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Fewer Harvey Victims at Shelters Doesn't End Housing Needs

Evacuees Donna Herzog and her husband Richard Herzog, with their five dogs, eat food served by volunteers, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey, in a staging area as they wait for buses to go to evacuation shelters in Vidor, Texas, Sept. 1, 2017.

One couple displaced by Harvey managed to get a hotel room, but got kicked out after one night for lacking state identification that was lost to the flooding. A man whose cellphone was wrecked by floodwater is staying at a convention center, waiting for government offices to reopen Tuesday.

While the number of evacuees seeking refuge in Houston's emergency shelters has dwindled, many thousands of people are still in dire need of housing. Some returned to complexes inundated with sewage and mud. Others are staying with family and friends.

More than 50,000 went to government-paid hotels, some far away from homes and schools.

“You can't just pick the hotel,” said D'Ona Spears, who has no way of getting her children to school when it resumes next week. “You have to go further out, further out, further out.”

Without ID, couple forced to move

Spears and Brandon Polson had gotten a government-funded hotel room near downtown, but without ID they had to leave. After going to the Toyota Center, the basketball arena that's also housing evacuees, they were taken to a motel in Humble, about 20 miles (32.19 kilometers) away. Spears said she wished the family could return to the convention center.

At the George R. Brown Convention Center, about 1,500 people remain and several said they were homeless, disabled or from public housing. About 2,800 were at the NRG Center, another convention center that opened after George R. Brown reached double its original capacity.

Jamica Batts sits on a hotel bed with her two-month-old baby Jarasiah Batts as they pack to leave on Sept. 4, 2017, in Houston. Batts and her brother Alvin may now be forced to go from the hotel they have been staying in after Hurricane Harvey, to an area shelter.
Jamica Batts sits on a hotel bed with her two-month-old baby Jarasiah Batts as they pack to leave on Sept. 4, 2017, in Houston. Batts and her brother Alvin may now be forced to go from the hotel they have been staying in after Hurricane Harvey, to an area shelter.

Morris Mack, who arrived at the convention center Aug. 30, sat outside the main entrance, sharing a cigarette. He hasn't been able to re-enter his home in a public housing development in northwest Houston, and he didn't know whether it'd be flooded.

While he registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance, Mack's cellphone was damaged by floodwaters, and he didn't have a working email address, making it difficult for the agency to get in touch with him or send him a check. He was hoping that once government offices reopen, he could get a government assistance card, which he could then use to get a cellphone to communicate with FEMA.

“I'm just trying. I can only wait now,” Mack said.

Over 50,000 residents in hotels

Harvey struck Texas on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane, but brought the worst flooding to Houston and other areas as a tropical storm. The rain totalled nearly 52 inches (1.3 meters) in some spots, and the storm is blamed for at least 60 deaths.

FEMA said about 560,000 families are registered for its housing assistance program. It said 53,630 residents displaced by Harvey are currently in government-funded hotel rooms.

The temporary housing has been provided for 18,732 households, said FEMA spokesman Bob Howard. Once people are granted the assistance, there is a minimum allotment of 14 days, but that can be extended if necessary.

FEMA officials also are weighing other options, such as mobile homes, should the need arise.

Mobile homes have troubled past

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, FEMA bought thousands of mobile homes for people left homeless, but the program was plagued by problems. Some flood victims who lived in the homes were exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, which was used in building materials.

Some people choosing to go back to their homes after Harvey were trying to make do the best they could.

But at the Clayton Homes, some apartments were filled with water and floors caked in mud and sewage. Clayton Homes residents were among the first to arrive at the convention center last weekend, many riding in the back of city dump trucks. The complex is bounded on one side by Buffalo Bayou, the muddy waterway that jumped its banks and sent water rushing into homes.

Piles of garbage and soggy furniture sat next to the gnarled remains of a fence separating the bayou from the complex. The rotting stench was present in parts of the complex.

Fear for her possessions

Rosie Carmouche spent two days at George R. Brown with her two children. But she didn't want to stay too long, fearing for her possessions.

“They made you feel as comfortable as they possibly can. I will give them that,” Carmouche said. “But when your mind is — you know what kind of community you live in? It's hard.”

Laquinna Russell used bleach to scrub out the bottom floor of their two-story home, but is worried about mold and invisible bacteria, so her family is sleeping on their second floor.

“We didn't have anywhere to go but back here,” she said.