One of the first rescues was 120 pounds of wet, terrified Rhodesian ridgeback, wide-eyed and shaking on top of a kitchen counter. It was Sunday, August 27. A neighbor kid had been pet-sitting for the dog's out-of-town owners, when he realized Buffalo Bayou was coming out of its banks so rapidly he could no longer get across to the dog's house to retrieve him. So the dog's owner posted a plea for help on the Facebook page of his neighborhood, Nottingham Forest.
Michael Berg answered the call with the help of a neighbor, Don Paullo, and Paullo's canoe. Berg, a father of three, is HOA president for Nottingham Forest, a leafy neighborhood of almost 800 homes bordered by Dairy Ashford to the west, Memorial Drive to the north, Kirkwood to the east and Buffalo Bayou to the south. And this Sunday morning as the two set out in a canoe to save a dog, Berg's neighborhood was quickly being inundated by floodwaters.
Overnight, the Army Corps of Engineers had made a desperate decision: Open the spillways of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs on Houston's west side of town and flood the neighborhoods directly to the east of the dams, or otherwise risk the earthen levees of either reservoir breaking, unleashing a far more devastating and uncontrolled flood. Between the two reservoirs was over 400,000 acre-feet of water, dumped on Houston during the last of Hurricane Harvey over the weekend. The choice was made to flood the Energy Corridor and Memorial to the east, and hope that relieved pressure on the dams made the decision worth it.
Both reservoirs began coursing into Buffalo Bayou, the city's main waterway, meandering nearly 50 miles east across the city. The bayou widens east of Chimney Rock Road. But within the Memorial Villages and the Energy Corridor to the west, Buffalo Bayou is narrower, carving through neighborhoods that have long lived with its rough, tree-lined banks in their backyards. And on Sunday, a swollen, monstrous, unfamiliar form of the bayou began consuming those same homes, eating up entire neighborhoods for blocks to the north and south.
The water rushing out of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and into the bayou crept its way into the surrounding neighborhoods far more quickly than anyone anticipated. Buffalo Bayou crested to 62 feet. Soon, most of Memorial—from Chimney Rock to Highway 6—was underwater.
Nottingham Forest was just one of the many memorial-area subdivisions that suddenly found itself stranded amidst floodwaters that refused to recede for weeks, with only each other to depend on until official rescue efforts could begin.
"There were rescues and rescues and rescues, over and over and over," says Berg, one of a navy of Nottingham Forest residents who took to the streets in canoes, inflatable rafts, even air boats that Sunday morning, rescuing neighbors all day long and throughout Monday too. Between rescues, Berg donned barbecue mitts and set out in a raft to try and prevent his neighbors' homes from burning down, nudging the breaker boxes of flooded-out houses open with the back of his mitted hand, then using his oar to slap the power switches off, ever mindful of the potential for electrocution. Where he could, he also waded into homes and turned off water heaters to prevent gas from escaping.
"I don’t know anybody who’s up for president of the HOA next year," jokes Soleil Watt, one of the handful of homeowners in Nottingham Forest whose house didn't flood. "They're gonna be like, 'Wait, what's the job description again?'"
It's early Saturday morning, September 9, and Watt has worked for days alongside others in Nottingham Forest whose homes—like hers—didn't flood. Through their organizational efforts over Facebook and email, some of those homes (and their garages and driveways) have been repurposed into "storefronts."
Today, there are storefronts for everything from diapers and dog food and back-to-school stuff for the kids to shop-vacs and heavy-duty cleaning supplies, though "storefront" implies a commercial aspect; everything in these neighborhood stores is free to those who need it.
The rear of Nottingham Forest, nearest to Buffalo Bayou, is still flooded; it has been 13 days, and dozens of homes are still under feet of water. In others, floodwaters receded a few days ago and tear-outs have begun; curbs are stacked 8 feet high with sheetrock, furniture, insulation, and all manner of debris. The streets leading into these areas are clogged with the cars of residents and volunteers alike helping retrieve and muck out what they can. And each storefront is buzzing with activity: people picking up box fans and bleach, backpacks and bread.
Watt has also been assisting with media and community outreach. Just yesterday, she and Berg helped guide Mayor Sylvester Turner on his first tour of the devastated Memorial area. On Labor Day, she and other neighbors on Chadbourne Dr. organized an event for the neighborhood that offered dinner to 400 hungry, tired residents, as well as a chance to meet with City Councilman Greg Travis, who helped bring in FEMA representatives to speak with homeowners. Travis also arranged the later visit with the mayor, who was accompanied on his tour by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña.
Like Berg, she's also on the HOA; like many of the women in the neighborhood, kids or not, she's also a member of the Nottingham Forest Mom's Club. Berg is sitting across her dining room table as they run through everything the neighborhood has set up over the last few days, including informal security checkpoints after looting became an issue and a daily newsletter that lists storefront hours and locations along with volunteer needs and opportunities.
"The community in Nottingham Forest is pretty amazing because it’s been neighbors helping neighbors," says Watt, who's just finished laying out a donation of clothes for a neighbor a few blocks down who lost everything. "I’ve never seen anything to this degree."
A COUPLE OF BLOCKS AWAY, Watt drives me up to the heart of the Nottingham Forest storefront operation: the driveway and garage of Catherine Shelfer. In the last week, 30 truckloads of supplies have arrived from across the world—lifelines for residents who can't easily leave the subdivision (their cars flooded along with their homes) or who've ventured out to find area stores depleted of much-needed gear and equipment. A brown UPS truck has just unloaded dozens of box fans and shop-vacs, and a team of women are slicing into the cardboard with box cutters like an assembly line.
Where are the supplies coming from? An Amazon wish list, set up and maintained by a group of residents who field requests via Facebook and text message for diapers, tampons, formula, bleach, rubber bins, and all manner of sundry items. It's a system Shelfer also deployed when her family was flooded back home in Baton Rouge a year ago. "Friends kept asking me how they could help," she says "I made a list with 10 things on it and I was like, 'Send these to my family.'"
And so, for the past week, shipments arrive from friends and family members and coworkers and concerned onlookers of Nottingham Forest from across the state, and as far away as Australia, Amsterdam and Colombia. They're sent by parents who can't be there to help, by old neighbors who've moved away, former colleagues transferred abroad. Word of the wish list is spread on Facebook and WhatsApp and Nextdoor. Each new shipment arrives and is quickly set up by Shelfer and her army.
"It comes to my house, and then we rally the troops to come over and sort," says Shelfer, another lucky resident whose home didn't flood and who quickly volunteered her home as an operations center. "Then, down the street on Broadgreen is a storefront, with volunteers set up to work in the store. They’re in contact with us to tell us what they need and we send stuff to restock." Restocking means loading up her husband's truck; it's a pattern they repeat all day, every day.
"It's been a week of this now," says Shelfer. "It’s crazy. It’s crazy. It’s awesome."
Lulu weathers and Natalie Arellano share a strip of grass between the garages of their neighboring two-story homes. These garages are the dual destinations of those box fans and gallons of bleach, the masks and gloves and wheelbarrows. A card table is set up under a tent, where their team checks out heavy equipment and cleaning supplies to those in need. Pickup trucks pull in and out of both driveways one after another, picking up and dropping off.
"It's been really remarkable to see how much stuff comes in and then gets taken away so quickly," says Arellano. "And 80 to 90 percent has come from the Amazon wish list."
Like Shelfer and her team, Arellano and Weathers are also going on day seven of their storefront operation, and it's down to a science. Shelves are meticulously arranged by cleaning supplies and equipment; the selection rivals that of an Ace Hardware.
Down the block, the garage of Krista Sherlock is similarly organized, though hers is the storefront for personal items: diapers, both infant and adult; tampons and other sanitary items; breastfeeding supplies and formula. They're items that are deeply needed, but move more slowly.
"I can’t get anybody to come take this stuff; they’re too proud," says Sherlock. "What we started doing finally is that we just started making up care packages for people and delivering them." While her own storefront army drops off those supplies, her home has also turned into a de facto daycare for kids and dogs alike.
"I was puppy-sitting yesterday," she says. "I’ve not even bothered cleaning my house; there are toys everywhere." And then, with a laugh: "Dog-sitting. Who knew that would be a need?"
A hand-written sign on Devon Corley's front door lists the hours her home is open: Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday of this week. Friday, it's closed. "But knock—welcome if we are home."
Inside, every downstairs room of her tidy brick home is filled with metal racks hung with a rainbow of clothing in every size. "So this is newborn to 4 years old," says Corley, gesturing to her study. Across the foyer and into her dining room: "This is 5 and up over here." In the living room, even more: men's collared shirts, racks of maternity wear, "our shoe department," Corley smiles.
Another army of women is in here, folding clothes and sorting items; others are shopping, hoping to replace their own wardrobes, lost entirely. The kids' stuff is also going fast, with Spring Branch ISD classes resuming on Monday. Every item of clothing in here was donated by a fellow Nottingham Forest resident, or those from nearby neighborhoods who didn't take on as much water—and every item meticulously sorted into the sort of makeshift department store that would make a New York trunk sale tip its hat.
"Since we didn’t flood, my question was what can I do?" says Corley. "Since I have a retail background, this was a perfect fit." Hers is yet another storefront organized by the HOA and Mom's Club members, and further evidence of why it pays to be active in your community.
In the first few nights following the flood, Corley and her family hosted another family whose nearby home had been flooded: Kristen Hamilton, her husband David and their two toddlers, who later evacuated to the Heights. The Hamiltons' house had taken on three feet of water overnight. After they waded across the street to their neighbors' still-dry house, they watched as their Ford Explorer bobbed up with the flood waters until its brake lights were no longer visible. "It floated away," says Kristen Hamilton, "and a boat hit it and shattered the windshield."
Within 48 hours, the neighbors' house flooded too, and Hamilton's family ended up bunking down with fellow Mom's Club member Devon Corley.
"What if I hadn't joined the Mom's Club?" asks Hamilton of her decision to join, after she and her husband first moved to Nottingham Forest six years ago. "Honestly, I was just looking for some friends."
On Sunday, Corley will start packing up her storefront, as will many others. Families have to go back to work the next day—many companies have been as generous with time off as can generally be expected—and kids have to go back to school. Volunteers will also be back at work on Monday, and neighborhoods such as this one will need to wait for these and other clean-up crews until the following weekend. And at the back of the neighborhood, there are people who have yet to even begin cleaning out their homes.
"That is fantastic that our neighborhood is doing all of this, but if you think about the whole west side, not everybody has active communities that can do this," says Soleil Watt. And even as she acknowledges the massive efforts of Nottingham Forest, she knows there is still a tremendous amount of clean-up still ahead. "There’s still a lot of people in these neighborhoods that haven’t gotten to do a lot of that yet."
Kristen Hamilton is one of those people.
It's Sunday, September 10, and Kristen Hamilton has just put her kids to bed: a 1 year-old and a 3-year-old. "They probably won’t remember," she says of their evacuation from their flooding home, "but my 3-year-old is asking for all her old stuff."
She and her family evacuated into her parents' Heights home. "I think we’re here for at least a year," says Hamilton.
Their home in Nottingham Forest took on five-and-a-half feet of water, and is currently covered inside and out by a thick layer of sludge. When they were able to finally get into the home on Saturday, some water still remained. "There was a fish in my laundry room and my husband took it to the bayou to release it." She found her wedding rings encased by mud on the ledge of her sink—a lucky recovery. Other heirlooms were not so lucky: antique furniture passed down by great-grandparents, wedding photos.
It's been three nights here in the Heights, and Hamilton is reckoning with this new reality. "When we first got here and I started putting our stuff away in cabinets, I started crying because this is my home now," she says. "I’m not going back to that home. After six years and so many memories... That home will never exist again; even if we rebuild on that slab it’ll be a different house."
Like many Nottingham Forest residents, Hamilton tried for years to purchase a home in the popular neighborhood: With houses ranging from $420,000 to over $1 million, it's a relatively affordable way to get your kids into excellent public schools while living relatively close to town. Residents also favor its proximity to the Energy Corridor, which employs roughly 94,000 Houstonians across 300 oil-and-gas-related companies.
In one sense, its upper-middle-class homeowners are uniquely positioned to weather this flooding event: fortunate enough to have savings accounts and flood insurance and sympathetic employers and well-organized legions of stay-at-home moms and networks of similarly positioned people outside of Houston to ship in shop-vacs on UPS trucks.
But the flooding off Buffalo Bayou has still been a seismic shift, its long-term effects only barely beginning to be realized. Communities like Nottingham Forest are finding themselves fractured as neighbors are displaced; the old oak trees that define the area are dying; sinkholes and subsidence threaten portions of Beltway 8 that sat under 16 feet of water for days on end; older residents or those with tenuous financial situations may have to walk away from their homes entirely, as even the maximum amount of flood insurance available—$250,000, or $350,000 if you also had contents coverage—isn't nearly enough to build or purchase a replacement home in the Memorial area.
Hamilton is one of the 20 percent of Houstonians who had flood insurance on her home and its contents. "We’re very blessed in that sense," she says, "but it sounds like we’re gonna have to fight tooth and nail for every penny. We've been told we have to document every single thing." At the same time, she says, "we’re trying to start a new life, living in a new house that has to be organized and cleaned—we're just trying rebuild our lives in every sense. We have to replace every single thing. My husband said, 'This is going to be our full-time job.'"
Right now, they're just starting to try and reckon with decisions like whether or not to rebuild their home, which sat underwater for 14 days. Saturday, Hamilton and her family still needed waders to reach their street. Today, the water finally receded, but the wreckage that remains is dangerous, covered in black mold and smelling of raw sewage. "When I’ve been in there for a few minutes I start getting a headache," says Hamilton. "We’ve had so many people reaching out to us offering to help, but I just don’t feel comfortable letting them into that situation."
One thing is certain, says Hamilton: "We don't want to leave the neighborhood."
"We waited two years to get into Nottingham Forest. We made several offers on other houses before we finally got ours. And through this whole ordeal, just being in the Mom's Club and being connected with all these people who've just been so helpful, offering you places to stay, clothing, food—how do you leave that?"
Meanwhile, for both Kristen Hamilton and Soleil Watt, perhaps the biggest frustration is feeling forgotten by those outside their community. They'd been doing "the safe thing," said Watt. "You’re hunkering down. You’re staying at home. You have provisions for days. The storm is gone. You’re still staying at home ‘cause the roads are a mess. And then this happens. You have lost your home. You’ve lost your vehicles in the driveway. You’ve lost everything. Even your cell phones to make a phone call." And by this point, all of the city's resources were directed into the big shelters downtown.
"It’s very difficult to tell a neighbor who’s been impacted by this, okay there’s FEMA at NRG, there’s FEMA at George R. Brown," says Watt. "I don’t have to tell you the stories about the traffic on the west side of town. It can take upwards of an hour and a half just to get to the Galleria."
In addition to helping to bring those FEMA reps to Nottingham Forest, she's been persistent in drawing attention to the man-made disaster that's still playing out in west Houston. After all, a strong HOA association and a tight-knit Mom's Club can only help so much. All the wheelbarrows and volunteers in Houston can't move the tons of toxic debris that is lining curbs; Facebook can't buy out your home.
"We understand what had to happen with the release of the dams," said Watt. "That’s what they’re designed to do. And if it’s not done and they break, that would be the worst thing that could happen. But I do think people feel like, So we were the sacrificial lamb for this situation but what does that mean for us?"
The visit from Mayor Turner the day before had improved neighborhood morale, though Hamilton had been busy mucking through her home, unable to visit with Travis, Acevedo, Peña or Mayor Turner. "What did he accomplish?" she asks. "It sounded like it was a meet and greet." Like many Memorial residents, she's been unimpressed so far with the city's response: Houstonians like Hamilton and her neighbors want apologies, acknowledgement and assistance.
"It just seems like the City of Houston feels neighborhoods like us are kind of expendable," she says. Though if anything has been demonstrated on the streets of Nottingham Forest over the last two weeks, it's that the opposite is true.