Ron Teitelbaum was interviewed on the morning of Friday, March 2, 2018, in the conference room of an apartment building in Houston, where he and his wife have been living since their home flooded during Hurricane Harvey on August 29, 2017. Mr. Teitelbaum is a retired attorney who recently sold the Meyerland home he and his wife bought in 1988. They are currently looking to purchase a new home outside of Meyerland. In this interview, HCAD refers to the Harris County Appraisal District, POL refers to Proof of Loss (an insurance policyholder’s statement of the amount of money being requested), and May Day is sometimes used to refer to a flood that impacted Houston on Memorial Day of 2015. This interview was conducted as part of The Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston Project, University of Houston. Per Mr. Teitelbaum’s request, a portion of this interview has been redacted.
Read on for a full transcript of the interview:
PDH: Good morning. My name is Paula Hoffman. It is the morning of Friday, March 2, and I am interviewing Ron Teitelbaum. We are in Houston, TX, in a conference room at his rented apartment building, where he has been living since his home flooded during Hurricane Harvey. So, Ron, can you tell me about your experience during Harvey?
RT: Okay, we were on vacation in Italy. You just sort of sit there and you watch the news. And you are completely helpless. You can’t do a darn thing about it. You can’t go home early because the airports are closed. You just kind of sit there. We got ahold of a neighbor, who is also the son of a close friend, and I had him save 2 computers and some other stuff. And if my brain had been working correctly I probably could have saved another 5 or 6 thousand dollars worth of things. But I just was too paralyzed to think it through. One of the other computers flooded. It didn’t cost me a lot to fix it but it took 2 days of work. If I had had to fix all three of them I would have gone nuts. You know, it just kinds of ends your vacation. We were at a beach town and it sort of hit the last night we were there or maybe that afternoon, I can’t remember, and all I know is that the next day we went to Rome for two days. We were like zombies. We were just sitting there, in shock. Wherever you look, it was on the news because it was a big international news story and you’re just sitting there, and you can’t do a thing about it. And we spent a lot of time rearranging our flights because the domestic part of the trip had been canceled, and they managed to reroute us. United did a good job on that. We came into Intercontinental, it was one of the first flights to arrive. And it was, again, it was Twilight Zone, you are looking at the sign and it shows 95% of the flights are canceled. And you just came in. And the airport is empty. And they had all this food out in the food court and no one was eating it. It had just opened that afternoon. It was just Twilight Zone. So, we get in the car, we go home. The house, we go inside, it looks like it was tossed. The furniture was overturned. Things had been floating around. The refrigerator was at a 45 degree angle. It was already starting to smell moldy. We got a contractor out there the next day, and they did a partial remediation. They couldn’t do the closets because we hadn’t emptied them yet. And it was a contractor we had previously used. Schultz Construction. We had used them to rebuild the house in 2015 and we used them in 2014 to rebuild the garage, which had collapsed because it wasn’t built right in the first place. So, they did as much work as they could do, and then I finished the closets. In the end, I mean, you are legally required to remediate the house or tear it down immediately. In the end, we did sell the house. We were lucky to sell it. The first offer we got was a fraudster. They made a very low option payment and very low earnest money. Wanted a two week option, which they didn’t need because there’s no point in inspecting these houses. And then they- the day before the closing they lowered the price by like $75,000. And they were just hoping that we had a commitment, that we’d bought another house, and that we would just have to suck it up. We told them to go down the road. So, our agent, Bernice Blum, who is also a Jewish Meyerland floodie, which is probably why I hired her, and we had some prior contact and we know some people in common. She beat the bushes and found a buyer. We didn’t get as much as the first guy, but we got more than what people were getting a month later. The buyers are going to tear the house down, I actually met them yesterday by accident. They intend to build a big 2-story spec house. They want to have it done by the end of the year. I think they’re very ambitious, I wish them the best of luck. They told me that they’re sorry we flooded. I said, “Thank you for helping me get started again, helping me to start over.” And that’s what it is, you are kind of starting over again. Here we are, we are in our late 60s and we’re looking for a house and we don’t have any furniture. Well, we have a little bit. We have two rooms. And it’s just, you know, having to go through a lot of issues that we went through 29 years ago when we bought this house. Because that was supposed to be the permanent house. The one we had before that was a starter house. And we were planning on staying there, I would say another 5-7 years, until this hit.
PDH: You mentioned that you remediated in 2015. You flooded on Memorial Day?
RT: Yeah, so the house is mildly a split-level. The difference between the two levels is only 8 or 9 inches, and only the lower level flooded. So we remediated, we repaired, we put in a new kitchen. HCAD raised our appraisal by almost twice what we spent, but the next year they backed it off. What happened was, they just went crazy on the 2016 appraisals and then in 2017 they lowered them. I think that what they did to a lot of people is unfair. They are running around now, they are knocking on doors and trying to see if they can trick people into telling them their house is done. They try to take a house that was not classified as a remodel and classify it as a remodel. It makes a really big difference in your tax appraisal. It was 25 a foot, you know. You multiply that by almost 4,000 square feet, that’s a big number. After the 2015 flood, selling was not an option. It just was not an option. We didn’t get enough money from the insurance and I ran the numbers post-Harvey, and even though the land values were a lot higher then and they were paying more money for the damaged houses, I wouldn’t have been any better off selling then. I might have been worse off. I mean, this time, we had a lot of damage, we got the whole thing, we didn’t have any trouble with the adjuster. We were incredibly lucky. The first adjuster was a complete creep. I had to fight with him, for weeks. Nearly doubled the original estimate. But I did a lot of it myself because he had made a large numbers of consistency errors and omissions. And then I finally got Howard Schultz in there, he found another 8 or 9 thousand dollars, after I had worked it over for weeks and weeks. You had a little more leverage then because you had to sign off on a proof of loss. And until you did that, he couldn’t submit it and he couldn’t get paid. The adjuster. Now, they can just submit their proof of loss without your signing off on it. And then they get paid and so something that the government did supposedly to help Harvey victims and speed up the payments actually hurts them. After that, I had thought about fixing up the other half of the house. But once the Tax Day flood happened I became convinced that we were really far more vulnerable than I thought. Even though we didn’t flood on Tax Day. It just convinced me that it was doomed, that it would happen again, and soon. I didn’t think we’d get the over 2 feet that we got with Harvey, but I just felt we would have a repeat of the May Day flood, or a little worse. So I stopped spending money on the house, other than small do-it-yourself projects.
PDH: So you sold your house after 29 years.
PDH: You raised children in that house.
PDH: Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose Meyerland, and about the community?
RT: Mildred wanted to live there. It was close to the synagogues, it was close to the things she was doing. She just saw that as the destination. And it was then. If you’re an upper middle class Jew, that was the destination neighborhood. But it has changed since then. There’s Bellaire, a lot of people moved to West U, a lot of people moved to the villages. And I think that’s really just what she wanted, you know? And you know the old story, “Happy wife, happy life.”
PDH: You said Meyerland has changed. Would you still say it’s a Jewish enclave?
RT: I would say it’s still predominantly Jewish. I can’t tell you what the percentage is, but there sure are a lot of Jewish families there. I heard, there are some people who say it had gone the other way for a while, that it was becoming less Jewish, then shifted back and was becoming more Jewish. I don’t know what is going to happen in the aftermath of this because May Day, 750 houses flooded, but at the time people believed it was a fluke. Tax Day was smaller, with maybe 350. And now, this time around, it was like 18 or 19 hundred. Basically, everything except section 10 got wiped out. Except for a few, a couple of random houses. And maybe 75 or 100 recent constructions that were elevated. There’s houses that were built in 2000, that were elevated, or 1999, that were elevated to the standard then and they flooded. One guy who is down in the 4900 courts of Braesheather, where it’s real low, his house was elevated 5 feet and it flooded with 6 inches of water. The guys that bought my place said that Meyerland is going to require them to raise the house 6 feet. That’s by my calculation, that’s two and a half feet above the 500 year. What I think they did, is they just did 2 and then they rounded up. They said they would raise it higher than that.
PDH: To be safe?
RT: I think it is just a selling point, maybe. And I think that that house, 6 feet, the only thing you got to worry about is your cars.
PDH: You mentioned your wife Mildred was involved with the Jewish community in Meyerland when you moved there.
RT: She had some friends over there, she knew some people. She just wanted to live there. It’s funny, we were living in Glenshire, and some of the people from Glenshire moved to Meyerland. One or two moved to Meyerland with us. Some moved away. One is still there. She just, you know we are members of Beth Israel. She just saw that as the place to be. At that time.
PDH: Is she still involved with Beth Israel?
RT: Yeah, she’s still involved. What does she go to? Collage, what the heck is that? NCJW. I would say that’s her big one. I don’t know, I don’t pay a lot of attention to it.
PDH: The NCJW is the National Council of Jewish Women?
RT: Yeah, the National Council of Jewish Women. She’s in that. And I don’t know if she’s in the sisterhood or not. She might be. She gives them some money.
PDH: So you are not looking to move too far away from all that, then?
RT: That’s the main consideration. We don’t want to be so far away that it’s hard for her to get there. One of the problems is that, what was the main step-up destination, which was Bellaire, is all flood plain. And that makes me nervous. I haven’t ruled Bellaire out. But the houses we’re been looking at today are right around here. Mid-lane. Which isn’t far. You go to, you go down Richmond a couple of blocks and you turn left on Sage or something or Rice and you’re in Bellaire in 5 minutes. Her activities, a lot of them, are in Bellaire. She has an exercise class there and a bunch of friends there.
PDH: What about your children? Were they involved with the Jewish community?
RT: Yeah, they grew up Jewish. They’re very grown now. The younger one is 37. He lives in Berkeley. He just got married. The older one is 40. She has twin boys that will be 9 in a couple of weeks. She lives in Austin with her husband. They both went to the Jewish camps. What was it, Sabra, I think? What’s the one out on 359 or something? There’s some camp in Fort Bend County they went to. It’s run by the JCC. They went to those. They went to the other Jewish camps. She just sent, our daughter just sent the grandchildren to, I think it’s Sabra. It is a Jewish camp. And she just sent them there. And one of her friends told her, “Oh, no. They’re too young to go there.” And she told them, “No, I am sending them because I had such a great time there.” She basically, her memory. I mean, our kids, they both married Jewish, and we never really made a stink about it. We never really twisted their arms or anything. They just married Jewish. Because that’s what they wanted to do.
PDH: Do you think growing up in Meyerland played a part in that?
RT: It probably did. Because they grew up with other Jewish kids. And they had interactions with other Jewish families. And probably not much of anything else.
PDH: There’s a lot of uncertainty now about the future of Meyerland. Do you believe it will remain a Jewish community?
RT: I consider predicting the future to be the most dangerous job in the world. The only one who is any good at it is Warren Buffet. I think it will still stay heavily Jewish. The reason why is you’ve got Beth Israel over there. Beth Yeshurun is over there. I don’t know what is going to happen to United Orthodox. I think they will stay close by. I think that what happened to them is just tragic. Just really tragic. Particularly the Orthodox, there lives really revolve around going to synagogue. They show up Saturday morning at 9:30 or 10 and they are there until lunchtime. Or after lunch. I mean, no wonder they put out schnapps in Orthodox synagogues. After 3 hours of that, you need something. So for them it is really tragic. A lot of people are going back. But a lot of the empty nesters are leaving. We know some of the empty nesters are staying. In fact, two of Mildred’s closest friends are staying. She had two close friends that were- one was five houses away and the other one was on the other side of the block. They are staying. One is repairing. It is their first flood. The other one is going to build a new house. It is going to depend heavily on whether we get another flood this year or next year. I think the work they’re doing on phase 2 of 3 phases of completion of Project Brays- of 3 phases of digging- is going up. I saw the amount of dirt that they took out under 610 and, well, it can’t hurt. I mean, it just can’t hurt anything. So if they can make it through, through that, maybe they can get a couple of years. And then when they finish it, it is not going to stop the flooding entirely, but it’s going to limit it. I think a flood like Harvey, it would still be very bad, it would maybe be like May Day. Or a little worse. May Day would have been like Tax Day, Tax Day would have been like the prior floods, would have only hit the lowest homes. They’re elevating a lot of houses, they’re knocking down a lot of houses, but there are also a lot of people rebuilding at grade. So I think the floods will be less frequent, they’ll be less severe. It is just going to kind of depend on how things go- is 3 500 year floods in a row just a fluke, or is that what we can expect?
PDH: So there’s no predicting whether young Jewish families with children will be deterred by the flooding?
RT: I can’t predict it. Maybe. I mean, one of my favorite neighbors, young families, are not Jewish. In fact, two of them. Greatest neighbors in the world. One is repairing at grade, they have a 2 story house. And they have just made up their mind, they are going to somehow survive it. They put too much money into their house after they bought it. And the other one, I believe he is going to knock his house down and build a new. Just the nicest people in the world. And then there’s another family. A couple of doors down. And a fence finally went up around their house. [PORTION REDACTED]
PDH: What options did you consider besides selling?
RT: We considered tear down and construction, a little bit. Or sell. We did not consider repair grade or elevating. I don’t like the long-term economics of elevating. I think the short-term economics are okay. Particularly on smaller homes, where the cost of elevating a small house, while it is ridiculous per square foot, it’s less than building a bigger house, and you can’t build anything less than about 3200 square feet. You can’t get a contractor to do it, you can’t get a bank to finance it. On those lots. I know 2 people who did it, but it’s hard. But I know of two. But generally, I think 3100 is about the minimum. So if you’re talking about elevating, 2400 vs building 3100, then maybe you can do it. I can tell you that the city has gotten a lot stricter about everything. People are running into- a lot of substantial damage letters flying, which means you can’t build without elevating, a lot of people repealing them. I am frequently helping people, explaining the rules to them, that you can’t- that’s your valuation, that’s your tax valuation, that’s your depreciated displacement, you can get an appraisal, you can use the number on the POL. And then you get a notarized estimate from a contractor, for just the work needed to do it, and there’s some things you can exclude. I don’t know exactly what you can exclude. And it’s rare that you’re stuck with substantial damage.
PDH: You talked about the long-term and short-term economics. Let’s talk about that. With Meyerland. There are plans, things are going to change significantly. There’s going to be a new HEB, a two-story HEB, a new Kolter Elementary.
RT: They are going to rebuild it. But it is going to take 3 to 4 years. It’s going to take time for the neighborhood to regenerate. I think it is going to regenerate and it’s going to look good eventually. But it is much harder to answer the question, “Will it regenerate as a Jewish neighborhood?” That’s a much more difficult question.
PDH: What factors do you think would be involved? I know there are rumors that the JCC is leaving.
RT: I have heard the rumor, but their answer to it is that our priority right now is to be up and running. Where in the hell would they go? I don’t know. That would really be, that would almost be a death-blow, you know. I hope UOS can come up with an elevated structure. Park underneath or something like that. You know, I don’t know a bunch of young people that are talking about what they want to do, or anything like that. I know that there are people who are investing in elevating, there are people who are investing in new construction. Some people are just repairing at grade. I think as you get further back from the flooding, the houses that had less than a foot of water in them, I think repairing at grade is a reasonable bet. I think it’s not perfect, but it’s- I think you have a better than 50% chance of being okay. It is one thing to say the neighborhood will regenerate, it is completely another to say if it will regenerate as Jewish.
PDH: Ron, can you tell me about this role that you’ve taken on in social media? You are offering a lot of support, a lot of advice to a lot of people about what to do with serial flooding.
RT: I think because, well first of all I went through it once. I started to get into this whole thing about the substantial damage and how to fight it because a guy that owned a rental house across the street reached out to me for help. And he was having a similar problem, but his problem was over-improvement, where he had put in, they claimed he had put in more than 50% improvement on a house. I guess he wasn’t substantially damaged. The house flooded, he fixed it, and they said he spent more than 50% of the value to fix it. Which is also prohibited. So if you can have a house that is not substantially damaged, but then you fix it and you do some more stuff, and you go over 50%, they can make you rip it out or whatever. So with that, I helped him. I looked at the rules and walked him through it and then we talked every couple of days about his progress, and who he went to and what arguments he made and finally he succeeded. And so in combination of what I was looking at it as a lawyer and what I thought the right answer was, and then what results he got walking it through himself, I knew enough of the process at that point to help people with that particular set of issues. I think on the emotional side, I just somehow got in touch with my own emotions, and how I felt, and started writing it down. Because it was cathartic. Because it helped me. What I figured was that everyone else was in the same boat, literally and figuratively. Everyone else was just as upset and miserable and confused and scared and angry and we were all the same. I mean, a little different, but we all had a pretty similar bunch of problems. Certainly the same thing happened to us.
PDH: One thing you posted, it was about a Houston Public Media article titled, “Why Leave a Neighborhood You Love? After Three Floods, One Houston Family Makes That Decision,” about one Houston family dealing with what you are describing. And you wrote, “Does this ever sound familiar!”
RT: Was that the Guites?
PDH: Why did that resonate with you? What did you mean, “Does this ever sound familiar?”
RT: Well, we’d been there for a long time. We really thought this was it. I think we’d been there longer than the Guites.
PDH: In Meyerland.
RT: Yeah. I think they had young children. They still had kids in school. They moved to Montrose. So they moved quite far from the Jewish community. We looked in Montrose and Mildred says, “Oh, my God. This is so far away.” And I can’t remember exactly what he wrote in the article, but it just resonated. Whatever he said, it just resonated. And they sold, I thought they got top dollar for their house, because they were one of the first ones to get scooped up. Somebody bought the house to redo it, it’s a two story. It had some undamaged space upstairs. They got quite a bit more than we did. He probably lost more money than we did, too, because he was not in there as long. I mean, that’s it. You’ve been in one spot for a long time and you are basically uprooted. The choice to build a house, which is too much, not in your late 60s. There are people doing it, but it was just not for us. So it was a tough choice, so that was it.
PDH: Ron, before we finish is there anything you feel you would like to add to the conversation?
RT: I don’t know. I worry about the PTSD, that a lot of people have, the aftermath, the emotional aftermath, of the people that are staying there. That every time it rains, they are up all night. I must sleep sounder than most people. Although, there was one night, we were traveling and we were in a place and it was raining really hard and I didn’t know anything about the drainage, and that night I was up. This was after Harvey. And the next day we went out on a hike and we saw the river rushing and it was actually quite far away. But that’s it. I just worry about all these people. I worry about the stress on the families, I worry about what they are going through. I worry about people with permanent financial damage, the ones who are- either they didn’t have insurance, or they are having to borrow money to elevate, or whatever.
PDH: This is a beautiful conference room. Can you tell me about relocating? Have you been here since the flood?
RT: Well, the first two weeks we stayed with friends in Bellaire. Upstairs, in their house. They had a narrow staircase. At the time, my left foot was bothering me and it was hard to get down the stairs. And we just started furiously looking for an apartment, and this was the first thing we could get our hands on. It was very tight. Everyone had a 3 or 4 day head start on us because we were overseas and rents had already gone up. Availability was lousy. We were going to have to wait a month and take a tiny 2 bedroom. A bigger one came up that was in 13 days and we took it. I am not too happy living here. There is a cigar smoker underneath us, and if you live in a smoking complex and you have a conflict with a smoker you lose. That’s it. That’s the rule. So I am not real happy with it. And that is one reason we are looking for a house. We are not interested in high rise living, at least not now.
PDH: Do you know other flood victims who live here?
RT: Oh, yeah. There’s one, two, three right off my street. Next door neighbor. The one next to him. And then three doors down the other way. I just saw a woman in the elevator. She is moving home today. I would say she’s in her 30s. She had a baby while she was living here. Beautiful little boy, I think. And she’s going home today. Her husband was helping carry out a piece of furniture. There was another couple that was here, that I haven’t seen them lately. Maybe they finished their house. There’s an older couple that flooded, living here. They are looking for maybe a bigger apartment. The 2 bedrooms here are 12 and 1300 square feet. There’s a couple of them that are bigger, but there’s not many and they don’t turn over. There’s bunches of floodies around here. There are not as many as there were. Some have gone home. Or they’ve moved to a different complex, maybe.
PDH: Ron, thank you so much for sharing your story. I really do appreciate it, and it has been a pleasure talking to you.
RT: It was fun.