13 Investigates learns more Houston-area homes are repeatedly flooding

Friday, May 31, 2024
13 Investigates learns more Houston-area homes are repeatedly flooding
13 Investigates found Harris County is a hotspot when it comes to how many homes repeatedly experience flooding.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Stephen and Ellen Leventhal said their street looked like a river in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey dumped 1 trillion gallons of water across Harris County.

And when they walked into their home for the first time after evacuating, they said it looked unrecognizable.

"We had put things on our dining room table thinking, 'oh, okay, we'll go ahead and save these things,' but what it did is it knocked the table down in the middle," Ellen Leventhal said. "But the worst thing, it happened to be our anniversary and we had thought we put our wedding album up high and it was high-ish, but we lost it all. There wasn't one picture left. You couldn't even walk in the house. You had to crawl over things."

Harvey wasn't the first time the couple experienced flooding at their Meyerland-area home. Water also made its way inside during the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and the Memorial Day Flood of 2015.

"We had FEMA's number on speed dial," she said.

13 Investigates found the Leventhals aren't alone in seeking help from insurance or government aid programs after flooding.

There are about 45,000 homes across the U.S. that have flooded over and over again, according to federal data. About 5,260 of those homes are in Harris County.

Repeated flooding impacts people even if they don't live in a flood-prone area because many of those at-risk homes are rebuilt repeatedly with taxpayer-backed FEMA flood insurance, said Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The National Flood Insurance Program, which backs the vast majority of flood insurance policies in this country, ultimately is backed by the taxpayer. Those are your tax dollars at work rebuilding repetitively flooded homes," Weber said.

Harris County is especially a hot spot for Severe Repetitive Loss Properties, or SRLPs, according to the NRDC's analysis of FEMA data.

As Hurricane season starts on Saturday, just 23% of the 5,259 severe repetitive loss properties in Harris County have been mitigated, meaning less than a quarter of those at-risk homes have been altered to protect against future flooding.

"So many people in the Houston area and around the country are trapped in this cycle of repetitive flooding, rebuilding and then it happens again. And this is going to continue to happen unless we make changes to make mitigating that flood risk easier for people to access and less expensive," Weber said.

Weber said part of the problem is that homeowners need to build better after they flood, but that can mean paying for mitigation out-of-pocket.

"Just like any other form of insurance, what the (flood) insurance program is intended to do is bring you back to where you were before the damage happened," she said. "If you have a car with car insurance and a tree falls on your car, your car insurance is going to pay to put you back in a car that was very similar to the one you had before - fix your car up to where you were before. It's not intended to go beyond that and bring you to a situation that is less risky than you were in before and the same thing is true with flooding."

In a statement FEMA told 13 Investigates it "will distribute up to $800 million in Flood Mitigation Assistance grant funding to help reduce or eliminate the risk of repetitive flood damage to buildings and structures" during the current funding cycle.

In the 77096 zip code where the Leventhals live, there are about 360 homes that have experienced repeated flooding, according to the NRDC's analysis of FEMA data.

Despite how devastating Hurricane Harvey was, Stephen Leventhal said the couple had actually already lost most of their belongings in the Memorial Day Flood of 2015.

At that time, he said they decided not to rebuild because they didn't think they'd experience that type of flooding for a while and wanted to sell the home for land.

"One of the reasons we knew we could never live here without mitigating is because anytime that it was going to rain, you were going to be in a panic that you were going to get another flood," Stephen said.

But, after flooding three years in a row, the Leventhals decided to tear their entire home down and rebuilt a home with living space raised six feet above street level.

The couple said they had to pay for nearly all of the work to rebuild out of pocket, but it was worth it for the peace of mind they now have whenever it rains.

"There was no way we, maybe mostly I, was going to live in a house in Meyerland that wasn't raised," Ellen Leventhal said. "There are a lot of people who did not make that choice and they are fine. I knew I wouldn't be fine."

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Contact 13 Investigates

Have a tip? A problem to solve? Send a tip below. If you don't have a photo or document to include, just hit 'skip upload' and send the details. (On mobile? You can open our form by tapping here.)