Kathie and Don Witt have lived in Kingwood for twenty-five years. The Witts had no storm experience prior to Hurricane Harvey. When they heard the news about Harvey, they had no expectations of flooding. The Witts were surprised when the dams opened and floodwater quickly rose. Their home had four feet of water.
Once they noticed the water level rising, the couple began to pick up furniture and place it on a higher elevation in the home. When they awoke the next morning, a neighbor was outside waiting for them in a pick-up truck to bring them to his home for dry clothes and warm drinks. After two days, the Witts returned home. On their way, they noticed Cajun Navy boats all over the neighborhood desperate to help people who needed it. One boat picked the couple up and helped them save and restart their back-up generator so they would have electricity. For four months after Harvey, during the rebuilding of their home, the Witts used the generator. During those months, friends offered the couple a place to stay in their homes. Only six homes in their neighborhood suffered damage from Harvey, but 75% of a surrounding neighborhood in Kingwood faced damages. If their house floods again, they would use the flood insurance money to buy a new home. A few bright spots through it all included family and friends’ support. As owners of flood insurance, the Witts did not interact with FEMA too much. To give back to the community that supported them, the Witts volunteered at the Houston Food Bank for six months post-Harvey.
Interviewee: Kathie and Don Witt
Interview Date: October 27, 2018
Interview Location: Kingwood Community Center
Interviewer: Livia Garza
INTERVIEWER: Hello, today is October 27, 2018. My name is Livia Garza, and I am here today at the Kingwood Community Center with Kathie and Don Witt as part of the University of Houston Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project. And today we will be talking about the Witts’ experience as Hurricane Harvey survivors.
LG: Are you ready to start?
KW: We are.
LG: So if you could, each please state your full name.
DW: I’m Don Witt.
KW: Kathie Witt.
LG: Could you both start out by telling me about yourself, like where you grew up, where you’re from?
DW: Want to go first?
KW: Sure. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. And I moved to Houston in 1972. So I feel like this is my home. Kingwood, I’ve lived in Kingwood for 43 years [0:01:00]. So I have 4 children. We have a blended family, so we have — we each have two sons. And so we’ve lived on Golden Pond for —
DW: 25 years.
KW: 25 years. I’m a retired teacher. I taught in the area, and I still tutor kids in reading in my home. But during this time, I’ve had to go to someone else’s house to do the — you know, to tutor — until my house was ready.
DW: Okay, I’m Don. And I grew up in Minnesota. And I moved to Houston about 30 years ago, I guess. I’m a pharmacist, and I work for a major drug chain as a manager for my whole career. And I retired about 16 years ago. So now, my claim to fame isn’t so much that I’m a pharmacist but [0:02:00] that I’m a retiree who is a beekeeper.
DW: And so — but anyhow, we’re — that’s us.
LG: What made you move to Houston? Was it work or change of scenery?
DW: I got transferred here by my company.
KW: And my brother — I was right out of college. And my brother lived here, so I didn’t want to go back to Shreveport. So I — so I came to Houston.
DW: Nobody wants to go back to Shreveport.
LG: So you said you moved to Kingwood quite a while ago, right?
LG: So how’s it been? I mean, obviously, you must like it if you’ve lived here a long time.
KW: It’s home. It’s home to me.
LG: Does it feel like a very close-knit community?
KW: Yes, yes, it’s a great, great community.
LG: Transitioning, did you ever have any prior experience with storms or natural disasters [0:03:00] prior to Harvey?
DW: No, our part of Kingwood has never flooded before. And you know, we’ve had hurricanes in Houston since we’ve moved here, but as far as north we are — as far removed from the Gulf, it really hasn’t affected us since we’ve been here.
LG: Can you tell me how you reacted when you heard Hurricane Harvey was approaching?
DW: Well, we didn’t really expect to flood. And you know, we saw the water rising all around the neighborhood. But we really, at that time, didn’t know about the opening of the dams and so on. So when it did start to flood, it really came up quickly. And I remember we were [0:04:00] quite surprised that our house was going to get flooded.
LG: How far up did the water come?
DW: We had four feet in the house.
DW: And we really didn’t think that it was going — that it was going to happen. And then the water kept getting closer and closer. So we thought, “Well, maybe we ought to do something.” And so we started carrying some things upstairs. And we thought, “Well, maybe we should just raise some of our furniture a little bit in case we get water in the house.” And so, in retrospect, so foolish, but we raised our furniture about a foot, you know, thinking, “Well, now, it will be safe.” And it wasn’t.
LG: So what happened as the water was rising? Did you stay in the house? Or did you leave at some point?
DW: We — that was in the evening when we were [0:05:00] raising our furniture and so on. And we went upstairs. And although we didn’t sleep well, we did go to bed. Once again, we didn’t think we were going to get that much water. And then we kept checking during the night, and it was getting deeper and deeper downstairs. And we decided to wait until morning to leave. And so that’s what we did. And Kathie, because she’s a little bit shorter than me, she was really worried that, you know, she wasn’t going to be able to walk out of the house. It came up to here on her, but we did.
As soon as it got light, we went down the stairs and out the front door. And this is one thing we can say about our rescue that nobody else you talk to today is going to say — be able to say [0:06:00]. As we walked out the front door and were kind of at the bottom of a little hill — and so as the road went up the hill, it didn’t flood. And there was a guy standing there with his pick-up truck. It was dry. And he said, “Come on. Come on.” And it was Debbie’s husband, Tom. So we were rescued by your leader. And so he loaded us up into his little truck and took us up the street to their house and gave us a place to change clothes and gave us something warm to drink. And they were very, very hospitable.
LG: How long was it before you returned back to your home just to see, at least, what had happened?
DW: I guess the next day.
KW: Two days, it was two days.
DW: It was two days later?
KW: Thursday. We left on Tuesday morning [0:07:00], and it was Thursday when the water went down.
LG: What was it like just going back and seeing everything after the water had gone away?
DW: It was just — it was kind of a shock. But, oh, we did — we went back earlier that — we went to some friends to stay in a different part of Kingwood. And they were — they stayed dry. And so here — another part of my story, we knew that, you know, Hurricane Harvey had already arrived. And so all the power was out in Kingwood before our house got wet. And so we were operating our house with a portable generator that I had in the backyard. Then the water came up. And so we left. And so we went to our friends’ house, and [0:08:00] they didn’t have any power. And I said, “Oh, it’s too bad my generator just got flooded.” And my friend said, “Let’s go get it, and I can — I can make it work.”
And so we walked back, and there’s all these Cajun Navy boats all over Kingwood. And so we went to one of those, and we said, “Can you take me back to my house? Because I want to get my generator.” And they were just so anxious to help anybody out, you know, and do something useful, because there were so many boats out there that said, “Sure, get in here. Let’s go.” And so we went in that boat to my house, and we went over the top of cars that were flooded in the street. It’s a flat-bottom boat and went over the top — we went over — around the back of my house over the top of the fence and right up [0:09:00] into my backyard. And he said, “Well, where is that generator?” And I said, “Well, it’s under water.” But I said, “It’s right up against the back of the house here.”
And so he brought his boat up there. And I and another guy jumped out of the boat, and we picked up this big heavy generator and lifted it out of the water and put it in the boat and took it back to dry land — took it to my friends’ house. And he, being a super mechanic, tore it all apart and, you know, blew air and dried out the spark plug and the cylinders and so on — changed the oil, pulled the handle on it. And it started.
KW: In like an hour.
DW: But that was amazing. I never thought that — you know, since it was underwater that he’d be able to get it going, but it also is [0:10:00] very interesting to me. It was a huge generator — about half the size of this table. And the fact that, you know, you can lift something up out of the water because of all those buoyancy factors and so on. So anyhow, we rescued a generator. And we used it a lot. Then, as they did the reconstruction on our house, we didn’t have any electricity for three or four months. And so all the workers used the power from that generator to start the rebuilding on my house.
LG: Going into the rebuilding, did you have a lot of consideration into whether or not you wanted to rebuild or move out? Or was it kind of clear cut, “This is what we’re going to do,” from the beginning?
DW: We didn’t debate it. We love that house. And we’ve lived there so long. And we really weren’t afraid that it was going to [0:11:00] flood again. And so it wasn’t a question that we would rebuild it. And we were among the fortunate few that had flood insurance. And so we were able to make those repairs.
LG: Are the repairs still going on? Or are they completed?
DW: They’re just about done. We are living in the house again now — and just a few little things left to do.
DW: But we were very fortunate in that — you know, after the flood, we immediately were offered a house in Kingwood that some of our friends — they were just leaving that week with their motorhome to go on a couple-month trip. And so they were glad to have us move [0:12:00] into their house. And it’s a beautiful home. And actually, it’s the only house I ever lived in that had a swimming pool. So I figured, “This isn’t going to be all bad.” And so we did live in their home for three months, I guess. And then we had another friend in The Woodlands that was going to be going on a trip. And so she offered us her home. So we went there for a month. And then, because we have a second story in our home, we were able to move upstairs. And we lived there for how many months?
KW: From December — the first part of December, we were upstairs until just the end —
KW: Until September.
DW: But we really feel blessed that we had those places to [0:13:00] live and that we didn’t have to impose on anybody. Because those people were happy to have us live in their home. You know, to be out of the house at the worst part, when they were doing the messy clean-up, it was good not to be there but to be close enough that we could keep our eye on the progress there.
LG: Yeah. So we’ve talked about your own home. How was the rest of the neighborhood affected? Was it pretty consistent? Or was there variation in how the neighborhood was affected?
DW: Well, see, we live kind of at a bottom of a dip. And really, there were only about six houses in our little neighborhood that were actually affected right in our [0:14:00] immediate neighborhood. And so those houses are all just about rebuilt. But then in the rest of Fosters Mill — what did they say? 75 percent of Fosters Mill homes were flooded. That’s the little village we live in inside of Kingwood here.
KW: And most of them were caught unaware and did not have insurance, because they weren’t in the floodplain.
DW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of those houses — I would — maybe half of them are still either not started in their repairs and just in the middle of it. So again, we feel blessed that we’re – even though it has taken us over year – that we are back in our home. And you know, I ride my bicycle a lot around Kingwood. And I just can’t help myself. As I go down these various streets [0:15:00] on my bike ride, I’m always looking and counting. You know, who is still under construction? I can tell because they’ll have a big dumpster, you know, in their driveway. Or you know, they’ll have their windows all papered. They’ll have building permits in all the windows. So I can very easily tell that there’s a lot of houses that aren’t done yet.
LG: During the storm, were you receiving news updates? Were you keeping in touch with what was going on outside with the storm?
DW: Since usually we were living in Kingwood, you know, just less than a mile away from our house, so we pretty much knew what was going on here.
KW: But she meant through the storm, baby. Through the storm, during — you know, before we actually flooded [0:16:00], right?
LG: Yeah, like news updates or anything like that during the storm?
KW: You and Tom were —
DW: Yeah, I guess just wandering out in the street with my neighbors and watching the water come up.
LG: Were you communicating with friends and family during the storm?
DW: I guess people were calling.
KW: And then, for sure, after — you know, afterwards, the day after — you know, that’d —
DW: Yeah, actually, I got calls from people that I hadn’t talked to in years that —
KW: Yeah, I did, too. You know, for like the whole month of September — you know, it was end — you know, end of August and through the whole month of September and thereafter, you know. Some of them would call again, “Are you in your home? Are you back?”
DW: We actually have — one of our sons lives in Katy [0:17:00]. And they have three little kids. And we were really — and talked about it a lot. We were really happy to have it happen to someone that it happened to us rather than —
DW: A family with little kids. I can just imagine how horrible that must be — to deal with little elementary school kids.
KW: They were between the two reservoirs over there, so they were — you know, could have very easily flooded. But they didn’t. So we’re very thankful for that.
LG: You mentioned that you don’t think it’s going to flood this bad again.
DW: Yeah, well, they say we’re in a 500-year floodplain. And I — you know, we’re both really healthy, but I don’t think we’re going to live 500 years. So I think we’re [0:18:00] going to be okay.
LG: If something like this were to happen again, do you feel more prepared?
DW: I feel that I know what I would do in the near future if my house flooded again. I would take the insurance money, and I would go buy a house somewhere else. But I just really don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s just kind of a lot of bad events happened all at once that caused this flood — you know, all the rain, and then the fact that it kind of stalled above the Houston area, and the opening of that dam. It’s just — I guess you can’t spend time worrying too much about too many things that might happen.
LG: You’d also mentioned that you had a lot of friends helping you out and letting you live in their spaces. Do you feel like after the storm [0:19:00] there was a really strong sense of community and friends coming together?
DW: We had a — we had a lot of moral support from our church and close friends. We never felt like we were facing this alone. And I was just — witnessed a lot of different folks that did get really closely involved with groups that were meeting — kind of a self-help kind of a thing to discuss the flood and how they could cope with it.
KW: And the one thing I really felt that was really great — you know, you just have to look at the good things. But you know, we got together with neighbors that, you know, we never [0:20:00] get together with, you know? One of the neighbors had a big cookout one night. And you know, we all went there. And you know, you saw and talked to your neighbors that you just don’t do that on a day-to-day basis.
DW: There are certainly bright spots. And you know, living in a big city like Houston is, you don’t really get to know a lot of your neighbors well. Well, so this happened, and I’d never known Tom and Debbie. They’re probably 10, 15 houses up the street from us. And so through this event, we’ve got to know them and now count them as friends. So that’s a positive.
KW: And it was great when — right after it happened, so many people in the neighborhood or even not in — not on our street would come by, and they’d just say, “Do you need ice? Do you need –?” You know, little kids would come with their moms [0:21:00]. You know, they’d bring sandwiches and — people we didn’t even know, you know.
DW: A lot of parents used that flood as a teaching moment for their kids — you know, how to be helpful.
KW: I felt that it was really, really a — made you feel really loved and cared for, you know? Because so many people just got involved. And they wanted — like he said, they wanted to do anything they could to help us, you know. And we’d have people bring us meals, you know. And most of them were people we knew, but throughout the whole thing, it was just — you know, the Lord just took care of us every day and, you know, provided what we needed. And it — it was a long journey, but it was really blessed.
DW: You have to look at the — look for the bright spots. Like you know, there’s a lot — we have a brand-new house [0:22:00] now. Everything is new. And I used to tell people during this year when we were rebuilding that everything is my house is going to be new. All the windows, all the doors, all the appliances, even the air conditioner, even the water heaters upstairs, everything was being replaced. And I said, “The only thing that’s not going to be new is my roof.” And then we noticed that I had a roof leak. So then I had to put a new roof on. So now, I absolutely do have everything brand-new. So you know, and some of those things that replaced because of the flood, they were coming due anyhow. Like you know, I needed to replace the water heaters. I needed to replace the air conditioner, because those things were getting older.
KW: Forced us to do those necessary things.
DW: That was great.
KW: Our house is about 35 years old, so [0:23:00].
LG: Did you have any interactions with FEMA after the storm?
DW: Not much, because, you know, we had flood insurance. And I know FEMA is very much involved in the flood insurance. And they kind of work with the insurance companies. So in that way, I guess I did have some relationship with FEMA but not as closely as the folks who didn’t have flood insurance. So then they got some payment from FEMA but not enough to rebuild a house certainly.
LG: Overall, do you have any impressions on how the city handled the aftermath of Harvey?
DW: [0:24:00] I have — you know, we had that big bond issue. And that passed very resoundingly. And so that was a good thing. I, myself, you know, was a little bit surprised that they weren’t more specific about what they were going to actually spend that money to repair. But I trust that they’re going to make all the right engineering decisions to do the right thing. I also have been impressed with our city councilman here, Dave Martin. And he has really — sends a lot of emails talking about what he’s doing. And I know that he has really been instrumental in a program that makes perfect sense to me. And that’s when there’s a forecast that we’re going to get a lot of rain, they now [0:25:00] lower the water level in Lake Houston a couple feet just — and I’m so surprised that they can do that — just within a matter of a couple days.
And again, I’m on my bike a lot. And I — my routes often go by Lake Houston, so I can see that when they’re doing that in anticipation of a rain storm, the water level really does go down. And people in Kingwood, I think they’re more afraid of the flooding from the river, if we should have that problem with the dams again, than they are with actual — the rainfall. And so I think that people in Kingwood are relieved to see that something can be done. And that’s on a temporary basis, because I know some of that bond work is going to [0:26:00] involve more floodgates in the other end of Lake Houston to let the water out more quickly.
Yeah, so I think Houston is — they’re aware that there’s certainly potential for a problem. And they’re working on it. And we’re always going to have problems like that in Houston because how low we sit in elevation.
LG: Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you would like to talk about?
DW: I guess I’d say that, you know, we’re able to — we were victims, but we’re able to do some things that helped us to help others [0:27:00]. Like we worked with the Houston Food Bank in distributions of food products for probably about — probably went on for six months. After the flood, we’d get a shipment of food products from the Houston Food Bank and went to one of the local churches here. And then we would — once a week, we would do food distributions. And it was — impressed me how thankful so many people were in order to have something like that. And you know, not everyone is as fortunate as we are. And a lot of folks really needed those foodstuffs. And so that was a good experience. Anything else we haven’t talked about?
KW: [0:28:00] Can’t think of anything. I’m just thankful that — you know, we just saw so many good things come out of something, you know, bad. And we’re just very thankful.
LG: Alright, that’s it.
DW: That’s it?
LG: Thank you both so much.
DW: Our pleasure. [0:28:23]