Dan Phelps took this photo during the height of the rainfall during Hurricane Harvey — a truck that had gotten stuck in front of his house was nearly fully submerged.
Maria has ravaged Puerto Rico. Lee roils in the middle of the Atlantic. Florida and the Caribbean are reeling in Irma’s wake.
And more than a month after it made landfall, Hurricane Harvey’s survivors are starting to put their lives back together.
“It’s overwhelming, the scope of everything that needs to be done,” said Dan Phelps, a Liverpool native who moved to Houston with his wife, Annie Walker, in 2013. “We’re just kind of moving from one thing to the next in line.”
The first floor of Phelps’ and Walker’s home filled with more than 40 inches of water as Harvey dumped foot after foot of rain on the city over a period of three days.
“It’s been an interesting emotional rollercoaster, to say the least,” Phelps said.
The rain started Friday, Aug. 25, and continued through Saturday and into Sunday.
“Sunday was when it started to get really bad,” Phelps said. “Even in the 40 years… since the neighborhood was built [neighbors said] it’s never flooded like this.”
Still, Phelps said their neighborhood was never under a mandatory evacuation order; the flooding was contained to the streets and lower-lying areas of the neighborhood.
“As those big feeder bands from the hurricane passed over us and the sun came out and it gave us a break, it gave the bayou a chance to suck the water out of the neighborhood and drain,” Phelps said. “There were times on Sunday when we had zero water in front of the house at all. It had all drained away.”
The rain started again at about 11 p.m. Sunday — heavy, driving rain. Phelps and Walker watched it creep up their driveway.
Meanwhile, the city’s reservoirs, meant to catch runoff from the north and west, were starting to overflow. The Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to release water from those reservoirs into the bayou to relieve flooding nearby, staggering the release times so that one would be released at 12:20 a.m. Monday and another between 2 and 5 p.m. Monday.
Instead, the first reservoir was opened at 11:30 p.m. Sunday. The next opened up two and a half hours later.
“They never gave the water in our neighborhood a chance to drain away on its own like it had earlier on Saturday and Sunday,” Phelps said. “All the water came back up through the drainage. … They purposefully flooded us to save further downstream, you know, save the city, downtown, and some of the nicer neighborhoods in the inner loop and Galleria area. They flooded all of us to save that.”
By 9:30 Monday morning, water had crept up to Phelps’ and Walker’s front door and started to seep into the house. Ultimately they had to be evacuated by boat; they left the house with nothing but the clothes on their backs, their two cats, dog Chainsaw and a few supplies.
“When we left the house I’d say there was probably, I don’t know, eight inches of water in the house,” Phelps said.
On Sept. 10, Phelps and Walker went back to the house to retrieve some additional belongings—and they witnessed the true extent of the devastation.
“I think the high water line in the living room was about 40, almost 41 inches,” Phelps said. “Nobody could save any of their stuff. Cars are all gone, all of our furniture, appliances, I mean everything. It’s just, it’s all gone.”
As they figure out their next steps, Phelps said there have been “some misty-eyed times.”
“It’s our first home together,” he said. “It’s funny, because Annie and I were both looking at houses online for a year and a half, and we never agreed on one thing that we liked or an area that we liked. Then we both, independently, saw this one in a search … and we were like, ‘This is the house.’”
The house, located close to parks and both of their jobs, was everything Phelps and Walker were looking for when they bought it in 2015.
“It’s a perfect neighborhood,” Phelps said. “A fully established neighborhood, a lot like Liverpool, you know, trees, established trees … So, you know, it kind of sucks to have your first home — it’s basically almost all been ripped away, in a manner of speaking. It’s been tough.”
He said it’s been surprisingly hard to lose the accumulated detritus of life.
“I know everyone always says, ‘It’s just stuff. It can be replaced,’” he said. “But you know what? A lot of it’s not just stuff. A lot of it is a lot of important intrinsic value or it came from someone or something special.”
Then there are the simple logistics of rebuilding — filing claims with FEMA and their home insurance, throwing away their ruined furniture, gutting and replacing the rotted drywall, certifying the house mold-free, finding contractors for every step, etc. Phelps said he was thankful for the many volunteers, and the oil and gas service company he and Walker both work for has been “very awesome.”
“They said, ‘Take what time you need,’” Phelps said. “They arranged volunteers from work… they’ve been excellent. All the people here have been incredibly helpful, asking what they can do. They also set up a donation fund, and they’re matching all the donations that were donated by all the employees. They’re going to dole that out to all of the affected people.”
Meanwhile, Walker and Phelps didn’t have flood insurance on their home.
“Our house is not in a floodplain at all,” Phelps said. “The entire neighborhood, most of us didn’t have flood insurance, because it wasn’t required.”
Since the house will be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, Phelps said he and Walker are currently renting a one-bedroom apartment. They’ve also had to replace all of their possessions — from plates, pots and pans to cat and dog food to a car — as well as buy everything they need for cleanup and reconstruction, meaning money is extremely tight.
“I had to call my parents and ask them for money to help pay for the apartment,” he said. “I literally had to call my parents in tears saying, ‘Please help.’”
To help them out, Phelps’ hometown neighbor, Liverpool Central School District strings teacher Becky Dodd, has set up a GoFundMe so that people can donate.
“We like to do stuff on our own. We’re very independent. But we couldn’t do it,” Phelps said. “There’s just so much startup cost.”
He said he and Walker were overwhelmed with the support they’d received.
“I feel indebted to everyone,” he said. “I mean, it’s amazing the how much people are willing to help out. Every little bit helps.”
“Overwhelmed” is perhaps the best word to describe Phelps’ perpetual state these days.
“You always sit there in your house watching the news, and you say, ‘It always happens to someone else,’” he said. And you say, ‘God, that must be so terrible. I feel so bad.’ But then you go to your fridge and grab a beer, and whatever, and life goes on. But it never happens to you. It always happens to someone else. But now it’s happened to you, and it’s like holy [expletive]! It’s like I’m so overwhelmed with the gravity of the entire situation, I don’t even know where to start. I mean, the only place we could start was to shovel muck out of the house and throw everything into a giant debris pile in the front yard, then rip out the walls. But then what?”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.