Helen Benjamin has lived in Houston for more than fifty years. She moved here as a teenager to attend beauty school while also studying at Wheatley High School. In 2001, her house flooded during Tropical Storm Allison. Benjamin recalls waiting for hours to be rescued. The shelters around the city were all full, so Benjamin and other evacuees were driven around the city in an attempt to find a shelter before being taken to George R. Brown Convention Center. Benjamin explains that Hurricane Harvey was worse than Allison because the flood water stuck around for longer and it was more difficult to repair the damage to her house due to the fact that her flood insurance had expired. Benjamin received financial support from FEMA and from readers of USA Today. A journalist wrote about Benjamin’s experience for the newspaper and Benjamin received money in the mail from readers. She remembers that her neighborhood was like a big family and that neighbors checked on her during the flood. Repairs on her house took about six months, and Benjamin was displaced from September to April. She stayed in a hotel paid for by FEMA. At the end of the conversation, Benjamin talks about the students from South Dakota who came to help her repair her house.
You can read the transcript of her interview here:
Emiliano: Today’s date is April 26th my name is Emiliano Orozco and I’m conducting this interview for the center of public history at UH. Can you state your name and your birthdate?
Ms. Benjamin: My name is Helen Benjamin and my birthday is October the 1st, 1938.
Emiliano: Thank you. How long have you lived in Houston?
Ms. Benjamin: I’ve lived in Houston for over fifty-some years
Emiliano: Where were you from originally?
Ms. Benjamin: Montgomery, TX.
Emiliano: How was the switch from Montgomery to Texas?
Ms. Benjamin: Well I asked my mother about going to beauty school my aunt taught me how to do hair. And when I got ready to go to the tenth grade I didn’t think she was gonna let me do it but she me if I still wanted to do it and I said yes so she let me come to Houston for that reason so I came and I went to Phillis Wheatley in the day time and went to franklin beauty school at night.
Emiliano: That awesome. I don’t think my dad would have let me do that…So we’re going to get straight into the question here. What is your experience with past tropical storms and Hurricanes?
Ms. Benjamin: Well in 01 my house flooded from Allison and we got water almost up to out knees. We didn’t get as much with Harvey but we got water in up over out ankles and it stayed in the house through to maybe that Monday before it started moving out. And they were supposed to pick us up that Sunday and we stayed out on Logerwood and Mckay street until after Sunday. They were supposed to be picking us up around 2:30 we stayed out there till after 7:30 that night and we didn’t get picked up because every time the truck would pass they was already loaded and they said we coming back we coming back. And it got to be a fun thing though because people was floating up and down Lockwood with boats and whatever you know and, but anyway we sat in the back of our neighbor’s truck and came in the house and so my friend told me she go’n to send a post card I mean the coast guard to pick us up and they said it was coming but nobody showed up so I just decided to lay down with my clothes on and wait for them but they didn’t but the firemen finally picked us up on Monday. So they said they was taking us to George R Brown but it was full. They took us all the way to south paw, it was full so they brought us back to George R Brown they was see’n take us to the cancer center but anyway finally my daughter told them that I couldn’t take it anymore it was after midnight and we had been gone ever since about I’d say about six o’clock or so. First of all the truck into a ditch with us and we had to get off in the high water waiting. The people there, you know he was dodging another truck so he asked them would they take us to the transit center. And they said no and they said they didn’t have a chain but they did but they pulled that truck out and then we was on the other truck and they said get off the truck get on the other truck. By the time we got to George R Brown I was cold and shake’n and everything else but it worked out you know and like I said I didn’t fear because I know god is everywhere and so we made it through.
Emiliano: Was the situation similar when it came to Harvey?
Ms. Benjamin: It was worse with Harvey.
Emiliano: How so?
Ms. Benjamin: Well, the water stayed in the house a long time and then my house didn’t dry so easy and we didn’t know why. And they finally went to pull my hardwood floors cut a hole in it and they found out water was standing under there like little lakes. We had this house built in the year that president Kennedy got killed. The same month. I was supposed to move into my house for thanksgiving and after he got killed I didn’t get in here until December the fourth and so the only thing that was waiting for us the light pole but when they built this house we found out the wood floors was built on top of plastic. They had plastic up under there and that’s why the water wasn’t going out. The plastic was holding the water and once they pulled it was little lakes under there.
Emiliano: Yeah I had never heard about plastic being used like that.
Ms. Benjamin: Well like I said the floor, when Allison was my floor rose up that high but a guy told us that don’t worry the wood floors will go back down and they did. So I had them refinished but this time, you know I had done them go.
Emiliano: So when did you know that Harvey was going to be a serious event?
Ms. Benjamin: Well, I woke up to go to the restroom and the water was coming in and I knew once it started coming in it was coming in because out here it was like this up on the windows so it was higher outside and in the garage. We lost both out cars. My daughters and I.
Emiliano: Your daughters, they live in the same neighborhood?
Ms. Benjamin: My daughter lived here with me.
Emiliano: O, I see.
Ms. Benjamin: Well my only daughter, she had more water than I did cause she lived out close to where you may not be familiar with, a park in that area . At beltway 8 and tenwheel
Emiliano: So with all that destruction that’s happening to the cars and to the house how did you survive the storm? How did you handle the storm?
Ms. Benjamin: Well, once I got out, my daughter was working for chase and so they had laid her off but they let her work another month. They laid seventeen of them off in September. And she was in that number so they let her work till October and they wined up giving her some funds to have a place so we went to a hotel and stayed. First we were at George R. Brown but a friend of mine, one of my friend’s friend was doing volunteer work and so she took us to her home. Me and my friend we stayed there two or three days and after that we stayed in hotels and whatever until, I didn’t back in my house until April.
Emiliano: So did most of the assistance come from FEMA or did you get other outside type of help?
Ms. Benjamin: I got other outside help, but it was because of USA Today. I have to give them some credit because I was staying at the Hilton at the galleria and that Saturday next weekend I had my church hat on my head and my purse and my bag and to get on the elevators after nine o’clock you had to use your key for it to stop of your floor so I asked this lady to take my key so I’d be able to get off on my floor for me and put it in the little slot where it belongs but anyway when we got off I mean when it stopped I told her, you know “thank you for everything” and she said “no I’m taking your belongings to your room if you don’t mind” and I said “okay” so we got off the elevator and she asked me was I alone and I said “no, my daughter’s here” but my sister in-law was in a wheel chair so once my niece would drop her off my daughter would stay with my niece and they would go to the parking garage so she wouldn’t be by herself. And so, she asked me if I’ve heard of USA Today and I said “yes I have” and she said, “well I’m tired but I’m going to take you to your room and I don’t want to steal your daughter” and I said “you’re not going to steal my daughter, take care of my daughter” and but anyway, she told me she was here to write as many Harvey stories as she could. And I said “that’s the same reason I’m here because of Harvey”. And she said “well do you mind me writing your story?” and I said “no” and she said “I don’t want to pressure you but I would like for you to do it if you don’t mind” and I told her I would do it. So she done my story. That Sunday she asked me where I go to church and I told her fieldworth Church of Christ and she said “my whole family Church of Christ” and I said well “God have a way of putting his people together” we just hugged. But anyway, that Sunday she asked where I was going to church and she said well I’m going then she said “you mind if I go to church with you?”. I said “no” so she said I could ride with her or she could follow me or whatever and me and my daughter would help. So I just told my daughter I would ride with them and the camera guy, I thought it was her husband and she said “no that’s not my husband”. He was a camera man his name was Larry and I had a son named Larry I lost. My only son so quite naturally I told them “I won’t forget that name”. But anyway, to make a long story short, she went to church with me and she came here and they filmed everything. My trash on the street. My house and she went to my daughter’s house on Tidwell and filmed over there and everything and recorded everything, you know. And from that my niece had told me she said “Helen, don’t worry”, I was caught up this time without insurance. I had it in ’01 and I had this insurance for years but I think after they paid me after so many months, after Allison, they just wrote me and said that I was no longer insured so I was kinda playing out there, you know, going to get more insurance. Flood insurance is one you got to pay it all at one time and one time I had the money something major came up. And so I didn’t have it all at one time so I just got caught up this time without insurance. But, from that story, I received money in the mail from various people, from various places. And, plus my church, and a different one helped me with my house. And when they paid me for my car, I let the money from the car go towards the house, being repaired.
Emiliano: So USA Today, they had a big impact right?
Ms. Benjamin: Yeah
Emiliano: So did your story get shared in the news at all?
Ms. Benjamin: Yes, it did. It wined up being in USA Today.
Emiliano: That’s really cool
Ms. Benjamin: And, she also put it on facebook.
Emiliano: That was really nice of them.
Ms. Benjamin: And I still hear from some of the people. One of the ladies sent me a little quilted piece for my table a few weeks ago and some little mats and sent my grand daughter something. And it was so funny because, you know, everybody mostly sent me some color books and I was thinking colorbooks? So that Sunday night she said she had to come tuck me into bed, the lady from USA, and she and larry came to my room and I was in the bed coloring so I got coloring books and Crayola’s and pencils. So anyway, you know, so I’m thankful. I’ve been blessed that’s all I can say.
Emiliano: So what was the most significant moment of Hurricane Harvey for you?
Ms. Benjamin: Being out there going from one end of town to another didn’t know where I was going to lay my head down but after that I didn’t really worry about it too much.
Emiliano: How did you move around when the storm hit?
Ms. Benjamin: They came and picked us up in a truck like I said. It was a dump truck. One of those dirty, high high trucks. When had to climb a ladder to get in.
Emiliano: That must have been really strange to climb up in there.
Ms. Benjamin: My problem was I had both knees replaced and of course the farmers told me we got you. We’re not going to let you fall. And like I said once we got in the ditch we had to get off and go back through the procedure. That was the worst of it for me.
Emiliano: Is there something that you didn’t tell USA Today that you’d like to tell us? Or just get out there in the open?
Ms. Benjamin: Tell who? Would like to tell who?
Emiliano: Just for the purposes of this recording. Maybe something that you felt like sharing that you didn’t get to share earlier?
Ms. Benjamin: Not really. We had some young people came in here from South Dakota. And they was all students. And they came and done our yards and took pictures with me and that was through the city because you know they came here from different parts of the country but the ones that came and helped me was from Dakota. And they was on a bus which you travel on. But anyway, they stayed here and I asked them to do my neighbor’s. But anyway, I was touched by that and they told me to come to south Dakota and they going to show me a real blizzard. Come visit them. *laughs
Bryan: Don’t want to be in a blizzard.
Ms. Benjamin: A real blizzard so we thing we had something but they going to show me a real one.
Emiliano: Yeah I come from Washington State so whenever I think about complaining about the weather here something it’s like no it’s way colder over there.
Ms. Benjamin: Where you from?
Emiliano: Washington State. So yeah pretty big difference.
Bryan: Yeah my name’s Bryan Salazar I’m going to ask you a few questions as well. Through Hurricane Harvey you saw your home, you know, had water and damage. How did your neighbors fare?
Ms. Benjamin: How did my neighbor’s fare? My neighbors was, we became like a big family, really. When Allison, people that had been speaking, you know, people come along, we were just like one big family. And the thing that touched me was that Sunday, you know because it hit that Sunday morning when the water started coming in, the neighbors down the street came and knocked on my door and wanted to know if we wanted them to push the cars out because my daughter’s car really, my car was in the garage and her car was in the front and water was already up to the seats in her car. And they was seeing that too much water had already got in her car. When you leave here to can see that we’re sitting in a hole. It really is from the street. When we build this house we had to build, my husband had about five loads of dirt put in here but you know it was still not enough and then we’ve had some put in since then. But we really are sitting in a hole from the street, you know. And the water don’t drain too much because if it rain a lot the water can really run and grow like last week the water was probably almost up to the end of this table on the patio.
Bryan: Just from the past thunderstorm?
Ms. Benjamin: No just from the rain, you know if it keep raining. So you know it wouldn’t take much for the flood to get in here. That water tore that door out of there. It was just hang’n. And we had to just pull it on off. So It’s powerful and when Allison was and water was so high in here that the refrigerator flipped and was flowing through the house.
Emiliano: That same refrigerator?
Ms. Benjamin: No I lost my refrigerator. Lost my washer, my dryer, my refrigerator. And I had soul cookies and banana bread to buy and I’m surprised the stove is still working. But they said they couldn’t fix my refrigerator. That’s a used box I bought from a guy.
Bryan: Had to put in new furniture?
Ms. Benjamin: No that came from my son. Yes I lost my bed and stuff this time. But it had went through Allison with all that water so some things we saved and some things couldn’t too much water got in. So, anyway, that was my son that passed away, but other son had and he just brought it and gave it to me. But after Allison I bought furniture for a reason. But, you know, other than that I lost the air conditioner. That’s a new air conditioner cause that was given to me, I thank god for that. But anyway, it was a different, you know.
Bryan: How long did repairs take for you home and the area here?
Ms. Benjamin: I just got back in my house in April. Some people still not in they houses. It was April before I got back in here. September to April. I stayed on Richmond at, gosh, conference suite. But FEMA was taking care of it.
Bryan: Is there any unique challenges that this community still faces with Harvey?
Ms. Benjamin: Do I need challenges? Make that statement again.
Bryan: Okay, Are you still suffering some challenges under Hurricane Harvey? Or do you know anybody here that still has some challenges with that process?
Ms. Benjamin: I don’t know right off. Mr. Downey mentioned some people. I don’t right now that I can think of. This one lady had been sleeping in her truck. But she finally got back in her house I think in maybe a month ago. She was brought up that maybe she’d been in a house or so. But I can’t say I do.
Bryan: What else do you want the community to know about Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the fifth ward?
Ms. Benjamin: I’ll tell you what I don’t want to see it happen again. But I know we have no control of it because some people said it didn’t flood out here but you shoulda been here. You would know it flooded. Because this whole area was just like a lake. And when you went out in my yard water was up to here. I had boots in the water and the water was getting into the boots. And we had to slap around the water in here. The only way you could get out of it was take the towel and dry your feet off and get up in the middle of the bed somewhere but, you know, we lost the mattress and all that stuff but when you got tired of it you just found a way to just dry your feet and get on into bed somewhere.
Emiliano: So is there anyone else that you know that’d be willing to be interviewed?
Ms. Benjamin: I don’t know. My neighbor next door said she couldn’t. She’s got dementia now so I don’t know whether it’d be wise cause she tell me all the time she won’t never she won’t be able to take this again. And it affected her, well this is probably, coming on all the time and she was very faithful to, that’s why I wonder, young people came and asked them would they go do her yard and whatever which they did. Her son stays with her and but you know like I said I don’t know how she’d feel about doing this, you know. I didn’t see the car here I don’t know if she has a doctor’s appointment or what, she might be back out there. But, you know, her grandson, I could talk to him and he might be able to agree with it but I don’t know.
Emiliano: Well, that’s pretty much all the questions we have. Thank you again for being able to be interviewed and contributing to our oral history project.
Ms. Benjamin: Okay
Bryan: Thank you so much
Ms. Benjamin: Thank you all for your time.