Two years later flood victims continue to heal

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

Cathey Holaway finally has a new home. She moved into a newly built house in a new development in Kyle in early summer. She chose this place because it lacks one very important feature she’s learned to fear: a creek.
She knows a creek can rise quickly and flood a home in minutes. That’s what happened to her in the wee hours of Halloween in 2013. She had already been through a flood in 2001 when her home got two feet of water. The Halloween flood finally pushed her out. That morning, Onion Creek sent more than five feet of water into her one-story home of 30 years.
As Holaway sat in her new home filled with donated furniture she said she knows she’s blessed. 
“I know a lot of people still living in their driveways,” she said.
Holaway knew she couldn’t sell the house in the open market and that she could be flooded again. When the City of Austin offered a buyout earlier this year, she took it. By then she had spent $60,000 from her insurance and savings to rebuild. She also lost $1,100 to a man who was supposed to rebuild the house.
Recovering from natural and man-made disasters can take years, said Roz Gutierrez, conference support director of the diocesan council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. She was recently in West still helping families affected by the fertilizer explosion of April 17, 2013.
SVdP and Catholic Charities of Central Texas responded to immediate needs after a disaster. They also stayed for the long haul. 
“The first response is like a sprint,” said Sara Ramirez, executive director of CCCTX. “The first days are spent on emergency things like water, food, shelter and clothing. After 60 to 90 days, we go into marathon mode. We start working with families on long-term needs and goals.”
Gutiérrez said recovery is not just rebuilding homes and replacing items that people need. It is also counseling to heal the psychological wounds.
“Even when people build a new home or rebuild, a lot of memories are lost,” Gutierrez said. “There is a lot of emotional healing that needs to be addressed respectfully.”
Ramirez said there is a balance in helping people and guiding them to be self-sufficient. That’s why the disaster response teams and volunteers are all trained.
That is necessary because on average Central Texas averages a natural or man-made disaster every two years. Long-term recovery efforts such as those for the people of West often overlap with emergency needs such as those in the Wimberley floods. For example, a family in Bastrop just last year moved into their new home after losing their long-time home in the Labor Day fire of 2011.
“Many poor families have zero to poor credit,” she said. Thus poverty can affect recovery from a disaster. Most poor people have jobs that do not pay well and have no savings. This can make it difficult to rent because many places require a hefty deposit.
Around a 60-to-70-mile radius of Austin, housing is scarce and thus prices are sky-high.
The high cost of housing was one factor in Holaway’s decision to move to Kyle. She also wanted a kitchen with a gas stove and couldn’t find one in Austin. Though it doubled her commute time, she got more house for her money. But mainly she won’t have to worry about losing all her belongings again or staying up late to check the weather the way she did that fateful night.
“I had been watching the rain,” she said. “But I finally went to bed about 11 or 11:30.”
Sometime after midnight, someone called one of her sons to warn him the neighborhood was flooding. She got out of bed and the floor had water up to her ankles. She put some clothes in a bag and her medication in a backpack and started working her way out of the house. The water was up to her knees. Her son’s car had floated from the driveway and was eight houses down. They dodged debris and walked toward the corner to a two-story house. The water was up to her armpits.
Her son went down further to a friend’s house and she decided to go into the two-story house belonging to a neighbor. They stood on a coffee table but the water kept rising. They climbed upstairs. Two men with them then tore a hole in the roof to await rescue. As they sat on the roof they saw a deer trying to swim down the street. A helicopter rescued the elderly woman but the rest of the group stayed until about noon the next day when the waters receded.
Onion Creek winds around the verdant –– by Austin standards –– neighborhood east of Interstate 35 off William Cannon and Pleasant Valley drives. Majestic trees watered by the creek provided shade for the backyard barbecues and a place for Holaway’s three sons to explore when they were young.
The new place has no trees other than the two planted by the developer. But Holaway hopes to start making new memories without worrying they’ll get washed away.
Ramirez said the best way to help is with money, volunteers and prayers, adding that 100 percent of money donated for emergency relief is used on the people. They pool resources with other nonprofits and an unmet needs committee disburses the resources. Short-term they may provide hotel stays so people can have a place to sleep and shower.
Money rather than clothing is the best donation. Clothing and donated items take up valuable space since people have nowhere to store them. It also requires volunteers to sort items. Money can be used for gift cards so people can get exactly what they need.
Because CCCTX has only 40 employees in the 25 counties that make up the Diocese of Austin, volunteers are important for intake or meeting families.
“With only 40 employees it can bet taxing and tiring,” Ramirez said. “Families are in shock. Volunteers can help the employees get some respite.”
Holaway benefited from volunteers, who helped tear down soggy drywall and insulation, emptied plastic boxes filled with dank water and took garbage bags filled with her clothing and washed it and kept it in their homes until she was back on her feet.
 Prayer for those suffering from the disaster as well as those helping them is also important, Ramirez said.
“High stress can kill people,” she said. “It can cause families to implode and turn on each other. People need to vent. But when stress peaks wounds can split open. That’s why mental health help is so important.”
For more information on CCCTX, go to www.ccctx.org or call (512) 651-6100. For more information on SSVdP, go to www.svdp.org or call (512) 251-6995.