After more than two months sleeping in a tent on her driveway, Petra Cervantes says she’s getting used to it now. Her home was one of thousands of structures in the East Houston area estimated to have sustained some sort of damage during Hurricane Harvey. In her case, it was several feet of water. Inside her gutted home, brown cabinets still hanging in the kitchen represent the high water mark. Everything else is gone, much of it moved to the driveway where she’s created a makeshift living room, bedroom and kitchen for her, her husband, her grandkids and a herd of pets that has grown to include strays from the neighbors since the storm.
“The hardest part is to stay out here,” said Cervantes.
She and her husband, Raul Cervantes, have been in their home for decades, after moving to Texas from Boston. When Tropical Storm Allison flooded their home in 2001, her husband, who worked in construction, was able to rebuild it on his own. Sixteen years later, his health isn’t as good. He spent four days in the hospital recently, which was so stressful Petra had to quit her dry cleaning job.
“Raul is 65 and in poor health but he stills has all the knowledge of how to do it,” said Ben Hirsch. After the storm, Hirsch, who splits his time between Austin and Houston, helped launch West Street Recovery, with the aim of working with the skills and resources of those in the affected neighborhoods to rebuild. They mucked an estimated 50 to 75 homes and have taken on a caseload of more than 150 families, relying on the skills of two admittedly underpaid staff workers who help the families navigate the complicated web of social services. The Cervantes, for example, have had interviews with organizations offering help with short-term rent so they could live with four walls and a door while they rebuild, but Petra said the process was a lot of questions that so far hasn’t yielded any results. But the group, which has 13 core members and numerous other volunteers, has also partnered with other organizations.
They got tools from Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and are partnering with Lakewood Save Our Selves, started in the neighborhood to make up for a lack of attention and donations coming to the area. Joshua Anderson from Lakewood S.O.S. and others from the community have helped their family, friends and neighbors, including the Cervantes, rebuild. Meanwhile, the Living Paradigm Community Development Corporation donated the materials for the Cervantes’ home.
Now that most of the mucking work is through, they’ve shifted to rebuilding and the Cervantes home is the first they’re rebuilding on their own. But not really on their own.
“We are learning skills from the residents,” said Hirsch and Raul has overseen much of the work and done some of it himself.
“A number of these folks have started off saying we don’t know how to do this stuff or do it well but when you watch them do it they actually have a lot of knowledge,” said Leah Ayer, one of the people working on the Cervantes home.
Hirsch said he sees this as a fundamentally different relationship, a partnership really where each party has something to offer. “In order to get stuff, a lot of times you have to demonstrate you’re completely unable to help yourself and we don’t think that makes a lot of sense,” he said, hence the tagline “organizing to build power.”
In many ways, East Houston can look like a place of need. More than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, according to Census estimates. The majority of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs and most of the residents work low-wage jobs. Petra said, though they’ve lived their for decades, they are still paying the mortgage on their home appraised for less than $50,000 in January, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.
And it was also among the hardest hit by Harvey. Situated near where Halls bayou meets Greens Bayou, more than 2,000 structures were damaged in their community and those immediately around them, according to estimates from the City.
But that overlooks the other resources the neighborhood has to offer.
The week before Thanksgiving, all the drywall is up in the main rooms of the house. The kitchen still looks bare, all the appliances missing. But it’s progress. The workers and volunteers – West Street Recovery is able to pay just a handful of staff with stipends raised from donations – start to plan their ways home. Raul watches Ayer and Becky Selle, another volunteer, put the finishing touches on the day’s work. Petra, meanwhile, sits among the five or so dogs that have nestled their way into the blanket covering the couch and offers everyone a final helping of beans and tacos cooked on a hot plate.
Ayer sits down on the couch next to Petra, who puts her hand on her leg and gives a gentle squeeze.
“So what happened to the money,” Petra asks. This question dominates her days. After Allison, she said, they got money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency almost right away. This time, she said, she hasn’t seen it. She calls. They tell her it’s in the mail. She checks the mail. It never comes.
“Where is it,” she wonders aloud.
“I think you should call Lone Star Legal Aid,” Ayer suggests.
Yeah, probably, she agrees.
Ayer rests her head on Petra’s shoulder. By now, it’s dark. Petra’s grandchildren play in the driveway. When it’s time for Ayer to go, they negotiate who will buy the ingredients for the next workday’s meals.
“I love you,” they tell each other.
The goal is to have enough of the house finished by Thanksgiving so they can move from the driveway inside. “Fingers crossed,” said Hirsch.
“I feel so upset,” said Petra, “now is coming Christmas and Thanksgiving is coming. Somebody invited us from church and I said we will try. But sometimes if I move or go out, my dogs follow me.” She feels trapped on her driveway, waiting for the mail and watching over her dogs.
She’s made use of her post though, collecting donations and serving as an informal distribution site for people in the neighborhood. Water, diapers, food, all of it she shares with her neighbors. And she cooks for the folks from West Street Recovery. Petra prefers it that way. She doesn’t like to eat other people’s cooking; it’s always disappointing and it never has the heat she needs. Petra makes her own bright red hot sauce that smells of garlic and tomato.
She doesn’t have plans for Thanksgiving, she said, “But I always cook. It doesn’t matter. I find a way.”