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Anxious Houston storm victims come home, dig out
By Michael Mathes
Houston (AFP) Sept 2, 2017

Without insurance, Harvey's victims turn toward the state
Washington (AFP) Sept 3, 2017 - Hurricane Harvey's devastation will be among the costliest of any storm in US history but, with most not covered by insurance, victims are left hoping for government aid and community support.

With flooded houses, totaled cars, downed power grids and damaged infrastructure, rebuilding from Harvey, which struck southeast Texas and part of Louisiana, will require large-scale mobilization.

According to the White House, some 100,000 households have been affected by the disaster. Analysts have offered damage estimates varying from $30 billion to $100 billion.

Chuck Watson of the disaster modelling firm Enki Research told AFP on Friday there was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding estimates so soon after an event of this scale.

"Normally at this point we would wait about a year and then come back and see how well the models did," he said.

In a final research note published Thursday, Watson said his median estimate for economic and property damage was $78 billion, which would make Harvey second only to 2005's Hurricane Katrina in terms of cost. By Watson's calculation, that storm had a cost of $118 billion.

A German team of experts on natural disasters said Thursday that for Texas alone the damages should rise to $58 billion.

But in federally designated US flood zones, only 12 percent of home owners are covered by flood insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In the South, this figure rises marginally to 14 percent.

US homeowners insurance policies typically do not offer flood protection and, with current flood maps widely considered obsolete and inaccurate, Watson estimates that about two thirds of Harvey's damage occurred outside such zones.

- Celebrity donations -

Victims are thus at the mercy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which also manages the National Flood Insurance Program.

"FEMA has received more than 427,000 registrations for assistance," an agency spokesperson told AFP.

"More than 117,000 individuals and households have been approved for more than $76 million in assistance."

Policyholders have submitted 51,000 claims under NFIP in Texas, the spokesperson said, adding that claimants can be eligible for advance payments of $5,000 to $10,000 prior to an adjuster's inspection.

Media reports have highlighted however the immense $24 billion debt carried by NFIP, which pays out more in claims than it receives in premiums, casting doubts on the program's ability to cover damages.

White House officials said this week Trump would ask Congress for an initial $5.9 billion aid package with more to come in the following weeks.

Following Katrina, lawmakers approved $100 billion in reconstruction assistance. That storm left some 1,800 people dead.

Celebrities, including Beyonce, a Houston native, and the actress Sandra Bullock, as well as the Houston football player JJ Watt, have also announced donations to help Harvey's victims.

Texas technology billionaire Michael Dell and his wife Susan on Friday also announced personal donations of $18 million toward a Texas reconstruction fund. Likewise, the National Basketball Association has announced a $1 million donation.

President Donald Trump, who is due back in Texas on Saturday, has likewise pledged a $1 million donation.

Beyond the immediate damage, economists at Barclays said Friday that Harvey could shave between one percent and 1.5 percent off of US economic growth in the third quarter.

Maline Johnney knew it was going to be bad when she returned to her Houston home after Hurricane Harvey. But she was unprepared for the mess -- and the stench -- when she opened the door.

"It smelled like a pig pen," she told AFP Saturday, hours after she cracked open her front door, like thousands of fellow Texans, to face the very personal effects of a massive disaster.

Days after she evacuated when she saw a rescue boat float down her street during the most powerful storm she experienced during her 30 years of living in Houston, 55-year-old Johnney said her biggest worry was "coming home and not knowing the unknown."

Would her bedroom flood? Would the sweeping tree in her front yard crash through the roof? Would her car take on water?

The tree still stands, she learned as she pulled up outside her ranch-style house in the Gulf Meadows neighborhood south of downtown. But her home and cars were inundated with six inches (15 centimeters) of water.

Johnney, her husband Leo, and an army of volunteers and friends from their church carried out armloads of debris: ruined furniture, moldy drapes and rugs, insulation and wiring, waterlogged mattresses and paneling, and soiled drywall.

"There's still more to go," said Johnney, who wore a cap with "Katrina & Rita 2005," the two hurricanes that blasted neighboring Louisiana 12 years ago, stitched on the back.

Many victims in this sprawling Texas city were on a similar mission after spending days in evacuation limbo.

The scene was repeated on block after block in Gulf Meadows, which abuts a bayou that spilled its banks during Harvey. Mounds of debris outside affected homes expanded as residents, taking advantage of a steaming sun and disappearing flood waters, ripped up flooring, pulled drywall and hauled out ruined furniture and rugs.

Johnney said one saving grace for her was the tile she had installed in her house, which prevented a more disastrous flooring and carpet loss.

- Starting over -

The Kuhns, a few blocks away, were less fortunate; their home was inundated with more than a foot of water, ruining their furniture, beds and kitchen appliances.

The small house was unlivable; the back yard a field of drying garments, gadgets, nicknacks and supplies.

But Mandy Kuhns, who at 27 is pregnant with her first child, said they were simply "thankful that we have our lives."

The goal now, she added, was to "find a home or somewhere to go and just try to recover from this all. Basically, we'll start our lives all over again."

As she looked to early next year and the birth of her baby, Kuhns and husband Lewis said they were counting on federal or state aid to get them through the crisis.

Across from the Johnneys, a family of Hispanic immigrants was trying to stitch their lives back together after returning to a home where little was spared, despite the best efforts of owner Felipe Landin.

His daughter Laetitia, 38, broke into tears as she considered the efforts her father -- who moved from Mexico to Houston in the 1970s before she was born -- made to bring the family into the middle class.

"He's worked so hard to make this happen. He's provided for all of us," she said, noting his endless hours operating his drapery store.

"I need to do something. I need to figure out, because it's my turn to give back for everything that he's done for us."

Landin, taking a break from the cleanup to chat with visiting reporters and show them his smartphone video of the realtime inundation, rubbed his daughter's shoulder as their eyes met.

Laetitia said: 'My promise to you is, we're going to get through this, you're going to get back to where you need to be."

Toll in Texas mounts as Harvey menaces further east
Houston (AFP) Aug 31, 2017
Storm-battered Houston began limping towards recovery Thursday as Harvey's floodwaters started receding there, though the historic storm was still wreaking havoc further east. While clouds parted at last in America's fourth-largest city, rural areas of Texas were drenched as Harvey headed eastwards, with the city of Port Arthur especially hard hit. Authorities in Louisiana scrambled to s ... read more

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