David Lowy was born in Pasadena, Texas and grew up in Meyerland, where he lived until flooding from Hurricane Harvey forced his family to leave their home. Lowy remembers the impacts of Hurricane Carla in the 1960s and Hurricane Ike in 2008 but says that in his neighborhood damage was minimal. He also recalls that during the Memorial Day flood and the Tax Day flood, his neighborhood was spared from the flood waters.
Once water entered his home, Lowy and his family evacuated to a neighbor’s upstairs apartments, where they stayed for several days before moving into a hotel room paid for by FEMA. After the flood, Lowy explains the emotions he felt when he returned to his house and saw the damage. Volunteers helped Lowy remove damaged material from the house. He was also given money by FEMA to make repairs on the house. He and his family had no warning about the storm, as they did not watch the news. When asked about the impacts of the storm on the Jewish community in Meyerland, Lowy describes how he thinks most people will stay or return if they can afford it. Personally, Lowy wonders if he wants to return to his house, which his parents bought when he was a child and where he has lived since. He also laments the fact that the synagogue where he had his bar mitzva did not survive repeated flooding, yet the one where his father celebrated his in Europe managed to survive World War II. To end the conversation, Lowy talks about how, being Jewish, he comes from a family of survivors and that he believes most people will be able to make it through the moment of crisis.
Interviewee: David Lowy
Interview Date: October 9th
Interview Location: Houston History Magazine
Interviewer: Nella Sakic, Debbie Harwell
INTERVIEWER: It is October 9th, and we are in the Houston History Magazine space. And I’m here with Mr. Lowy, and I’m Nella Sakic.
NS: So can you state your full name and date of birth for the record, please?
DL: Yes, I’m David Charles Lowy. I was born December 4, 1953.
NS: Where are you from?
DL: I’m from Houston originally. I was born in Pasadena, but after three years, I’ve lived in Houston since then.
NS: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood?
DL: Well, I spent three years in Pasadena that I don’t remember much about. And then we were in the Oak Forest part of Houston, where we experienced Hurricane Carla in 1960. We were a Jewish family, though I don’t follow that religion [0:01:00] anymore, but I’m very aware of that history. And I have a brother and a sister that live in other states now — or actually, my sister died recently at age 70. My parents were from Czechoslovakia. They came here as refugees after World War II. They had sponsors in this area, so they settled here after visiting New York and Detroit where other relatives were.
And I went through second grade in the Oak Forest area, and then we moved to Meyerland. And that’s the home that got flooded out in Harvey. But we moved there in 1962, so I was eight years old at the time and lived there for 55 years before we got flooded. And it was our first time to be flooded in that location after neighbors had suffered three or four floods. And we’d never been touched [0:02:00].
NS: So you mentioned a bit about Hurricane Carla. Do you remember any experiences? Can you describe that experience maybe?
DL: I mainly remember there were a lot of tall pine trees in that part of town. Even though it was called Oak Forest, there were tall pines mostly. And I’m sure we saw a lot of debris from the trees bit nothing that affected us as much as this.
NS: And you mentioned that your neighbors had flooded three or four times prior to Harvey. Was any of that flooding during the Memorial Day flood or the Tax Day floods in 2016?
DL: Yeah, there were those two. And there was Tropical Storm Allison and then Harvey, so it’s a total of four for some of them. And there was a lot of rebuilding going on after Hurricane Ike [0:03:00]. Really — well, more so — not so much after Hurricane Ike, that wasn’t much damage to our area, but after the big floods of Memorial Day and Tax Day, I saw hundreds of new houses going up. And now, since Harvey, on our block alone, there are at least six to seven new two-story homes going up that are raised quite a bit off the ground.
NS: Did you make any preparations in advance for these floods to your house or just supplies?
DL: We would try to have enough drinking water and basic supplies like that. But we felt that we never flooded before and that it really wasn’t going to affect us. So we weren’t as prepared as we could have been. But as I’ve learned since then, the best preparation is knowing what to do once it happens rather than getting ready for it [0:04:00]. And some of the decisions that I made or really didn’t make as people volunteered to help clean out our house and take out the walls and floors and things are things I might do a little differently if it happened again.
NS: So during Hurricane Harvey, you were in your house in the Meyerland area?
NS: And it had flooded — not previously, but –?
DL: It hadn’t flooded before, but the morning of the 27th of August around 6:00 A.M., I started seeing water seep under the front door. And I thought a few towels would hold it back, because we’d had that situation before. But this time, it just kept coming.
NS: So the Meyerland area was really affected by Hurricane Harvey. Did you need to be evacuated from your house?
DL: Actually, we evacuated ourselves. Fortunately, neighbors behind us had an upstairs [0:05:00] garage apartment. And I heard people up there talking. And these were neighbors I hadn’t met before. And I asked if there was any more room up there, because my wife and son were still inside our flooded house up on our high beds, which we fortunately had. And until I arranged that, we weren’t sure what we were going to do next.
NS: So how long was it before you could return to your house after the flooding?
DL: We haven’t returned. We’re still living in a high rise on the south edge of downtown. After we left our house and the neighbor’s shelter for us, we went to a hotel downtown for three weeks that FEMA wound up paying for, because the hotel helped us understand how that process worked. And then I was looking for a place that we could rent in the meantime [0:06:00]. We didn’t really intend to repair the house. I’d been there so long, and there were — it was in — not that great shape before the flood, so we’re still trying to figure out where we’re going to go next. But we lived in a three-story townhome for six months. And then we moved to this 12th floor of the high rise that we’re in now. And there was actually a flood event in the high rise. During this time, the 8th floor had a plumbing problem. And everything below there was affected, including the elevators were flooded. But fortunately, we were on the 12th floor above it.
NS: Can you describe what you saw in your house after Harvey ended and you just returned back to see what happened?
DL: Well, during the situation, it was really dramatic [0:07:00], because we had a bit of a clutter problem before all this happened. So things that were on the floor were now floating around as I walked through deciding what I could save, what I could put on top of things. And it was very dramatic to see family photographs floating by. It was almost like a slideshow that I was watching. And each one was more interesting than the next — than the last. And it was pretty hard to live through, but then once it had all settled down and the water was gone, we didn’t immediately start tearing things out. So neighbors were doing that. First thing, of course, is taking sodden carpets out and so forth, but we waited a couple of weeks until a volunteer crew showed up. And we went ahead, but just looking around, you know, sloshing through the carpets and all, it’s heartbreaking really.
NS: Were you able [0:08:00] to recover any of the photographs and the valuables that were there?
DL: Yeah, a lot of stuff was above the flood level. We had about 18 inches of water, so there were things that were — that we could save. And when the crews cleaned the house out, a lot of the salvageable stuff went into our garage. And it’s sort of like a storage room for us now. So there’s quite a bit that I saved, but as I said, in the shock of what had happened, it’s hard to make the best decisions without planning for that. And there was a lot of stuff that I just threw out — I mean, valuable video tapes of my parents who are not alive anymore and other memorabilia that I just was ready to throw out without much consideration. And now, I wish I had saved some of that, which you know, was still good.
NS: So you mentioned that you had [0:09:00] volunteers help you clean out your house. Were these outside groups, neighbors, or just individual volunteers?
DL: Well, someone came by and said she represented the Mormon church and said they had crews that were going around helping people. And I kept her phone number and then realized that that would have been the best way to get out carpeting and furniture. Because it’s extremely exhausting work. And I’m already — I was 64 years old at the time — or 63, I guess. So I called, and they sent the 15 people around plus a couple that we hired. And they just tore into the house — probably more than it needed to be destroyed at the time. But some of that might have been something that we could have repaired. And since then, I’ve looked at walls that weren’t torn out. And I’ve seen that it really didn’t [0:10:00] show signs of mold going up as you might expect. So I’m not really sure what we were dealing with.
NS: Was your home covered by flood insurance? And you had mentioned you had help from FEMA. How are you dealing with the financial vantages?
DL: Well, as we’d never flooded before, we’d had flood insurance at some time in the past, but we stopped paying for that. So we didn’t have flood insurance, but I started the FEMA process, which is pretty straightforward. You fill out a form and submit it online. And they gave us a considerable amount of money towards making repairs. So far, we’re just holding onto that, because we haven’t done anything toward that. And it’s not real clear what their expectations area. Some things that I read said, you know, you’re expected to use this money for [0:11:00] repairs and keep track of expenses and so forth, because someone might audit what happened to that. But others who represented that group seemed to think, “Well, this is pretty much compensation for your loss.” But we did not have flood insurance.
NS: So you mentioned you’d been living in a high-rise apartment. Is there anything that you would do differently maybe? Like would you want to move back to your home? Or would you like to get into a new house? What are you post-Harvey plans?
DL: Well, at first, I considered the possibility of building a new house. We have some savings and so forth. And I thought it would be possible to get a mortgage to do that. But the one company that I talked with showed us various possibilities. And it would have been too expensive, and we didn’t really qualify for a mortgage of that size. So since then, I’ve had other ideas [0:12:00] — possibly a smaller home than we were talking about — that would be the same or actually larger than the one we lived in already. But fortunately, during that time, my wife got a job that she had applied for prior to the flood in a field that she’d worked in long ago. And in the middle of all this at the hotel, she got a call and was offered the job. So that’s helped us immensely. But all that she’s earning goes toward paying rent and groceries and so forth.
So I’ve looked into Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable homes. But they’re offering a mortgage — you know, a 30-year mortgage, so I would be in my 90s by then. And it’s — it really winds up being a lot of money over that amount of time [0:13:00]. Then a friend told me about a group called Rebuilding Houston Together or Rebuilding Together. And they offer services at no charge whatsoever to help people put their homes back into living conditions. So you have to be over 62 or with a very low income, so I might qualify to approach them. That sounds very interesting, but otherwise, we’re just thinking about where else we might live in town. Because the high rise is too expensive really for what we’re getting. And we were impulsive about moving in, because we assumed there’d be a shortage of places right after the storm. And we wanted to make sure we had something.
NS: I wish you the best of luck with that.
DL: Thank you.
NS: What are some necessities that you didn’t have in the aftermath of Harvey that you would be sure to have available as you prepare for hurricane season in the future?
DL: Well [0:14:00], it pretty much comes down to food that’s not going to go bad in the refrigerator and plenty of water and, I guess, the essentials. But really, it was odd, because before Harvey hit, we hadn’t heard anything about it. We don’t watch television much at all, and we don’t listen to the news much. So we weren’t prepared even that something was on its way. And a news crew was in Hermann Park, where my wife and I had been walking in the Japanese Gardens. And they approached us and said, “Well, what do you think about this Tropical Storm Harvey that’s headed our way?” And I just said — because I’d witnessed people flee the city with Hurricane Rita unnecessarily and to their detriment and even death in some cases. And I realized [0:15:00] that’s not what people need to do in this situation. And I said at that time, “Well, I don’t imagine the storm will be that devastating. We’re far enough in from the coast. And people, just stay where you are and try to weather it out.”
But you know, since then, we’ve tried to avoid news crews, because that came back to haunt us a couple days later. So you really can’t be that prepared, but you know, you have to survive. During Hurricane Ike, I would go out looking where there was food available, because grocery stores would be closed when they had no power. I’d look for ice to keep what we had for as long as possible. And we cooked in our gas fireplace at the time, because the electricity was out for us for as much as three weeks, I think. So it’s hard to be prepared.
NS: So you feel that even if you had warning [0:16:00] you wouldn’t have done anything differently?
DL: If we believed it, I would have given more thought to moving stuff up higher. You know, there’s plenty of places that we could have stacked things that were in jeopardy on the floor where they were, because our house wasn’t well-organized. So that would have been the main thing. Where can you put things? And we had space in our attic, though that’s a bad place to store things, I understand, from the fire department. Because that will catch fire rapidly if there’s a fire. But I think I would have thought about what could be saved and things like that — what to have done with the car that we lost.
We had two cars. One was electric. It was parked in the carport, and the water came in. And with a car like that, if it gets to the electronics, the car is pretty much finished. And it was, but [0:17:00] fortunately, years before, it was my mother and father who bought this house. And we used to have a little bit of rainwater leak into our garage. So my mother got tired of that, and she had the building raised — had the garage — about two feet, so an old car that I had in there from — a 1989 Chevrolet was spared. And we used that for a long time until November as our only car, because the other was ruined. So that worked out.
NS: So would you say that your experiences during Hurricane Harvey were different from other storms you’d experienced in the past?
DL: Different because it got to us. Previous ones where other neighbors flooded down the block — and they’d hear that we hadn’t flooded, they’d say, “Oh, we hate you,” you know, jokingly. But it happened to us this [0:18:00] time, so I mean, Ike was difficult to live through. Because the city looked kind of like war zone — traffic lights hanging out in the street and everything really messed up. Allison, I mean, what was the hurricane that started with an A? Not Tropical Storm Allison, but Alicia blew down our fence in the back and really destroyed a lot of downtown glass on all these office buildings. But it didn’t affect us like that.
NS: Do you have anything else you’d like to say or mention that I haven’t asked about?
DL: Well, I mean, seeing the — actually, during the event — because there was no electricity, and there was no real news that we could see at the time even where we were staying with the neighbors. We weren’t that aware of what was happening [0:19:00]. And until recently at one of the art studios where someone had a big exhibit of photographs and newspaper front pages from those few days, it — didn’t really see what the overall impact of it was. But to see headlines like this on the Chronicle saying, you know, Harvey dumps all this water on Houston and Houston under water. It really clarified to me what was really happening, because we couldn’t see it at the time. And we sort of tried to avoid the non-stop television coverage in the hotel, because it was so depressing.
But more than that, it’s inspiring to see how willing people were to help everyone. Even if it wasn’t the best thing to do sometimes, they just wanted to do something, especially when they weren’t directly affected. They still [0:20:00] felt emotionally affected seeing their neighbors or having been living as though they were on an island even though their house wasn’t flooded. So it’s something, you know, that my family shared and that makes the city more of a family, because you have to survive it and think about what do we do next time.
I’m not very encouraged by what I hear from government entities about how they’re preparing for the future. I mean, they’ve done a lot of digging on Brays Bayou before this occurred. And we thought, “Oh, that’s going to help us.” And they’re doing more now, but you don’t get a lot of direct answers from the so-called flood czar that is the engineer who ran for mayor.
And one thing that I’ve seen from living near downtown is [0:21:00] a more direct view of the homeless problem. Because since Harvey, I’ve read statistics. There’s some 1,600 people still unsheltered. And so you see little tent communities under bridges and so forth. And it seems like that from a humane perspective could be handled rather quickly, so that people have a decent place to at least be sheltered. And there’s all that land where AstroWorld and WaterWorld used to be — could easily set up an encampment there with decent bathroom facilities and provide food and so forth until people had their lives straightened out and help them to start doing that, because I’ve seen tragic cases of people obviously having a drug situation and just draped over a bench downtown. And they’re young people who look in good physical [0:22:00] condition, but they’re getting wiped out. I think the city can do a lot more and a lot more quickly.
NS: Thank you so much. Also, I wanted to know your opinion on the phrase Houston Strong.
NS: Just what does it mean to you necessarily about Houston and the people in the city?
DL: Well, having grown up around here, I witnessed Houston as having a rather small town feel in the last 50’s and 60’s. And it became more impersonal as people came in from all over the place and started to be just like other big cities, but obviously, people are strong that can survive things. But frequently, we don’t — we don’t know, you know, what to do with the future or how to get [0:23:00] governments to really help us in the way they can. I’m afraid Houston Strong winds up meaning the Astros more than anything else, because they’re hoping they’ll go two years in a row in winning this thing. Well, that helped lift our spirits last year, but I think we need more than baseball to make this city survive, I mean, a long time in the future. Galveston in 1900 raised a whole city. Now, they’re talking about build new houses and — yeah, they have them four feet off the ground. Well, maybe the whole city should have built — been built like that to begin with.
DH: Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?
DL: Go ahead, please.
DH: You had been in that home for over 50 years [0:24:00]. And I know as somebody who grew up in nearby in Westbury that that area there in Meyerland didn’t flood like that 50-something years ago. And I’m just curious to know what you observed over that time and how the change occurred.
DL: Well, in 1981, I actually ran for mayor as what I call the sense of humor candidate. And I learned a little bit more about what was going on, and I paid attention to Kathy Whitmire at the time, who became mayor in 1982. And they started passing ordinances, saying you have to have water retention ponds when you build new things and setback ordinances and so forth. And I’m not sure that that’s really been followed as strictly as it needed to be. You do [0:25:00] see new building projects, and there will be large water retention. But obviously, that hasn’t done enough.
So from what I understand, the building to the west of Meyerland — building all around has added to this problem, especially because of our — I don’t know what you call the — our source of water here, but it causes the city to sink a little bit over time. And it all just adds up, and people don’t really adhere to what’s advisable. Or if it’s not enough, then over time, it creates a bigger problem.
DH: You mentioned also that you were Jewish.
DH: How do you think Harvey’s going to impact the Jewish community? Because I know synagogues were flooded. The Jewish Community Center had flood damage. Some other people [0:26:00] that I’ve met and talked to feel like they have to make decisions that they don’t want to keep going through this over and over again. How do you see that impacting the community overall?
A. Well, the synagogue where I was bar mitzvah-ed was basically destroyed by this. They’ve torn it down now, and they’re trying to get a new building, which is ironical. Because I visited Europe where my father was bar mitzvah-ed in 1920-something. That synagogue still stands, though it’s kind of a wreck after going through the war. And they sort of leave it that way on purpose rather than restore this beautiful synagogue. But it was a shock to me to hear that my — the one where I studied is gone. And the elementary school that I went to is gone. So as far as its impact on the Jewish community, I’m not sure [0:27:00]. Some of them that I knew from the neighborhood are now in high rises as well. And they don’t want to risk that anymore.
But the Jewish community has moved from this part of town in the — I guess it was in the 40’s and 50’s to Meyerland and Memorial area and so forth. I don’t know that it’s as distinct a community anymore as it used to be. But people will stay, but — and if they can afford it, they’ll raise their homes or build something new. I’m attached to the area, too. When I go back to the — to the wrecked house, I don’t feel like it’s pulling me that strongly, but it was a comfortable place to be certainly compared to the noise and constant commotion around where we live now. You could have some quiet, you know [0:28:00], so — but my son, who’s a student here at the U of H in the Honors College is happy to have made a change now. He lives with us still, but he says, “That was that phase of life, and I really wouldn’t want to go back to it,” according to him, so.
And the other thing is convenience. Where we are, it’s quite convenient to take him here to the U of H and my wife to where she works. Or if I wasn’t driving them, we have the METRO rail right there and the bus lines that make it pretty easy, so. But in that house, I would think, “Am I going to live here all my life?” Because my mom died in that house 25 years ago this month. And my father got into be into his late 80s. And I thought, “I’d really like a change of some kind.” When this first happened [0:29:00], and we were seeing new things, because we were forced out of there, I thought, “Well, this might be for the best,” because I never was going to get out of there, so.
DH: I see you’re still wearing your shirt, “I love Meyerland.”
DL: Yeah, I wore that on purpose today. This was at one of their annual, you know, get out and meet the neighbor events. This was five years ago, so yeah, it was nice. But I’ve — I use a device for exercising called the StreetStrider. And it’s like an elliptical cycle that you can actually ride on the streets and the trails. So I’ve gotten to ride on this fantastic Eleanor Tinsley trail and participated in this past weekend a 20-mile ride from Hermann Park to the Port of Houston and back. So it’s — things are a lot more accessible to me now. Otherwise [0:30:00], I’d have to rent a truck to transport this over here.
So there have been some interesting changes, but you still feel unsettled. As my wife says, it doesn’t feel like home. And she wants to have that feeling again somewhere. So we’re thinking either to find something now or certainly when my son graduates in another year and a half. She came from a small town in Arkansas, so she thought something smaller and more serene might be nice as we get a little older.
DL: Yeah, I just didn’t expect to have to do it at this stage, but we have a neighbor from down the street who’s 80 years old now. And he’s been a physician for a long time, but he’s just as shocked and unsettled and uncertain about what to do with [0:31:00] his house — his old house. And they’ve — they bought another house not too far away, but their Meyerland house is just sitting there. So it’s surprising to me someone who’s so established and definite about things is in the same boat as we are basically.
DH: In your neighborhood, what percentage of the homes are vacant, waiting for a decision, or waiting to be torn down or fixed?
DL: I would say, you know, over 90 percent are still not occupied. There were only a couple neighbors who were really restoring it. I know of three that are back in — maybe four — and lots being built while they live elsewhere. And it’s not — it’s not very populated at the moment.
DH: I can’t imagine.
DL: Yeah [0:32:00].
DH: Didn’t you tell me you lived not far from the Meyerland Library?
DH: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
DL: Yeah, the library has been closed. And they’re talking about building a new one, not in that same spot, but you know, I grew up at that library. It was always a little hard to get to, because you had to cross Bellfort. And Bellfort is very busy. I’d appealed to the city at some point to build a pedestrian crosswalk or at least put up a light of some kind. But they said there hadn’t been enough accidents there to justify, so.
DH: Did that area, Bellfort and Post Oak, flood also?
DH: It did?
DL: Yeah, I mean, the Kroger parking lot was above a little bit, I guess. But it’d always flood badly on Bellfort — even less severe storms than that [0:33:00]. So getting out of there, I mean, we were at the neighbors for probably two nights, sleeping on their floor with five or six other people, and five cats were being kept in the bathroom. And it was no working toilet at first. But getting away from there to get downtown was a challenge, because the streets had not completely drained yet. And some of these — Allen Parkway and so forth, under the bridges, were totally inaccessible. So I had to find a way to the hotel that we’d reserved. And we saw a lot of the devastation then.
DH: I can’t imagine.
DL: Yeah. Well, I thought — when previous storms happened, I’ve seen flooding and — from Allison especially. That was really bad along the bayou [0:34:00]. And all — everybody’s stuff piled in front of these nice homes and so forth. And I had saw that a few times, and I thought, “If this ever happens to us, I’d probably lose my mind.” You know, I don’t know what we would do — how we would respond. But I didn’t, because you have to — you have to do something. And my mind kept working to think, “Well, we need a hotel. We need an apartment.” In the midst of — I mean, sitting next to neighbors who were also looking at their phones, I’m trying to get a hotel reservation.
I’m not sure what they were doing, but we — I come from survivors. My family went through so much in World War II, so I would imagine that’s a genetic inheritance as well. You have to — you have to do what needs doing. My father’s tombstone — written on there says, “We have to do the best we can [0:35:00].” And that applies to everything we’re living through politically and so forth right now as well as storms and whatever. You can still do good, you know. You just keep doing the good that you can. And be aware of what’s happening externally. But that doesn’t stop people from being good. And most people are.
DH: I’d like to believe that.
DL: Yeah, it’s true.
DH: Thank you.
NS: Thank you. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us today.
DL: You’re welcome. It’s great to meet you, and I’m — it’s nice to have the opportunity. It helps clarify the situation for me, having written a couple of pieces that I shared with you. And that’s helpful to people who’ve gone through this. I also participated in a group that’s called Mind, Body, Medicine. And it was an 8-week group that my family participated [0:36:00] in, exploring the feelings about this as well as life in general — and finding techniques for dealing with stress and dealing with this kind of disaster. And people in the group — eight or nine people became very close during that time. And we have reunions, and it’s kind of like a family connected by the situation. And seeing how they cope and progress — and they see us as well. We seem pretty cheerful most of the time, but we’re still dealing with all of that.
DH: Thank you.
DL: You’re quite welcome. Thank you. [0:36:49]