than once.”
A Meyerland home was raised to escape flooding
Wolff’s Meyerland home took on 18 inches of water in the Memorial Day flood and 3 feet during Harvey, and while he could have built back at ground level like he did in 2015, he applied for the city’s substantial damage determination to access Small Business Administration (SBA) financing for the work to lift his 1950s home clear of the threat of future flooding.
“My choice was to elevate because of the impact of flooding to my family,” Wolff says.
Homes in the 100-year floodplain where the cost to repair them would equal or exceed 50% of the pre-Harvey value may be given a substantial damage determination by the city. Whereas existing homes in the 100-year floodplain are exempt from elevation requirements, substantially damaged homes must be built back to meet city floodplain regulations, including elevation. As of September 1, that requirement is 2 feet above the floodplain for new construction and existing homes that have been expanded by more than a third. The requirement was also extended to the 500-year floodplain, which has a 0.2% chance of flooding in any given year.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in projects are planned for Brays Bayou in Houston.
The new floodplain regulations may be more feasible for his neighbors in Meyerland, Wolff says, but there are areas where they’ll represent a significant challenge for owners.
People who owe more than what they’ll get from insurance and their property value combined, those who live in areas where property values are such that flood insurance payouts can’t get them back to a habitable home, and owners whose flood insurance premiums are set to skyrocket will all feel the pressure of new floodplain regulations acutely.
In Meyerland, the sound of air compressors marks the progress of construction. New builds, elevated existing homes, and homes at grade that may have never flooded could all line the same street.
“I do think that there’s going to be a nice mixture of homes,” Wolff says, which would offer a wide variety of price points and options.
Older homes without a history of flooding competing against new, elevated construction will further complicate how home values are established after Harvey, according to Wolff.
Current work on Brays Bayou and Houston’s passage of a $2.5 billion bond for flood projects should reduce the likelihood Meyerland floods again.
“It’s never going to solve a Harvey,” Wolff says. “There’s no way to build out of a Harvey.”
Golden Triangle: Vidor and Lumberton
Turning off Main St. and into her daughter’s north Vidor neighborhood, Jeanette Winfrey repeats herself: This neighborhood wasn’t supposed to flood. South Vidor, where she lives, sure. But not here.
Wexford Park is still visibly recovering from Harvey and the release of water from Dam B on the Neches River by the Army Corps of Engineers. Debris lingers on the edges of some streets. FEMA trailers block the yards of those who accepted them, while RVs and campers line the driveways of those who preferred to make their own arrangements.
Winfrey stops in front of the home her husband, a local builder, completed for their daughter just four years ago and points out the slope up from the street grade to the home’s foundation. Although the lot isn’t in a high-risk zone and the neighborhood wasn’t supposed to flood, they still brought in truckloads of dirt to raise the grade.
But Harvey didn’t respect best-laid plans, and Winfrey’s daughter, son who also lives in the neighborhood, and their families had to evacuate. Their homes spent more than a week with feet of water inside.
Nearly a year later, construction equipment is visible through the uncovered floor-level windows, but Winfrey’s daughter may move back into her home soon.
Ben Rodriguez is headed back toward Lumberton after giving a tour of what’s happened since Harvey when a burst of heavy August rain overwhelms the truck’s wipers. Highway 96 washes from view and traffic contracts in caution.
“It rained like this for three days straight,” says Rodriguez, broker/owner of Triangle Real Estate. Given a moment, he corrects himself: “It was pretty much five days of rain.”
Lumberton effectively became an island after miles of floodwater closed the highways north and south of the town.
Rodriguez got his real estate license in 2005, the year Hurricane Rita hit. The weeks and months after were his first experience with the cycle of investors, renovations, and resales in the wake of natural disasters. Then Humberto hit in 2007 and Ike in 2008.
Harvey was 10 times stronger than those, he says. “Everything fell into place to make it a natural disaster no one is going to forget,” Rodriguez says.
A Hardin County home near Pine Island Bayou south of Lumberton had its own levy.
Dealing with clients after a disaster is not normal real estate, Winfrey says.
“You can’t tell someone their house is worth $20,000 when they’ve worked their entire life to build it. You’re dealing with more emotion than money,” she says.
Many hit by flooding around Lumberton weren’t in a position to sell and move, Rodriguez says. “We already had a shortage of homes under $200,000.” But available homes aren’t the only factor. The first year of flood insurance premiums must be paid upfront—a lump sum that can kill deals for homes with a history of flooding or at the lower end of the market. “You can’t make a $4,500 payment work for a $150,000 home,” Rodriguez says.
“If it was monthly, that could help, but people either won’t buy homes with an upfront flood insurance cost like that or they forgo the insurance if it’s not required,” he says.
Older Lumberton neighborhoods with a history of flooding have still attracted attention from investors, which Rodriguez attributes to the strength of the market before Harvey. “Homes are being renovated and rejuvenated that wouldn’t be otherwise,” he says.
While it might have taken two to three months to renovate a house before Harvey, Rodriguez says, now it could take between four to six months, at least.
“There were always contractors available before when disaster struck,” he says. “Harvey changed that.”
The Coastal Bend, Houston, Vidor, and smaller communities lining the Gulf all needed skilled labor at once.
There’s new construction, too. “There are still people putting money in the ground here,” Rodriguez says. Some of what’s being built or coming back is raised, but with dirt and grading.
When conversation turns toward the future and how to prepare for the next storm, Rodriguez says, people tend to focus on things they’d do differently once it’s bearing down—I’m going to leave sooner. I’m going to grab this—rather than how to prepare for the next Harvey.
Harvey was the worst we’ve ever seen. I don’t really know how you plan for it. Ben Rodriguez
After storms this June brought flooding back to Vidor, Winfrey questions whether Harvey altered the region’s drainage pattern. So much sand was pushed around by the storm, Rodriguez says, that it looked like an excavator came through.
“Areas have flooded since Harvey that never did before,” he says.
Rodriguez and Winfrey are looking ahead to another effect of Harvey: local budget shortfalls. Property damage from flooding slashed the value of the tax base.
“That’s what’s really going to determine how the recovery is going to go,” Rodriguez says.
Winfrey points to the renovated homes, families moving back, and new businesses as signs that things are headed in the right direction. A storm kicks up construction and investment, she says.
“Vidor as a whole will come back better,” Winfrey says.