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Sea Change

Flood by Flood

As natural disasters worsen and extreme weather grows more frequent, it’s led to more people being displaced across the planet. Sometimes, we call those people climate migrants. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in the last year alone, around 3 million Americans were displaced by natural disasters. But for some climate migrants, displacement isn’t always so immediate or apparent, but it is often tangled up in bureaucracy and a broken system.

Today on Sea Change, we explore what it means to recover after disaster. First, we travel to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where we look at how long it truly takes to be made whole — if that ever happens. Three years after a deadly hurricane struck the city, people are still rebuilding their lives. Then, we go to Texas to hear from residents pushed to the margins six years after Hurricane Harvey, suffering through what has become chronic flooding.

Reported by Stephan Bisaha and Erin Douglas. Hosted by Stephan Bisaha and Halle Parker. Edited and produced by Carlyle Calhoun and Greta Díaz González Vazquez. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti. Sea Change is a production of WWNO and WRKF. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

TRANSCRIPT
*Note: Transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors (including name spellings). Please be aware that the official record for our episodes is the audio version.

INTRO

<<upbeat, fun music>>

HALLE: You’re listening to Sea Change. I’m Halle Parker. So here in Louisiana we’re kind of known as a food state. Jambalaya. Gumbo. Shrimp in a thousand different ways. But there’s a secret to Louisiana cooking.

BRAYLON: The best food here is in someone’s house. It is not in a restaurant. 

HALLE: No shade on our many wonderful restaurants, but Braylon Harris is right. He’s wearing a rose covered button down and a permanent smile – a smile you can hear when he talks about his city of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

BRAYLON: Best jambalaya is on the back porch of someone’s house. 

STEPHAN: Ever since I moved to the South, I’ve been waiting, waiting for that back porch jambalaya invite.

HALLE: Hey Stephan! Thanks for joining me today. Stephan Bisaha works for the Gulf States Newsroom, a family of public radio stations in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

STEPHAN: Happy to be on Sea Change, Halle.

HALLE: And I hear you brought something with you.

STEPHAN: Yes and unfortunately I didn’t bring jambalaya. But I did bring some reporting I recently did in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lake Charles is a city of about 80,000 people, not far from the Texas border and the Gulf of Mexico. I got this driving tour all over the city from Braylon Harris – who you heard just a second ago — he’s the executive director of Southwest Louisiana Responds. They coordinate aid between different churches across, you guessed it Southwest Louisiana. And as you can already tell, he’s also a pretty great ambassador for the city. From the food…

BRAYLON: That is some of the best fried chicken you want to eat ever. 

STEPHAN: To the sunsets.

BRAYLON: Absolutely stunning.

STEPHAN: And of course the people.

BRAYLON: I don’t know how much closer to heaven you can get than that. So, beautiful people. Beautiful food. Beautiful scenery. It’s hard to beat. 

STEPHAN: But the reason I went there, Halle, wasn’t to talk about sunsets or eat at local favorite Steamboat Bills. It’s because we’re just now wrapping up a very important time for Lake Charles, an important time really across the Gulf Coast. A time everyone here dreads.

HALLE: Yeah. We are at the tail end of the heart of hurricane season. Now, hurricane season is technically half the year, so it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a season or to say we’re completely in the clear. But the time of highest activity for storms is – mid-August through mid-October, right?.

STEPHAN: It’s already a stressful time…but it’s even more stressful when you’re still recovering from a previous storm – in fact make that storms, plural.

HALLE: Three years ago in 2020, Lake Charles was devastated by Hurricane Laura. Then just six weeks later, they were hit again, this time by Hurricane Delta.

STEPHAN: And all that means it’s still taking a long time for Lake Charles to be made whole again. So I recently drove to Lake Charles to ask people what recovery is like when recovery slips into its fourth year.

<<theme music>>

HALLE: Today on Sea Change, our episode is split in two parts. We explore what storm recovery looks like for people living through it and how long it truly takes to be made whole — if that ever happens. Later, we’ll go to Texas to hear from residents pushed to the margins six years after Hurricane Harvey and chronic flooding. But first, Stephan takes us to Lake Charles… to hear about anxiety and faith while in the heart of hurricane season.

<<PRE-ROLL BREAK>>

LAKE CHARLES SEGMENT

STEPHAN: All right. 

BRAYLON: Plenty of room back there? You good? 

STEPHAN: This is perfect. 

BRAYLON: You sure?

STEPHAN: Oh yeah there’s plenty of room – I mean compared to my teeny, tiny little car…(fade under)

<<driving ambient>>

-

STEPHAN: So after hopping into Braylon’s sedan we start driving to our first destination – downtown Lake Charles. And on the drive, there’s one thing in particular I’m keeping my eye out for. An easy to see marker for the amount of destruction still left over after a storm.

BRAYLON: People will come by and they will count the blue roofs.  

STEPHAN: Blue tarps are a common sight after a storm. They’re used like bandages, meant to cover unrepaired roofs and keep the rain out. Now they’re supposed to be temporary, but often they can stay up on some houses for years while the roof underneath it waits to get fixed up. So that sharp blue color is this undeniable sign that this home still needs work.

And if you’re keeping score based on blue roofs, well things actually look pretty good heading downtown. <<driving ambi>> We drive across Shell Beach Drive, kind of your prime real estate spot in the city since it curves around the lakefront. We see red bricks and white pillars. But as for blue roofs? We didn’t see any.

BRAYLON: You say, where is it? Right, Where is the damage? Where's the where's the long term recovery? Looks like everything's fine. You've got new houses coming up and beautiful houses that have been constructed since then. 

STEPHAN: The recovery here, in this part of town, mostly finished up long ago. The restaurants are back selling fried shrimp and the chemical plants across the lake are all open. From our drive so far, it seems like Lake Charles is pretty much back. But…

BRAYLON: You start jogging to the north of the city and the blue roofs start coming back. There's easily, uh, you know, probably, you know, I would say hundreds of homes that are still in need of assistance.

STEPHAN: The further we drive from the lake houses, the more blue starts popping up. At first just one or two tarps on a block. To some neighborhoods where the tarps are about as common as shingles.

But Braylon says just paying attention to the blue tarps is kind of missing the point. He says to really understand all the work Lake Charles still needs to do, he says we need to look closer. He turns off the highway into this one neighborhood that has the feel of a new housing development. Outsides look clean, there’s no tarp in sight. But like a new development, it feels empty. No cars sit on the curb.

BRAYLON: We’re riding by what is probably three blocks of houses almost on both sides of the street. (internal edit) Every one of them has new roofs. Just look in the windows though. Nobody’s home. (internal edit)

STEPHAN: Just no one’s moved back in?

BRAYLON: No one’s home. Those home are probably, still may need to still be gutted. (internal edit) And if they have been gutted, no sheetrock’s been put back. And that was 20 houses probably. Another 20 probably in front of us that are in the same condition.

STEPHAN: It’s important to remember the real problem with a damaged roof isn’t the roof itself. It’s the exposed insides. Rains from Hurricane Laura in 2020 rotted drywall, flooring, family photos, everything. And across Lake Charles plenty of homes were still exposed when Hurricane Delta came through six weeks later. So while the roofs of these homes might be fixed, the insides still need work before people can move back.

And even the houses that were spared the worst of the storms and people are back living in them, well that doesn’t mean everything’s okay.

VANESSA: Hi.

STEPHAN: Hey! How are you?

VANESSA: Fine – I was just wiping the chair off cause I got it from outside. Ain’t have nowhere to sit (laughs) (fade under)

STEPHAN: This is Vanessa Beloney. She meets me in her living room wearing big hoop earrings and a shirt that says Love is Patient.

She bought this one-story home back in 2019 – her first time as a home owner actually, which she was really excited about. It’s a mix of red bricks and gray sheet siding.

VANESSA: You pull up at this house. It looks good. The outside looks pretty. (internal edit)

STEPHAN: Yeah. You don’t have those strips of blue on your roof like so many people still do.

VANESSA: No. Not anymore. We had maybe, I’d say eight months ago they took it down and put me a new roof. 

STEPHAN: She got in touch with Braylon’s group, Southwest Louisiana Responds after seeing a Facebook post and gave them a call. They connected her with volunteers who fixed up her roof.

Now in some ways, Vanessa was lucky. Her home did not top the list for houses that needed the most work, and she was able to move back in right away. But just cause her house wasn’t the worst off, doesn’t mean it didn’t need repairs. And her living room floor’s taking longer to get fixed. Those high winds from Hurricane Laura detached the floor from the wall.

VANESSA: So I couldn't even walk on one side of the living room floor because my floor had kind of caved in. (internal edit) 

STEPHAN:  When you say it caved in, what did that, what do you mean, what did that look like? 

VANESSA: Floor sideways. Nobody can come through my front door. 

STEPHAN: Where are they coming from?

VANESSA: Back. I had come through the back fence because nobody was going to sue me coming in my house. (internal edit)  I work at a law firm. I know how it works. I was like, You're not coming to my house and then sue me (laugh). 

STEPHAN: Vanessa did not have insurance so she’s been relying on aid groups and her own bank account to cover the repairs. And she says she can’t get her home insured now until these damages get fixed.

Of course those with insurance didn’t always do better. That’s one of the biggest struggles here and a big part of the reason why it’s taken so long for Lake Charles to recover. Lots of homeowners are still fighting for payouts. Vanessa sees this every day at that law firm she mentioned she works at – she’s a legal assistant there.

VANESSA: The attorneys I work for go to mediation. They go to trial. They still go and do that.  

STEPHAN: It’s all enough to make Beloney question whether she still wants to be a homeowner.

VANESSA: Maybe I just get a trailer. Because being a homeowner is a lot of stress. Just bought a home but I think maybe I’ll get a trailer cause it it just blow away or whatever (internal cut) I have it insured and I get another one and then it’s just less heart ache just less stress to go through again.

STEPHAN: The costs keep stacking up. One contractor told her she needed to elevate her house — which isn’t cheap. Vanessa didn’t get an estimate for how much raising her house would cost, but the contractor told her it would be a pretty penny. And something she’s not sure if she wants to pay for.

VANESSA: I don’t want to have to keep going through this amount of detail just to get this house done. Because Hurricane season may be coming again. And it’s like – it just feels like I’m in a hurricane like all over again. (internal cut).That’s the only thing. So we just feel like we are in the same predicament all over again, you know? 

<<transitional music, starting under Vanessa’s last act or Stephan tracking>>

NEW SCENE, PAUSE BEFORE THIS TRACKING

STEPHAN: We’re back in the heart of hurricane season and that brings with it a tension across Lake Charles, a tension that tightens when the clouds go gray.

BRAYLON: When it rains…

SARA DROTT: There’s panic.

STEPHAN: Once again, Braylon Harris. And a member of his team at Southwest Louisiana Responds, Sara Drott. She’s riding shotgun up front with Braylon on our Lake Charles driving tour. In the back with me is Hannah Sober. She’s the head of case management for the team. We’re cutting across a highway on the east side of town on a 100 plus degree day everyone’s ready to get some relief from. But more stressful than the heat is any chance of rain.

BRAYLON: There's a part of you that wants to say, man, yeah, man, you know, we could use a little rain, we could use a little break from the heat. But like, you don't pray for those things down here. You know what I mean? Because it goes from one extreme to the other. (internal cut)

Anyone here in Southwest, Louisiana give us dry and hot anyday rather than the anxiety and the concerns.  And the risks that come with significant rains.

SARA: But also hot summer also heats up all the water in the Gulf. Which makes for a crazy hurricane season.

BRAYLON: Yeah. Yup.

STEPHAN: Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration originally predicted we had a good chance for an average number of storms this hurricane season. But warmer waters in the Gulf this Summer caused scientists to now predict this season would have more storms than usual.

And it doesn’t take a major hurricane like Laura in 2020 to cause a ton of damage if you’re already vulnerable from the last storm. Hurricane Delta made landfall as a category 2 storm…but remember it also came just six weeks after Laura devastated Lake Charles.

People were still trying to pick themselves up again… and struggling to find the right people to help.

STEPHAN: The other big thing I heard people say that they had a lot of problems with was the lack of contractors and a lack of contractors that could actually do the job right. 

HANNAH: More like of an abundance of contractor fraud. I was hearing about contractor fraud at minimum ten times a day with phone calls…

STEPHAN: Ten times a day. 

HANNAH: Yeah, easily. The thing is, with contractor fraud, it's rampant. There's literally a group of people who follow disasters across the country. Just to rip people off. 

STEPHAN: After a storm or any natural disaster, you get these storm-chasers going door-to-door promising to repair people’s homes. And the homeowners are often still-shocked from losing so much, so they often don’t look too closely at their credentials and the homeowners hand over their insurance check. That’s when the “contractors” run away. Or if they stay, they often just do shoddy work.

HANNAH: We've had to go into houses and redo work that was done. I wouldn't be surprised if I've heard of over half a million dollars worth of contractor fraud just in our office.  (internal cut) 

BRAYLON: I would be almost one fifth of that myself personally. So $70,000 is what a contractor took from us. 

STEPHAN: Really? From you guys. Took from you – from you personally. 

BRAYLON: From me personally. Trying to recover my home. 

STEPHAN: Took $70,000.  

BRAYLON: $70,000. 

HANNAH: That is not uncommon. 

BRAYLON: That is not uncommon. 

STEPHAN: Contractor fraud costs Americans billions of dollars each year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. In 2021 it was about 9 billion dollars lost to fraud.

STEPHAN: How do you handle something like that? 

BRAYLON: Lots of prayer. Lots of prayer and frustration, you know, and you get help from friends that you're able to kind of at least piece things back together. But, you know, I would consider myself or, you know, fairly educated young (internal cut) And if I was, quote unquote, taken advantage of, you can imagine the grandmothers, the grandfathers, that were taken advantage of, I mean, tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

STEPHAN: Contractor fraud is also really difficult to prosecute because prosecutors have to prove intent to steal. There are some laws around that like the Consumer Protection Act, but they often come with lighter consequences. And you also need someone to actually want to press charges – someone who’s again, already going through a crisis.

HANNAH: Your home’s already destroyed. You have to make decisions rapidly about do I save my house as best I can and try to stop the bleeding? Or do I try and find this person who's disappeared so that I can get things complete? Most people don't have the money to do that, to pursue that. And so they disappear without consequence. (internal cut) 

STEPHAN: Seeing the destruction that's happened, hearing people taking advantage of that destruction you work and collaborate with all these churches. How does your faith play into all of this in seeing all of this, this destruction and fraud? 

HANNAH: Personally speaking,. if not for Jesus, we would not have seen a number of miracles in our area. Still hurts, you know, still a lot of putting on your boots and getting out there. But we have the strength to be able to do that because of faith. 

<<church music>>

STEPHAN: Of course the centers of that faith were not spared from the storms either.

MIKE ROBINSON: Well we know it’s time, amen, that we greet one another with the love of Jesus. And when we greet somebody shake that hand and hug that neck. Just let them know you’re glad to see them this morning. (fade under)

STEPHAN: Mike Robinson is the pastor at The Breath of Life Praise and Worship Center. This church had its sanctuary destroyed by Hurricane Laura – from the ceiling to equipment like monitors and speakers. So the congregation now gathers in the church’s former gym for Sunday service.

It was already a small congregation before Hurricane Laura. Pastor Mike says they had maybe around 50 members. But after Laura, a lot of members just never came back to Lake Charles. Today there’s only four here sitting on black cushioned chairs instead of pews. But that doesn’t stop Pastor Mike’s voice from rising loud above the fans.

MIKE: If I lost my clothing I’d be alright. But if I lost my joy I don’t know.

STEPHAN: After the service we sat down on the black chairs and talked. He told me after the storm he reached out to both the Small Business Administration and FEMA. He was denied by both.

He didn’t get into the details, but said a company stepped in to help.

MR: To be honest with you it was frustrating. Three years is a long time in order to not have anything in terms of service that would help meet a need as great as ours and many others. (internal edit) But again. (internal edit)There’s a scripture that says lean not to your own understanding but in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path. And that leaning on that particular principle of God’s word has allowed us to get through three year experience. 

STEPHAN: Mike says less important than the number of people in the seats at his church is that he still gets to spread the word among a small, core group. One of them is Zina Siverand.

ZINA SIVERAND: Your church family is the one that lift you up. They share love. They give you hope and give you strength. 

STEPHAN: Zina has been coming here for about 25 years. She admits that it hurts to see the damage to the church and how the services have gotten smaller.

ZINA: When one or two are gathered it’s still okay cause God is in the presence. But we are used to having a larger church family.  

STEPHAN: Repairs finally began on the sanctuary this summer. The debris and rotted sheetrock were gone when Zina walked through it for the first time since repairs began.

ZS: Oh wow.  (internal edit) This is. This is nice.  

STEPHAN: The sanctuary’s still mostly empty, needing everything from pews to new flooring. But to Zina, this is a blessing.

ZS: This place was destroyed. Just like my home. (internal edit) I wasn’t sure when we were going to come back in the sanctuary. 

STEPHAN: The roof for Zina’s house was damaged by the storm, letting in rain that ruined the insides. Zina says going through this has made her more aware of hurricane season – paying attention to the signs, the warnings, what to leave and what to bring. And more aware of how long recovery can take.

SZ: It’s still taking two to three years to get ourselves back to where we were. And now it’s hurricane season again. 

MUSIC PAUSE

BRAYLON:  So we're going to go through a portion of the city. We're now east of the city, (fade under)

((Keep driving ambi under most of this section’s tracking))

STEPHAN: There’s one last thing I wanted to show you from Lake Charles, another neighborhood Braylon drove me through. It’s called Greinwich Terrace, far east away from the downtown with palm trees in front of some of the houses.

BRAYLON: Beautiful community. Beautiful homes. 

STEPHAN: But there’s also still signs of the damage done here by all those natural disasters. Not just blue on roofs, but a rainbow of disaster signs. Like yellow and red caution tape and brown plywood boarding up windows. A lot of the problems here come down to flooding, and not just from Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020. But hurricane Harvey in 2017. And more flooding in 2021.

BRAYLON: I’ve been in homes in this community that I’ve personally helped carry sheet rock out of three or four times. 

STEPHAN: So clearly these homes are prone to flooding. So two years ago, the state of Louisiana stepped in and created the appropriately named Greinwich Terrace Buyout Program.

Basically, the state used about 30 million bucks from the federal government to buy up these homes to tear them down. Voluntarily of course, but many people did want to move. In fact, more people wanted to move than there was money to pay for their houses. Meaning some homeowners were lucky…

BRAYLON: Literally as I sit here, right in the street to my left, these homes are bought out.

STEPHAN: Other homeowners, were not so lucky.

BRAYLON: To my right that home is trying to sell because it was not bought out. There probably was 12 to 15 inches of water on this street. And it got in that house and it got in that house. 

STEPHAN: The houses on the left and right look identical with beige bricks and white doors. The only difference is that one has a for sale sign, the other was lucky enough to be bought by the state. Several of those are already demolished.

BRAYLON: To our right here all of these homes are still here. All of these homeowners are still there. They're still at risk if something were to happen today.

<<bring in music somewhere in this section to start signaling the end of the segment>> 

STEPHAN: Early in the drive, Braylon told me how Lake Charles recovery reminded him of New Orleans’ recovery after Katrina. How some parts, usually the whiter, richer parts of New Orleans, recovered much faster than the rest of the city.

BRAYLON: You know, we talked about earlier the tale of two cities. I guess this is the tale of the two sides of the road. Right? 

STEPHAN: And it sounds like this is not even economic line, it’s just the luck line to some extent. 

BRAYLON: That is exactly what that is. I mean, it is someone you know, someone had the unfortunate job to say, okay, 120, 144 homes or whatever it is, I literally have to draw a line that covers that amount. And if you're in, you're in. (internal edit)I mean, you're out. You're out.

<<transition music to end the Lake Charles segment>>

MIDROLL

TRANSITION

HALLE: As we heard from Stephan, a lot of times, recovery after disaster doesn’t happen quickly… or evenly.

As natural disasters worsen and extreme weather grows more frequent, it’s led to more people being displaced across the planet. One of the terms used to describe them? Climate migrants. We saw it on the other side of the world after intense flooding in Pakistan. And here in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, not to mention, in Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.

Which brings us to our second story. Erin Douglas is the climate reporter for the Texas Tribune and she takes us to a neighborhood south of Houston left nearly uninhabitable after flooding. Slowly people have left, and she shows us what happens to the people left behind, years after a disaster.

TEXAS TRIBUNE SEGMENT

As climate change worsens, more and more people around the world are being uprooted by extreme weather events.

Things like drought, floods, and wildfires can devastate a community. It’s hard to know exactly how many people are leaving their homes due to climate change. But the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in the last year alone, around 3 million Americans were displaced by natural disasters.

Music

As a climate reporter for The Texas Tribune, one thing I’ve noticed about climate migrants is that displacement isn’t always so immediate or apparent. I’ve talked with many people uprooted by Hurricane Harvey.

And what shocks me the most is that even though the hurricane hit in 2017, for some of these people, their displacement is happening only now — six years later. For these slow burn climate migrants, the moves are quieter, less obvious, and, what I found reporting this story, they’re more tangled in bureaucracy.

PUCT CLERK: Petitioner Lake Livingston WSC to cease service to Sam Houston Lake Estates in Liberty County.”

ERIN: That’s from a Public Utility Commission meeting last year, where a water company asked regulators if it could cut off service for a rural neighborhood in Liberty County, Liberty County is about an hour and a half northeast of Houston.

<Audio: more from meeting>

ERIN: This may sound like a typical, boring public meeting, but it’s actually pretty crazy. Because the utility is asking if it can cut off water service to an entire neighborhood. The company argued that after Harvey, the area is mostly abandoned and unlivable. For them, providing service to the few people left behind is just too expensive.

Audio from meeting

In the end, the regulators decided that the utility would have to keep dropping off a small tank of water for the residentsit clear to me the impacts of Harvey are still being felt on this neighborhood six years later.

I wanted to know more: Who left, who stayed, and why? Because as a warming planet continues to make hurricanes more extreme, there are going to be a lot more communities like this.

Audio_Liberty_3 Phone -THAD: “hello”

ERIN: “hello, is this thad?

THAD: “yes,”

ERIN: “Is this an okay, time to talk?”

THAD: “Yeah, sure. Sure.”

ERIN: The neighborhood is called Sam Houston Lake Estates, and it’s about 60 miles northeast of Houston. I spoke with Thad Todd, who lived there for 13 years, with his wife, Linda Nelson. Their home is along the Trinity River bottom, where flooding is just part of daily life.

Still, they loved it — Linda used to bicycle down the dirt roads with her friends, their grandchildren often came to visit to go fishing with Papaw, and over the years, they turned a small old lake house — a real fixer-upper — into their primary residence. It was their little piece of heaven.

I first called Thad and Linda in mid-July. I heard they had to abandon their home. It was a house that Thad had stripped down and re-built himself. He painted it bright red.

Audio_Liberty_04 THAD: “Yeah, I was so proud of it the way it looked and stuff. … I worked on it for 10 years, and then Harvey came, and I lost it in one day.”

ERIN: And after Harvey, the flooding just… kept coming, year after year.

Audio_Liberty_05 THAD: “As the floods went by, you know, it eroded the roads and stuff. You couldn’t even get a vehicle back there.”

ERIN: The washed out roads made daily life harder and harder. They had to haul in groceries and water by foot. The home was so damaged from Harvey that they had to live in a donated fifth wheel trailer on their property. And so in just a few short years, flood by flood, climate change had turned their piece of paradise into their version of hell.

Audio_Liberty_06 LINDA: “My husband was walking in at three o'clock in the morning for work. Crossin’ wild hogs and alligators because they didn't know what was the road or the water, because there’d be water on the road. The alligators were bad out there.”

ERIN: Wildlife wasn’t their only concern. They felt abandoned.

Audio_Liberty_07 THAD: “We was always having water problems and they end up putting a water tank out there and expectin’ us to go over a mile to get some water out of a tank. … Ambulance couldn’t come. There was nobody could get down the road.”

ERIN: In 2021, the couple couldn’t take it anymore, so they left for Oklahoma. But they told me that some of their friends still live in Sam Houston Lake Estates refusing to give up on their homestead.

I wanted to see the neighborhood for myself so I hit the road from Austin to deep East Texas. After a few hours, the open Texas hill country turns into dense and nearly impermeable forest. Liberty County’s population is just under 90,000, and much of the county is in the Trinity River watershed.

The county has among the highest number of mobile homes per capita in the state.

Driving into the forest, I guessed it might have among the highest number of cicadas per capita, too.

<<cicadas>>

ERIN: I stop in Liberty– it’s the biggest small town in the county. And then head north for Sam Houston Lake Estates.

SOUND: <Driving-maybe some of the sound we have of walking around, cicadas?> 

ERIN: I drive down a dirt road until it just sort of ends. I’m at what’s called “the front” of the neighborhood— where the residents park their cars, and start walking. There’s a cluster of mailboxes and the shell of what used to be a community center. Today it has more open air than walls, but in the 1960s, it was a rowdy country dance hall.

. The homes here are fairly small – one or two bedrooms, and some are trailers. The lots here are spacious, so everyone’s pretty spread out, with thick forest reclaiming any unmaintained space.

It’s a sweltering August day, and I meet up with one of Thad and Linda’s old friends:

Audio_Liberty_09 SOUND: … You probably want to sit- this is cute, you guys sit out here… <FADE>

ERIN: Fred Boyum is tall, lanky, with long blonde hair. For lack of a better term, he looks a bit like a surfer dude. And pretty quickly, I find out he actually grew up in Southern California.

Audio_Liberty_10 FRED BOYUM: “There’s some people come down here and they’re swattin’ mosquitoes and being scared of snakes and everything else that moves in the woods and you know, I don’t know, the water, the mud, most people just get a little freaked out about it.”

He’s one of the only people left in the neighborhood, and he says he doesn’t plan to leave. The house is paid off – a friend willed it to him. He has no phone bill, no car payment, and because he has a well on the property, no water bill. He trusts the cottage he lives in — it’s been there for decades, and even though it flooded during Harvey, it’s still standing there. And, so is he.

Most of his friends are gone now. As we walk a little further into the woods to see one of the abandoned houses, I ask if that makes him sad. He says it’s bittersweet—

Audio_Liberty_11 FRED BOYUM: “When my good friends have to leave, yeah, I’m happy because it’s for their own good.”

ERIN: As the roads deteriorated, pretty much the only vehicle that could make it deep into the forest was an ATV. And if that breaks down, you have to walk.

As you can imagine, the elderly people couldn’t physically haul their water, groceries, and medical equipment to their homes.

Fred, who is in good shape and loves to walk, tried to help out by backpacking their stuff more than a mile to their houses.

Audio_Liberty_12 FRED BOYUM: “Sometimes I’d made two trips, he’d get more groceries than I could take, I’d leave stuff in my refrigerator and go the next day. Yeah, sometimes I was going four, five days a week.”

ERIN: His friends often paid him with a six pack of beer. Other neighbors also tried to help the community bounce back after Harvey.

Audio_Liberty_ 13 SOUND: dogs barking. …  “Scamp! scooter! lacy! gizmo! …

Erin: Ed Gibson is one who tried to help out.

Audio_Liberty_14 some are mine, some are my wife’s, some belong down the road.”

ERIN: I walk just down the road to meet Ed, outside his two-story house. He’s older, with long white hair pulled back into a ponytail and a white mustache that runs down both sides of his chin. He used to try to fix the roads in the neighborhood himself.

Audio_Liberty_15 ED GIBSON: I took care of it with my tractor, I would go back and try to fill all the holes and make it drivable. But in the end, it just washed out, and it just wasn’t gonna happen.

ERIN: Because the dirt roads are privately owned by the community, the county doesn’t maintain them. And their roads are eroding as climate change brings more intense rain and stronger storms to the Trinity River.

ERIN: I wanted to see the Trinity River, but because my car couldn’t navigate the washed out roads, a county employee offered to take me in a 4-wheel drive pickup truck. Thankfully, because it’s mid August, the earth is pretty dry, cracked and hardened. So the journey, at least in an air conditioned vehicle, isn’t too bad. It’s like offroading.

Ambient audio- Marvin

 

Marvin Stovall expertly navigates the gaping potholes, but ambulances and firetrucks can’t get back here. Cell phone service is spotty, at best. It feels isolated.

<<cicadas>>

Just a handful of homes are still maintained; most are sagging, overtaken by parched grasses and tree branches, they’re worn down after years of flood, to drought, to heat, to flood, and over again.

Finally we reach the river, and spend a few minutes talking to a resident who’s lived here about a decade.

He didn’t want to hang out, but stuck around long enough to tell us that living back here is a sort of gambling game with mother nature. You have to play with the weather.

Audio_Liberty_17 Conversation with Kenneth: Erin: So every time you think it’s going to rain you have to take your vehicle out there? Kenneth: the way these roads are right now, because it is flooding with rain, so you wait for a dry day to get them out

ERIN: I think this is what climate change really looks like — semi-abandoned homes, some taken over by squatters, others still owner occupied by people struggling to make ends meet.

Story after story makes clear that river flooding here is now much stronger and more devastating than it used to be.

Climate change is taking communities, and very slowly, unceremoniously, unraveling them, pushing us away from one another, isolating us.

AUDIO: MUSIC

ERIN: During Harvey, the water quickly overtook Thad and Linda’s red house. Linda was in Oklahoma visiting family.

Thad was at home and didn’t have an option but to get himself and his dogs into a canoe. He paddled to his neighbor’s empty two-story house.

Audio_Liberty_18 THAD: “One of my dogs died, and he died the first night upstairs, and I ended up having to throw him out the window and let the current take him because I didn’t know what else to do… <FADE>

ERIN    : Thad stayed like that, huddled with his animals, for three days and two nights. Finally, a neighbor with a flat-bottom boat came by. That was his chance. They tied the boats together, and it took them three and a half hours to paddle just over a mile to land.  

The first few months after Harvey, he and Linda stayed in the breakroom at his workplace. Eventually, someone who heard about their situation on Facebook donated a fifth-wheel trailer. They put it on the property, next to the damaged home that Thad had so lovingly built.

Some people had managed to keep living in Sam Houston Lake Estates after Harvey. But Thad and Linda had left — and I wanted to know why. So I went to meet them in person just outside of Warner, Oklahoma. It’s a small town in the Cherokee Nation.

Audio_Liberty_19 -SOUND/conversation: “...ain't never seen so many grasshoppers. … Is that normal? … No no, …. Do you think it’s the heat?”

ERIN: It’s about 100 degrees, the same as Texas. The grass here, though, is dense with more grasshoppers than I’ve ever seen in my life

ERIN: Once we sit down, I ask them why they had to leave. Thad had fixed up the fifth wheel trailer in Texas, and even though their lifestyle had changed, they were doing okay, until, suddenly, they weren’t.

Audio_Liberty_21_1 LINDA: I called him and was like, I think I need to go to the hospital ///

Erin: In June 2021, Linda had a heart attack. Thad was at work.

Audio_Liberty_21_2 LINDA: I I had to call my neighbor, and she had to get her son-in-law who was the only one who had a vehicle that could come and get me. if it weren’t for Shannon and Randy, I wouldn’t have made it, … We were worried, if I have another one, am I gonna get out of here?

THAD: That just broke the camel’s back, that did.

ERIN: As much as they loved their land, staying wasn’t worth the risk.

 Audio_Liberty_22 LINDA: If it wasn’t for the roads, I’d still be there. I loved it there. …So I could've stayed and took a chance on havin’ another heart attack and not making it … no police, no ambulance, no fire trucks. …

ERIN: They decided to move back to Oklahoma, where they had family who could help them start over — for a second time. Because the roads were so damaged in Sam Houston Lake Estates, they couldn’t take the trailer they were living in, or most of the stuff they’d replaced after Harvey. So they just walked away.

Audio_Liberty_23 LINDA: We ended up losing everything twice.

ERIN: After Harvey, the federal government gave millions of dollars to Texas to do buyouts for people in their exact situation.

Thad and Linda applied as soon as they could, but they still haven’t gotten the money years later. They were initially told they’d get around $51,000.

Because the area is so isolated, the county can’t figure out how to demolish the homes. Returning the area to nature is part of the contract with the federal government. This has left the buyout program at a standstill, and it’s unclear if Thad and Linda, or their neighbors, will ever get the money—

Audio_Liberty_24 THAD: “We’re the forgotten ones.”

ERIN: In the meantime, trying to make Oklahoma home, Thad is working on building out the new trailer that a cousin gave them. He just put in a toilet.

He says they’ve been through hell and back. But Thad seems determined to take care of Linda /— no matter how many times he has to do it, he will build her a home.

OUTRO

Thank you for listening to Sea Change. This episode was reported by Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom and Erin Douglas of the Texas Tribune. It was co-hosted by me, Halle Parker. It was edited and produced by Carlyle Calhoun, our managing producer, and the Texas Tribune’s Greta Díaz González Vazquez. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti.

Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

To help others find our podcast, hit subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Let us know what you think with a voice memo emailed to seachange@wwno.org.

Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

Thanks for joining us, and we’ll be back in another two weeks.

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.
Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.