Jose Manuel Mendez has lived in Houston, TX since his birth in 1980. In 2008, Mendez experienced a power outage for two weeks due to Hurricane Ike, otherwise his experience with storms were mild. Hurricane Harvey taught Mendez about the tragedies and consequences of horrific storms. The first day Harvey hit Houston, Mendez noticed that flooding reached the end of the street he lived on. Mendez and his son began helping neighbors elevate their vehicles out of the water, as the water quickly rose from ankles to knees.
The Mendez family then quickly evacuated their home. Unfortunately, there was no space in the car for Mendez to take their Labrador retriever, so he put food on the floor for him and planned to return for him the next day. Mendez recalls the damaged state of his house when he returned, remembering that the water reached two to three feet high. For months after Harvey, the Mendez family lived in a townhouse, with their church paying rent for the first few months. After a few months of repairing the damage to their home, the Mendez family moved back in once it was livable. Mendez speaks on his experience being interviewed with Univision and the emotional toll Harvey took on him. Mendez finishes the interview discussing what #HOUSTONSTRONG means to him, how he will prepare for future storms, and advises anyone who experiences a similar situation to take it a day at a time and continue moving forward.
Interviewee: Jose Manuel Mendez
Interview Date: November 4, 2018
Interview Location: near Spring, Texas
Interviewer: Nikki de los Reyes
INTERVIEWER: Today is November 4, 2018. This is Nikki de los Reyes with the University of Houston. And we are near Spring, Texas recording today for the Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project. We have here Mr. Manuel Mendez joining us today.
NDLR: We will begin with a few general questions, and then we will discuss your experiences during Hurricane Harvey. So we’ll just go ahead and start with your full name. Could you state your full name?
JMM: Jose Manuel Mendez.
NDLR: Thank you. And when and where were you born?
JMM: I was born in Houston, Texas, February 22 of 1980.
NDLR: So that makes you how old?
JMM: It makes me 38.
NDLR: 38 years old?
NDLR: Young 38 years old.
NDLR: Have you always lived in Houston?
JMM: I have — born and raised.
NDLR: Could you tell me a little bit about your life growing up in Houston? Like what part did you live in [0:01:00]?
JMM: We lived near downtown. And we — I grew up with four sisters. My parents immigrated from Mexico, and my mom was pregnant when she got here with me. So I was born here in Houston and grew up on the north side near downtown — went to a private school near there and also attended a local church. And that was pretty much my world for the most part of my child-bringing-up.
NDLR: How was it living in a family that many?
JMM: It was interesting, especially being the only boy. Because, well, we didn’t have that big of a house. So any kind of rooms that we had, they were shared by my sisters. And also, one less room with four girls, five including my mom, was always interesting, because there was always a line to get into the restroom. And [0:02:00] besides that, it was — it was also fun. You know, I think that’s why me and my wife have a big family, because we kind of took a liking for a bigger family.
NDLR: That brings me to your life now. You and your wife, you say you have a big family. So can you tell me a little bit about your family now?
JMM: We have three boys and one girl — oldest boy is Seth. Then our second was Leah. She’s our daughter — followed by Luke and Samuel, both boys.
NDLR: And would you say it’s similar to your life growing up? Or how is your life different now in comparison to growing up?
JMM: There’s a lot of similarities, I would say — just because you unconsciously bring what you took from your child life and now apply it unconsciously or knowingly to the family that you’re raising now [0:03:00]. But obviously with the change that now we have our own customs that we’ve built here in the US and teaching our kids what we know and building on top of what our parents have taught us — and just moving along life like that.
NDLR: When was it that you moved from the north side of Houston to here on the outskirts of Houston in Spring?
JMM: May of ’07 was when we purchased this home, so it’s a little over 10 years that we’ve been here. And that’s when we moved out here closer to Spring. We had Seth and Leah when we moved here. And then our other two boys came later.
NDLR: Do you like living here?
JMM: I do. I do, because it’s a little bit further from the city. And even though I’m everywhere with my job, I like — I like — well, Houston has grown so much that now it’s kind of all swallowing all the little towns like [0:04:00] Spring. But I still feel a little bit distance from just the clutter of the city part of it that I have always lived in since I told you I was born and raised in Houston. So just a drive to Walmart would take me — I could take a path that is kind of more with fields and trees. And I live — I really love that.
NDLR: What do you do for a living? What is your job?
JMM: Right now, I am in the process of starting a business or actually take off with a new business that is in pressure washing. And we pressure wash houses and driveways and clean windows and gutters. And — but for the last close to 15 years, since January of ’04, I’ve worked in sales for industrial paint. And I’m slowing making my exit from that to go into pressure washing.
NDLR: Pressure washing. And that’s a company that is you alone are starting up? Or do you have help with that [0:05:00]?
JMM: It is something that I came up with the idea by myself. And I did go into a partnership with my brother. And down the road, we both went into it wanting to experiment how it would be to partner with family. And so after a year that we said we would agree to do a test trial on partnering with that business, we both decided just to go our own separate ways. So now, he’s still helping me. And I’m helping him. In both ways, we help each other. And we’re both venturing into our own thing now.
NDLR: Cool, cool. With living here near Spring in the Houston area, do you have any experience prior to Harvey with storms and, I guess, flooding? But more so with just storms and everything involved with that?
JMM: No. No, Harvey was the first disaster that you could say we’ve ever experimented with [0:06:00] besides the regular storms that we would get. You know, I think the worst was having one of my newly planted trees that I paid quite a bit for — it was an oak tree. And we paid around $500 for it, because it was kind of grown. And I forget the name of the storm, but it was one that wiped out — well, now, looking back, I think — yeah, there was one time where the power went out for like two weeks here in Houston. And that was — it wasn’t as bad, but you were just out of power for two weeks. My wife went — I had my wife go to San Antonio with her family. And I stayed here, and it was manageable. And I think that’s probably the worst before Harvey.
NDLR: Would that maybe be Ike?
JMM: It would have been Ike. It was in ’08. It was in ’08. And so that was — that was another kind of experience that we had with that [0:07:00].
NDLR: Just from, I guess, Ike or Rita, more of the bigger storms and hurricanes, what else did you remember from those storms? Was it just the power outage? Or was there anything else that seriously affected your living area or anything like that?
JMM: It’s getting out of your comfort zone. It’s really — you have your routine. You have what you’re used to. Just the way you know that the sun’s going to come up tomorrow, it’s kind of like the way you kind of view a lot of things in your life. And storms like this really come and shake that up for you.
NDLR: How did your prior experience with storms and things related to that affect your expectations for preparing for Harvey or just for Harvey in general?
JMM: It didn’t. I mean, you know, we completely weren’t ready for it. You know, we — even looking back in the exit, leaving [0:08:00] Sunday night when it started flooding — looking back, there was so many things I would have done different. I would have taken out the vehicle from the driveway and saved our family vehicle. I would have elevated things off the floor — simple things that were hundreds of dollars that I didn’t think that they were going to get affected. And it was a simple thing of taking a couple of minutes to elevate them off the floor. Now, looking back, I would have done things different, because I wasn’t prepared.
NDLR: You’re saying that you had to elevate things off the floor. So water came in? How did evacuation happen with water coming in or having to pick things up? Or was it just like, “Let’s leave?” Or how did that happen?
JMM: Well, it started raining Saturday [0:09:00] night, and then it kept raining through Saturday night into Sunday morning. Well, we got up. Our church was canceled, so we got up a up a little late. Once we walked out the door from the house, it was about midday. And that was just to check things out. And flooding had already began at the end of our street. And so — which is not too abnormal, because it’s flooded a couple of times in that area. But the different thing from this was that every hour the water kept going up and up. And me and my son were helping people elevate their cars that were already trapped and couldn’t get out, thinking that maybe we can elevate them a couple of feet and their engine wouldn’t be destroyed. So while we were doing that, within an hour time, the water went from like my ankles to my knees. And that’s [0:10:00] when I realized that this was a little bit different from the other times.
So I came home and told my wife, “We really have to go, because this thing is not calming down.” And within an hour and a half — when I came home, the water was at the curb of our street. And we started just putting things in trash bags and loading it onto my work truck. And by the time that we were set and ready to drive out, it was an hour and a half later. And like I said, the water was at the curb. So an hour and a half later, the water is halfway to our driveway. And so we just speed out. And going out, I didn’t — I couldn’t go into the street, because my driveway takes a dip. So the water was higher on the street than on the driveway. So I went over our street — our lawn to go into higher ground. And when I did that, the truck got stuck [0:11:00] in the mud. And we’re right in front of our house. And the muffler’s under the water. And I can’t get out. Long story short, we finally get out. But I think that’s probably what discombobulated me so much.
Because looking back, what I would have done now is once I got my truck into unflooded streets, I would have came back and just lifted everything off the ground. And my concern was mainly the safety of my family, so that’s why I just — we left. But still, they would have been safe, and I could have came back and spent an hour and put some things on higher ground. And we could have saved a lot of stuff.
NDLR: When you evacuated, did you continue to go on the lawn all the way out?
JMM: So when we left, the water was on higher ground — thinking straight, because I knew we couldn’t take our big dog with the big [0:12:00] family that we had. It was enough space for us to get — fit into the truck and to put the stuff in the back. But I didn’t want to carry my dog on the back, you know, so I thought, “Let’s leave him some food. And you know, things get worse, I’ll come back for him.” I’m still not thinking it’s going to be four feet — five feet high like the way it was on the street — like the way it got. I’m thinking, “It’s going to flood. We have to get out.” But you have to understand that we’ve never flooded. Nobody in Houston had ever experienced something like that. So your thought is not, “This is the end conclusion. I need to take these steps to avoid this from happening.” So you’re just kind of piecing it together as you go.
So we leave with our smaller dog. And once they tow us out, we take off. And we keep hearing reports that night [0:13:00] that things are getting kind of bad and our house has been flooded. And water keeps going high, so I do come back the next day and have to come in a boat and rescue our bigger dog, which was a lab. And so we were both hauled away off of the boat. And that’s why — we left food on the floor for him, and the food was all over the house when we came in, which made it worse for the smell. But that’s what I tell you — that you don’t think, because why would you leave food on the ground if it’s going to flood. But your mind is not working. You’re just kind of piecing it together, okay? I need to leave. I’m going to leave my big dog, so let’s leave him food. And we need to get out. Water’s rising. Safety of the family, and you’re just kind of just discombobulated.
NDLR: Can you tell me more about your experience in coming back? Because you said you came back the next day.
NDLR: So how different was the flooding? And how did you get on the boat? Can you tell me more about that [0:14:00]?
JMM: So we were in Mexia, which is about an hour and a half away from here — maybe two. And I went that morning, and my kids were really frantic about getting our dog. They were scared he would drown or something. And so the next morning, Monday morning, I go to Walmart in Mexia, buy a canoe — a kayak, I’m sorry — buy a kayak and come over, because I’m not knowing what’s — what I’m going to confront — you know, how I’m going to get back. So I buy a kayak, figure out my way down to the roads on how to get back, because I-45 is closed — finally get here. And I’m thinking they’re not going to let me in. And I finally go to somebody and ask them if they can take me to my house, who had a boat, so I didn’t have to use the kayak. And they kindly said, “Yes,” especially because there was a reporter from Univision there. And she wanted to [0:15:00] interview people as well. So it kind of fit, so they took me.
They brought me. When I jumped out of the boat onto the street, the water was chest high. And once I got into the house, the water was a little bit above my knees. And our dog was on top of the couch just fine — shooken up. And so I tell them, “I’m going to try to save some stuff.” Everybody’s still saying water’s going to keep rising, but by that time, there was not much to save. I mean, pretty much, all drawers, clothes hanging from the closet — everything porous had pretty much been destroyed — furniture. I saved — I put the TVs on a higher place, but they probably wouldn’t get affected anyways. And I told them — I told them I needed [0:16:00] about an hour. I actually took like five minutes to do that, but they took an hour. So I was here, and it was devastating when you look at your house pretty much destroyed. Because there’s water — a little bit of — maybe two, three feet high everywhere.
And what things that are signs of life of home floating around — that really breaks you when you see your house like that. Because you treasure your home. And it’s your home. So in — that experience was pretty unique. I’m glad that I experienced it myself and not with my wife, because I think she would have been even more devastated to see everything. And they came back. Me and my dog got out, and we went back. And we went to Fort Worth after that and stayed there for a couple of days and then came back.
NDLR: Can you tell me more about the Univision reporter?
JMM: Yeah, so she interviewed. She was from [0:17:00] Los Angeles. She was sent here by Univision to interview people who had been affected. And she did a report and just, you know, was asking me questions on how did I feel and what’s all going on. You know, but — yeah, so she was just asking me questions about the situation.
NDLR: During that time, were you processing everything? Like you said, you came back and things were everywhere. Do you think you were processing everything then? Or you were just kind of numb? Was it just kind of you taking it in?
JMM: It’s a little bit of both. The processing part is just in phases. It’s just you pause for 10 minutes, and you’re trying to swallow it all in. But you take kind of like — it’s — at least in my case, it’s more of you’re so much trying to [0:18:00] just not fix it but fix it. Okay, what are we going to do? Where do we need to go? What’s next? Being a father and, you know, a husband, it’s just like, okay, this is the situation. Where do we need — where do we need to go? What do we need now? We’ve lost our home. We’ve lost — you know, where do we stay? Where do we sleep? What do we eat? We’ve lost our family vehicle. The truck that I was driving belongs to my company — belonged to my company. So it’s more like problem solving. You’re just — as it goes, every day, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t have this.” The next day, you figure out, “Oh, I don’t have that either.” And the simple things that you have or you take for granted, now, you’re figuring out, “Oh, I forgot. I don’t have a toaster anymore.”
You know, and we did find shelter. Our church was kind enough to find someone who was willing to lend us a townhouse [0:19:00] for a month. But you get there, and you want to — you want to do something. And you remember, “I don’t have this to do this anymore.”
NDLR: So could you tell me a little bit more about how life was being out of your home? For example, the townhouse? Or after that month, where did you go?
JMM: So we went to — the person from our church was willing to lend the townhouse for a month. And then people from our church actually paid the rent after that one month for another couple of months. And then we picked up the rent for another couple of months ourselves. So we — being displaced from your house is quite interesting. I think it’s all like — it goes back to that — what’d I tell you? Your comfort zone is totally shattered. So you now take a family of six into a two-bedroom townhouse [0:20:00] that’s a lot smaller and a lot more — you know, just cluttered with everything that we’re now — we’ve lost everything. But now, we are buying things. And we’re buying toasters. And we’re buying clothes. And we’re buying — you know, we’re trying to pick the pieces back up, but we don’t have the space to store it. But you know, you still need it.
And that probably for me was the more challenging thing — was how to manage a new life. Because for six months, I think it was for me, it’s going to work. You still have to go to work. You wake up the next — once you get — I took a week off, but then you go back to work. So you know you have to go back to work, but now, you have your living space, your home, in ruins. So now, you have a third job, okay, which — I had a fourth job, because I was already doing the pressure washing that we talked about. So I was trying to launch a business [0:21:00]. I was maintaining my job and the business that I had managing there. And now, I took on a third task, which was rebuilding the house — and on top of that, the real emotional piece of it with the family and the kids going through, “It’s raining again, Dad. Is it going to flood again?” You know, and just — it was just — you’re so just trying to balance things out. Everything is shaky. And you’re trying to figure things out as you go.
NDLR: How long were you displaced out of your home? When did you come back?
JMM: We were back February 1st. So from September — the flood happened towards the end of August, so we were gone September, October, November, December, and January. And then [0:22:00] February 1st, we came back.
NDLR: Whenever you did come back to your home initially, since the flood with your family, what were some of the emotions that you had, if any? Like some people, again, were processing later. I don’t know how that worked for you. But I guess, what were the emotions that you had coming back to see your house with your family after Harvey was over?
JMM: It was — well, I think every story is different, because I’ve heard some go back to home that was completed, finished, and better than what it was when it flooded. And while that is becoming the case for us, when we came back, it was — we can’t afford to be paying rent over there and still be paying the mortgage payment here. We need — we need to come back. We would have loved to come back to a home that was completed. But even after six months [0:23:00], it was halfways through. We just — we came back when it was livable. We didn’t have running water in the kitchen. We didn’t have where to brush our teeth. There was one shower that was working. And so that’s where we brushed our teeth. We washed our hands. And we did everything there. So it was still a different place but same mentality — managing everything. The good thing about it was that I didn’t have to, now, come home after work and rebuild — work on the rebuild and then go to the townhouse, go to sleep, wake up, go back to work. And so that’s — that was the better piece of it, being back home.
NDLR: Could you tell me a little bit more about the gutting out process of your home and everything that was involved with Harvey [0:24:00]?
JMM: – just to gut out the house. And they did it all in one day. And four feet down, all sheetrock came off — and everything else that was four feet under. So pretty much, the house was gutted. But it was all in one day. It was pretty — it was pretty fast.
NDLR: I have a question related to what was happening in Houston in general. I don’t know if you’ve heard the hashtag Houston Strong, right? That’s something the Astros are also using. What does that mean for you personally? Based on your experience in this storm, what does the phrase Houston Strong mean to you?
JMM: I think — it’s taken to the initiative of confronting whatever you’re faced with and overcoming it with whatever means, whatever methods, whatever resources that’s provided to you [0:25:00]. And so, like I said, when we confronted this, nobody knew what it was to experience that — at least, not here in Houston. And so to me, Houston Strong is — if there’s a picture that comes into my mind about what it is personally to identify with the Houston Strong, I would say it was — or it is going to work early, because you know you want to come out a little early to come home and work on the house. And after that, go to your family and try to be the dad and make everything normal and get home and spend a couple of hours late with your wife and maybe 10 minutes with your kids, because they’re about to go to bed [0:26:00] — and then getting up early and doing it again. And that’s just — that’s — to me, that’s Houston Strong. You didn’t — you didn’t let it break you. You just confronted it, and you did what you could to make it better.
NDLR: That’s good. Now that it’s a little over a year later, what are some of the biggest things, both positive and negative, that you have taken away from your experience over the past year and the storm and being displaced and just the building and reconstruction? Now, a year later, looking back, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
JMM: Well, obviously, being prepared for a hurricane is probably first [0:27:00] on the list. I would know what to do. I would know how to help someone who’s been through it. I always kind of repeat the scenario and what I would do different. I’ve learned a lot of on-hand construction skills with regards to rebuilding a house — electrical and plumbing and sheetrock and painting and tile. There’s a lot of little things that I had — that I’ve had to do myself and that I’m still doing myself. Because it’s been over a year, and still, the house is not a hundred percent complete. So I think the biggest thing to me that I can take away, as far as a life lesson of what this thing called Harvey has taught me, is [0:28:00] whatever comes your way and tries to break you down, you’re always able to overcome it with your own personal strength and knowledge, with God’s help, with the people that God puts around you. There’s infinite resources that were put at my disposition to call on. So there was so much that I was able to draw and be able to take from it.
NDLR: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask or anything else you wanted to touch on or share related to your experience?
JMM: To me, I think the overall — I would say is just an encouragement for those that ever do go through this, or might go through this, or are going through it is just to never give up [0:29:00]. And just keep strong. Everything has a season. And while we’re still going through the Harvey piece of it, because it’s not completely in our past, things will get better.
NDLR: Well, thank you very much for your time today. I enjoyed speaking with you today, and yes.
JMM: Thank you. [0:29:28]