Wrong side of tracks meant devastation in Houston

The difference between losing nothing and everything depended on what side of the Union Pacific railroad path you lived on.

BY NOLAN HICKS
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS

HOUSTON – The rain started slow in the Fifth Ward the night of Aug. 26. It began with a sprinkle before 8, built to a steady rain before 9 –– and then Harvey exploded. More than 7 inches of rain fell between 9 p.m. and midnight.

Grandmother Sharon Lee holds baby Jariley Price, sitting in a car parked outside of her Fifth Ward apartment, on Aug. 30.
(NOLAN HICKS/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS)

By 3 a.m., Hunting Bayou was 2½ feet out of its banks. Just seven blocks or so away, Sharon Lee woke up, put her feet on the floor and found that an ocean of water was already in her apartment.

“We had to get out,” said Lee, who was taking care of her five grandchildren that night. “I was scared to death.”

Making their escape
They stepped out the door and into a water-swept hellscape. The strong current took her walker as they made their way to the street, she said.

“The water came swooping in and I was clinging on for dear life,” Lee said. “Oh, Lord.”

She said two family members took her hands and helped her make it to dry ground at the end of the street.

Down the road, Craig Wanza’s home made it through the storm largely untouched. The water made it up past his truck and into his yard, but spared his house. The damage, he said, was limited to some roof repairs and a couple of sections of sheet rock.

“All things considered, for the suffering that a lot of people are experiencing,” Wanza said, “I feel blessed, lucky, fortunate, whatever you choose.”

A mile apart
Wanza and Lee live just a mile apart along Lockwood Drive, the same north-south thoroughfare in this impoverished neighborhood, where the difference between losing nothing and everything depended on what side of the Union Pacific tracks you lived on.

“The overpass is the cutoff of the flood plain,” Wanza said. “There’s a skating rink, once you top the rail yard and all, that’s where the flood plain technically starts — and it backs up.”

All it took to see the difference was turning off of Lockwood and onto the side streets, lined with apartments, shotgun houses and modest homes.

Different experience
On the north side, people along Crane Street where Lee lived carried their furniture and their belongings — their lives — outside and then threw them in dumpsters.

On the south side, residents on Wanza’s largely spared Chew Street cleaned up and picked up. The sun was out and Harvey was gone.

It’s difficult to quantify the devastation the storm wrought across the Houston area.

It dropped so much rain, an estimated 30 percent of Harris County’s roughly 1,800 square miles flooded and raised the sea level in Houston’s Ship Channel an astonishing 12 feet, according to the county’s Flood Control District.

History of wards
Harvey hit neighborhoods rich and poor across Houston. On the other end of the city, in West Houston, former Houston Mayor Bill White’s upscale Memorial City house and neighborhood also were badly flooded.

But the pain of recovery will be most acute in places like the Fifth Ward, which has long been one of Houston’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods.

For decades, the Fifth and the Third wards anchored the city’s African-American community. The Third was home to historically Black Texas Southern University, the city’s major Black newspaper and the community’s elite, intellectuals and musicians.

Abandoned area
The Fifth was “the brawn to Third Ward’s brains,” Texas Monthly wrote in a 1976 profile of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who grew up there.

In a subsequent 1979 story headlined “Only the Strong Survive,” the magazine also described the ward was “the heart of the ghetto,” struggling with crime, drugs and joblessness.

Deprived and exploited by segregation, the ward was carved up by freeways in the 1960s and abandoned by many who could afford the suburbs.

Crushing poverty remained: On the north side of the Union Pacific tracks, the average household lives on just $22,000 a year; south of the tracks, the figure is only marginally better, $27,000.

‘We need help’
Here, many residents live check-to-check with little savings or insurance.

Lee is disabled and needs a walker to get around. Her income is her Social Security disability check — $733 a month, which she fears will be inadequate as they work to start over.

“The struggle is real,” Lee said. “We need help, we need help.”

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