Housing, financial problems still plague Harvey-hit Texas

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By Phil McCausland  with NBC News
Image: A boat sits near flooded homes in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ha
A boat sits near flooded homes in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont, Texas on Aug. 31, 2017.   -   Copyright  Gerald Herbert AP file

Debbie Gillespie Stephenson just wants to rebuild her house, which was destroyed by the raging waters of Hurricane Harvey's historic flooding.

After some good Samaritans on an airboat rescued her and two grandchildren from her engulfed home, she and her husband have spent more than four months at their deer lease — a sparse structure meant only for a hunter's temporary stay — about an hour north of their Rose City, Texas, home. Until Harvey, they had lived in that same house in that same small town for the past 42 years.

But there's been no progress toward their hopes of returning. Stephenson lays the blame at FEMA's doorstep, and many in the region are facing a wide variety of challenges, bureaucratic and otherwise.

The EHF and the Kaiser Family Foundation produced a study in December 2017 that concluded that approximately a third of those who lived in the Golden Triangle — an area between Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, where Rose City falls — said their lives are "still very disrupted" because of the storm.

Housing and financial issues are at the top of their list.

"In the Golden Triangle area, the damage is much more significant and the recovery is going much more slowly. They could use way more resources," said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation.

Related: Two Months After Harvey, Coastal Texas Towns Still Desperate for Housing

Stephenson's house was so damaged that she and her husband chose to demolish it. Then, a little over a month ago, FEMA approved the couple to receive a trailer and they thought they were in luck. They'd be able to rebuild their home while living on the property.

But that temporary housing — a boon for most anyone in this hard-hit region — has only been a major setback.

"We saw this three-bedroom trailer parked perpendicular in the middle of where our house is going to go," said Stephenson, explaining that they are now unable to build their home because a FEMA contractor placed a large trailer on their plot of land.

Related: Hit by Harvey, two Texas high school football teams hit back

Stephenson and her husband had been told they would be given a smaller trailer, and they certainly didn't want it on top of their home's intended foundation. Now they don't want to move in because they need the trailer to be moved or removed before they can start building.

Military grade vehicles travel west on the east bound lanes of Interstate 10 in north Vidor, Texas on Aug. 31, 2017. Guiseppe BarrancoThe Beaumont Enterprise via AP

She and her husband even asked if the structure could be given to someone else in need — anything so that they can begin to rebuild.

Every attempt to have the trailer moved has been stymied by bureaucracy.

"We've spoken to six people at FEMA asking to get it moved," Stephenson said. "Our understanding is that once your trailer is dropped off, then they close your case. Three of them gave me the FEMA hotline, but the number they gave is disconnected and no longer works."

While Stephenson's case is somewhat unique, the continued disruption in her life is not — nor is her disquiet with FEMA. Help from the federal government feels as though it's at a standstill.

It's a problem that affects many people on the Texas coast and in the Golden Triangle, an area east of Harris County named for the prosperity gained from the early 20th century oil boom.

"There are currently tent cities there," Marks said. "It's really slow going. We don't know why. We suspect it has to do with less robust county or regional infrastructure."

Nearly half of residents affected by Harvey in this part of Texas need help applying for disaster assistance, and 52 percent say they need help repairing damage to their homes, according to the December study. Still others share that finding an affordable permanent home or temporary housing is still beyond their reach.

Housing isn't the only issue. In Rose City, officials only just lifted a four-month-old boil advisory notice on Dec. 22 because the small town had to essentially rebuild its water treatment plant.

And with every step forward remains the ever-present memory of a storm that forced some through the most difficult period in their lives.

"I was looking through my photographs on my phone the other day, and it was almost like it was a dream," said Becky Ames, the mayor of Beaumont, about 6 miles west of Rose City.

Related: Receding Waters in Houston Reveal Families' Divergent Paths to Recovery

The EHF and KFF study found that 47 percent of those living in the Golden Triangle said that Harvey has had a negative affect on their mental health. Comparatively, nearly a third of residents in other parts of the state reported the same.

"People are having to choose between paying rent, transportation to work, buying food and clothes, and going to the doctor."

"It's not surprising that the need is increasing and people are not getting the help they need," Marks said. "People are having to choose between paying rent, transportation to work, buying food and clothes, and going to the doctor."

When it made its second landfall, Harvey essentially turned Beaumont, a city of 118,000, into an island. Amid the turmoil, a widespread fresh water shortage forced officials to evacuate shelters packed with local residents. People are still contending with that memory, Ames said.

It's not all bad news, however.

That was four months ago now, and Ames said that while residents haven't forgotten the hurricane, Beaumont has largely recovered from what it left behind. The city finished its final rounds of debris pickup, she added.

Luckily, her city was financially secure prior to Harvey's arrival.

Image: A boat sits near flooded homes in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont, Texas
A boat sits near flooded homes in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont, Texas on Aug. 31, 2017. Gerald HerbertAP file

"There are a lot of smaller cities around Beaumont that were hit harder and don't have as many resources as the city of Beaumont," Ames said, mentioning Port Arthur and Orange as examples.

Meanwhile, residents across Texas have credited leaders like Ames in the recovery. State and local officials have received top marks for their leadership, according to the December report, but Congress and President Donald Trump did not fare as well.

Nearly half of Texas residents say the Trump administration did a "fair" or "poor" job in responding to the storm and its aftermath.

But to Stephenson, it doesn't matter what leader ultimately helps her get home. She just wants things back to normal, to be able to rebuild her home and to live out her retirement near her grandchildren in peace.

Right now, she often finds herself shedding tears out of frustration.

"I want to go home," Stephenson said. "I still live in Rose City, my mail still goes there and we go check our mail. My grandbabies and my son all live in surrounding areas. We just want to go home as soon as we can."