Jane Wong lives in Katy, Texas with her parents, siblings, and grandmother. During Hurricane Harvey, every house in her neighborhood flooded. Wong recalls that her mother was nervous about Harvey as it approached and had Wong and her siblings move most of the furniture in the house to the second floor to protect from flooding.
They also tried to block their doors with plastic to keep the water out. However, water did not come in through the doors, but through drains in the house. Wong says that she and her family evacuated on kayaks the morning after their house flooded and that they stayed with friends nearby who had not flooded. Wong remembers her grandmother receiving a lot of help from volunteers as they were being evacuated. She explains that it was very odd to see boats going down the streets of her neighborhood, and that her family was one of the last to leave the neighborhood because they did not think anything bad was going to happen. Her family did not have flood insurance and later found out that their neighborhood had been built where houses were not supposed to have been built. The neighborhood filed a lawsuit against the developers. She says that while her family did not want to overstay their welcome at their friend’s house, the friends were very welcoming and wanted to help. Her family then moved into an empty rental property owned by another family friend. Wong says that the process of getting aid from FEMA was very challenging for her parents, and that they did not get the amount they wanted. Her family demolished their old house and built a new one on the same lot and was able to move in the following January. Her family held many parties and barbeques to thank neighbors for their help. Her father also purchased a new truck after the storm so that if their neighborhood floods again he will be able to help others evacuate.
Interviewee: Jane Wong
Interview Date: October 22, 2018
Interview Location: University of Houston
Interviewer: Bernice Tsao
INTERVIEWER: Today is October 22, 2018. My name is Bernice Tsao, and I’m here today at the University of Houston with Jane Wong as part of the University of Houston’s Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project. We will be talking today about Jane’s experience as a Hurricane Harvey survivor.
BT: Are you ready?
BT: Great. Please state your name, and tell me a little bit about yourself.
JW: My name is Jane, and I am a senior here at the University of Houston. I’m studying Biology, and I — that’s about me.
BT: Thank you. Can you state your date of birth for me and where you were born as well?
JW: I was born on February 20, 1997. And I was born right here in Houston.
BT: So you were born in Houston. What area of Houston do you live [0:01:00] in?
JW: I live in Katy right now.
BT: Have you always been living in the same house? Or did you move?
JW: I moved once in fifth grade from the Cypress area to Katy where I am now. It was just once.
BT: So for how long have you lived in Katy?
JW: So I live in Katy probably about 10 years now — 10, 11, years.
BT: Do you mind telling me a bit about your house, your neighborhood, the kinds of people who live there, both in your house and in your neighborhood? Do you have any pets? What is the structure of your house?
JW: So my neighborhood only has 99 houses in it. There’s only one entrance and one exit. It’s a big circle. And the houses there are pretty big. Most people have pets. I, myself, have three dogs. That was difficult. It’s a really quiet neighborhood. There’s no public pool [0:02:00], no public playground, so sometimes you’ll see neighbors walking around walking their dogs or getting mail. But other than that, we live in a pretty quiet neighborhood — no real activity. Sometimes there’s children in the cul-de-sac, but yeah.
BT: So you live with your three dogs. And you live with your family?
JW: Uh-huh, so I live with my mom, dad, two siblings, and my grandma lives with me as well. So it’s six of us and three dogs.
BT: That’s a lot of people. So before Harvey hit Houston, what did your family think regarding the impending hurricane? Or did you guys make any preparations?
JW: So my mom went to Costco. She was the one who was really nervous about it. She went to Costco and saw all the bread and water gone, so she freaked out a bit and bought diced tomatoes. You can’t really eat those, but she bought diced tomatoes. She also [0:03:00] filled up the bathtub with water, but she was the one doing all the prep work. My siblings and I, we were kind of like, “Mom, you’re crazy. This is just rain.” She told us to move all the furniture from downstairs to upstairs, and that took the whole day. All the couches — we raised the piano up a couple inches. It didn’t really help, but we tried. We also taped up the doors with plastic bags and put towels underneath. That also didn’t help later on, but we tried. So she was the one doing all that, and we were just really lazy. We were like, “Why are we moving furniture? Why are we doing this? There’s no point. It’s not going to hit us.” But she was — she was right. Mother’s always right. And so that’s what we did.
BT: So you were affected by Hurricane Harvey?
JW: Yeah, our house was flooded.
BT: How high did the water come up?
JW: The water came up inside our house to around a foot and a couple inches [0:04:00] — 14 inches. Outside, it was a lot more. Outside near our street, it was about waist level — maybe higher — chest level probably.
BT: What were some of the losses that you had in total in regard to your house, possessions, et cetera?
JW: So in terms of furniture, we didn’t have as many losses, because, again, we moved everything upstairs. So that was saved thanks to my mom. But the walls had to be cut from four feet down. Our cars were all totaled. Two of our cars were totaled. They towed them away. Our cabinets all had to be taken out. Our fridge had grown lots of mold, so that had to be thrown away. Our ovens and microwaves, we had to take those out. Those were all so — had mold that we [0:05:00] probably didn’t know about. So a lot of our big appliances had to be thrown out. Our piano, we put a fan at it for a couple days and hoped for the best. And it still works. We’re not sure what sort of mold is in there, but it works.
BT: So how did you choose which things to save and keep during this whole process? So you talked about, in the beginning, you guys lifted furniture. Did you guys think about any precious items to save?
JW: I think we just moved everything up, because we had the manpower with three siblings. We were the worker ants, so we just moved everything we could up. But some things that were too big, that’s how we determined whether we could move it up or save it or not, such as like the dining table or the [0:06:00] TV stand that we had our TV on. We couldn’t move that. It was way too heavy to move upstairs. So we actually picked things based on how heavy it was.
BT: So did you guys have to evacuate?
JW: We did evacuate, but we didn’t evacuate before our house flooded. We evacuated after our house flooded. Some of our neighbors left the night before the flood came, and they told us to leave, too. But we were like, “Nothing’s going to happen,” so we stayed the night. Our neighbors across the street live in a one-story house, so they actually stayed over in our upstairs. And so we evacuated in the afternoon of the next day. There were helicopters and boats, and we had to call the Louisiana fleet people. And so, yeah, we evacuated the next day.
BT: So you evacuated in boats?
BT: Okay [0:07:00]. Where did you guys evacuate to?
JW: We evacuated to an elementary school nearby. The boats came and got us. We first went out of our house in little kayaks. And then from the kayaks, we went into the boats. And from the boats, we went to an elementary school. And from the elementary school, we waited for our friend to pick us up to their own house, where we stayed for a week and a half.
BT: You mentioned you had pets and your grandmother. How was it evacuating them?
JW: So my grandma, she’s pretty resilient. She’s 82 now, but she had her own backpack. She had her own poncho. She was going wherever we told her to go. And she seemed to be having a good time really, because a lot of people were helping her. They saw she was elderly [0:08:00], so they helped her off the trucks, helped her into the boat, so she actually received a lot of help. And I think she did very well. For our pets, we have two small dogs and one big dog. So we have a Shih Tzu, a chihuahua, and a Husky. So I carried our Shih Tzu. My sister carried the chihuahua. And my mom got the cage, and she carried the Husky until we got off the boats. And we put her on the leash.
BT: Oh, so you brought them with you guys to the shelter?
JW: Yeah, we brought them with us to the shelter.
BT: So wherever you guys went, you just brought them?
BT: Is there anything you want to say about the evacuation experience that you haven’t mentioned before? Were there any funny stories?
JW: I thought it was pretty funny that — or I thought it was interesting seeing the [0:09:00] streets as we were in the boat, because that’s not normal, right? Being on a boat in the streets. So we passed by cars that were just abandoned with the water all the way up to halfway up the window. The fences were like knocked down, and I had never seen anything like that. And it was interesting because my friend evacuated the day before. And when I was Snapchatting and she saw my vehicle, she said, “Hey, wait, that’s the same guy that evacuated me yesterday.” So it was pretty cool seeing that the same guys were staying around and helping out and really helping out the community in any way they could even though — I think they were from Dallas actually. So they were really helpful, and it was pretty interesting to see that they had helped from down the street all the way to where I was.
BT: Were you guys some of the last people to evacuate?
JW: Yes, we were, again, because we thought nothing would happen [0:10:00]. So we didn’t think we were going to leave until the very last minute. So we were one of the last families to leave our neighborhood.
BT: What were some of the thoughts you guys had when water started coming in your house?
JW: So the water didn’t come through the doors, so taping up the doors doesn’t help. The water actually started coming in through the drain. And then it started seeping in through the — through the walls and through the floorboard. Our first thought was, “Oh, this is just going to be a couple inches,” because it just sort of seeps. It’s really slow. It started seeping around like maybe 10:00 at night. So our first thoughts were, “Oh, that’s fine. We’ll just be in a couple — like ankle-deep water.” But when we woke up in the morning, it was suddenly like a whole foot. And that’s when we started thinking, “Oh, no, we have to get out of here. We don’t have food. We don’t have access to running [0:11:00] water. Our electricity got turned off, because we didn’t want things to blow up in the water. So it was — it was kind of suddenly — it was very sudden.
BT: Did you guys have flood insurance? Why or why not?
JW: We didn’t have flood insurance, because we were in the part of Katy where you would never expect it to flood. There was a bayou next to us, and actually, it turns out we were part of an area — a developed area that wasn’t supposed to be developed. I think the contractors — something — I’m not really sure the details of it. But our neighborhood had to file a lawsuit against the builders, I think, because they weren’t even supposed to build houses there.
BT: So you all filed the lawsuit after Hurricane Harvey [0:12:00]? Oh, wow. So did your neighbors have flood insurance that you know of?
JW: Not that I know of. I don’t think anyone did have flood insurance.
BT: And how many of them did you say flooded?
JW: Every house in our neighborhood flooded. All 99 houses flooded.
BT: Oh, wow. So after the storm, you evacuated to the elementary school, and then a friend took you to a house. Where was that house? Or how did that go? How long did you stay there?
JW: The house was actually only five minutes away from us. So it was really interesting to us to see that our neighborhood and the neighborhoods surrounding us were flooded completely while — if you just go down the main street, they were perfecting fine. We stayed with them for about a week and a half [0:13:00]. And we actually split up, because there are six of us and three dogs. We couldn’t burden one family, so my parents and my grandma stayed at one house. And the three kids, me, my sister, and my brother, we went to another house that was about 10 minutes away, near to a high school shelter. So we felt kind of as a burden on other people, because they had to cook for that many more mouths. They had to make accommodations for our dogs, and they weren’t used to having dogs.
It was also difficult because these families were actually just single-story — no, not single-story, sorry. They were smaller than we were used to. And so we had to squish all people into one room. And so it was a little difficult, and it was really interesting though — to see that our neighbors were so [0:14:00] welcoming. And we wanted to get out as quickly as possible. We were — we were like, “One week and a half. That’s enough. We need to get out of here. We’ll go get our own place.” But they were so willing to have us stay longer. They were — they were saying, “It’s fine. We want to serve you. We want to help you.” And it was really nice to see how loving they were.
BT: That’s really nice. So you mentioned you guys went and got your own place. Or did you go back to your house?
JW: Yeah, after the week and a half we stayed at our friend’s house, the two families, another family came and said, “Hey, we have a house in Katy as well about five minutes away from your flooded house that we’re trying to rent out. And nobody’s renting it, so you guys can just stay there for free.” So they offered it to us for free to stay there. But we decided we can’t do that to them for a couple months, so we paid them. We paid rent. And they came over every once in a while and brought us [0:15:00] food, brought us dumplings and really — we actually — both of us benefited it from that, because they wanted to know what places of the house they needed to renovate before they rented it out. So it actually worked out for both of us.
BT: That sounds like [unclear, 0:15:16]. That’s pretty cool. Were you guys inconvenienced by any lack of material items that you weren’t able to bring with you from your flooded home, like medicine?
JW: We were inconvenienced, because they wouldn’t let us back into our houses for a couple days. And because we didn’t think we had to pack all that much, we thought we would only be gone a day or two. But they wouldn’t let us back in for almost a week. So we did have a lack of clothes. I only brought two shirts for a whole week, so we did go to the high school shelter and got some clothes from the donations [0:16:00]. We got some food as well — some canned food, some easy-to-prepare Ramen, stuff like that. But in terms of the basic necessities, I think we were okay. We are a pretty low maintenance family. We can get along with whatever we need. We slept on the floor. It was fine. We used our fingers sometimes to brush our teeth the first nights. That was fine. But we were able to get the materials we needed pretty quickly because of all the people and friends that helped out that saw the need and brought food, brought toothbrushes, brought clothes. So it was really helpful.
BT: That’s great. So you were able to come back and see your home in like a week or so. How did you guys get back into your neighborhood?
JW: So I was not allowed to go [0:17:00] back until maybe a month later, but my parents went back as soon as they could with kayaks. We have — we had our own inflatable kayak. We had our own inflatable kayak. And my dad and mom just rode themselves into the neighborhood — into the house. I believe there were Army or Marine people there actually make sure they only stayed in the house for two minutes to get the basic medicine, food, if you needed — dog food, for example. But I didn’t actually go to my house for a long time, because I had to go back to school. And I have — I stay on campus, so I was able to stay nice and warm on campus while my family had to stay more extended periods in the friends’ houses.
BT: Did you [0:18:00] see your house and neighborhood in the aftermath? I know you didn’t go back for a month, but what was it like? Perhaps you know from your parents and how they felt when they saw their neighborhood and their house in the destruction of Harvey.
JW: A lot of my friends in the neighborhood were really devastated about their own personal belongings, because one of my friends had a lot of books that she loved. She collected since elementary school, but since she has a one-story house, she wasn’t able to put them up higher. So all her books were destroyed. Her camera, she had left it on the floor, so her camera was destroyed. So I could feel the devastation in our neighborhood. And my mom also went back and cried a little over the house, because she saw the mold creeping up on the walls. The places where we would mark [0:19:00] our height over the course of our childhood, that had to be taken away. So she was also really devastated about that — the memories in the house.
A lot of the — a lot of the people in our neighborhood — a lot of the people in our neighborhood came back around the same time to do the demolition to the house. So you could see piles and piles of sheetrock and wood and broken furniture and old clothes and suitcases full of dirt. And sewage smell throughout the streets was really strong. When I came back to help move furniture out, traffic was terrible. Trying to get into my neighborhood took almost 30 minutes. There was cars parked along the whole street. You couldn’t find [0:20:00] a parking spot in the neighborhood. There were U-Hauls everywhere, trying to get things out. There’s piles of debris everywhere. Fences were broken. Windows might have been broken into or — doors were put up with like wooden big X’s — just kind of put there. And it seemed like a wasteland, kind of desolate.
BT: Were you able to receive assistance from FEMA?
JW: Yes, but it was a really long process. They had to come in and assess the damage. So there were a lot of people affected by Harvey. So we weren’t very high up on the list to be visited. FEMA, I don’t really know much about honestly, because my mom took care of all of that. But I do know she was really stressed for a really long time, wanting to get FEMA [0:21:00] assistance, constantly contacting FEMA, asking FEMA, “How come this isn’t coming? What do I need to still do? What is wrong with my account information? Why aren’t you coming to help?” But they did eventually come help, and we did get assistance. But it was — it took a toll on my mom and dad. They grew a lot of white hairs actually over the course of those couple months.
BT: Do you think the amount you received from FEMA was enough to cover your losses from the storm?
JW: I don’t know about the amount that FEMA gave, but definitely couple with the help from our church — there were a lot of donations coming in from the church. So that helped a lot. FEMA did help but not as much as we would have liked.
BT: Can you tell me a little bit about the demolition process and the rebuilding process?
JW: I wasn’t actually there for the demolition of my own [0:22:00] house. But Bernice, you were. I was on campus when the demolition was happening. And I didn’t have a ride back to campus, and my parents didn’t want to go get me from campus and drive back. So I wasn’t actually there. And I felt really helpless, because I couldn’t be there for my family and be there to help move things out. But I did see pictures, and it seemed like they got a whole group of maybe 20 people from church to help out. And I think there was a great community effort to do this. The church people who came to help at my house also helped our front neighbors with the one-story house that I mentioned before. They helped with them, and they helped with the neighbors as well.
So the rebuilding process was actually really quick for us. We found a contractor from our church, who was very willing to help us out [0:23:00]. Contracting isn’t even his main job. He’s an architect, but he decided to dive into this business a little bit to help us. And we rebuilt by January. We moved back in already in January, so for us, it was really fast. It was really — it was really easy actually for us to get things done, because our contractor was so open and willing to help us.
BT: What do you think has changed since Harvey? Like how has your lifestyle or family changed because of it?
JW: So we actually — in terms of — in terms of physically, we remodeled our house. Instead of going back to the old, my mom took this as an opportunity to make our house more modern. So she lowered the counters to make it more open. We painted our house to be a brighter color. So it is more welcoming and inviting [0:24:00]. And in terms of our lifestyle, we invite people over almost every week now to say thank you to the people who helped out or just to open our house into the community — to our neighbors now. We’re inviting them over more, because we just see that the house isn’t really ours. The house could be — could be taken away by a natural disaster so quickly. So the fact that we have a house, it’s a blessing.
So we wanted — so our family decided that it was going to be more open. And every week, again, we have gatherings. We have BBQs just to say thank you and just to know how blessed we are by the house that we have — to even have a house over our heads. So that has changed us. I think we’re a lot more grateful for what we have and for every single belonging that we have. We see the value in that, and because not having anything so suddenly [0:25:00] was really shocking to us — and really opened our eyes to see how blessed we are to have what we have. So we definitely have grown more close as a family and share these experiences. And now, looking back on it, we can joke about things. We can laugh about Harvey sometimes, but deep inside, we really do appreciate and love each other a lot more.
BT: I also noticed your family bought a truck right after that.
JW: Oh, yes, that’s another lifestyle change. My dad bought a truck. He loves his truck, so if there’s any — oh, if there’s ever a flood again, he’s going to be the one to help people out. He bought the truck, because he doesn’t want to be — he doesn’t want other people to feel as helpless as we did. He wants to be there to help them. He wants to be there to take them out if there’s anything. And even now, he helps move things around. One of our [0:26:00] families — one of our friends needed to move around a chicken coop, so my dad was there to help him move that around.
BT: Has your family currently bought flood insurance? Or has your opinion about flood insurance changed?
JW: My family has bought flood insurance. I’m not sure if it will be used, but I don’t, honestly, have no real opinion on flood insurance. Because my mom’s the one who handles that — or my parents are the ones who handle the flood insurance. So I honestly don’t really know much about it. But I am thankful that we have it now just in case this ever happens again, because you never know. So the insurance is good to have.
BT: Thank you. Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to mention?
JW: No, I don’t think so.
BT: Alright, thank you so much for your time.
JW: No [0:27:00] problem. Thank you. [0:27:05]