Saturday, 16 January 2021

The Year Hurricane Harvey Swamped a Neighborhood—and Split a Friendship

HOUSTON—The two women spotted each other as they prepared to slog knee-deep through the floodwaters raised by Hurricane Harvey. They were each headed toward the condominium complex where their friendship began decades ago, and where it would soon be tested.

“Girlfriend, I’ve missed you! What are you wearing?” shouted Melva Martinez.

“My pajamas!” Marilyn McPheeters yelled back. She had run out of clothes at the church where she had taken shelter. It had been only days since Harvey’s fury upended so many lives, including theirs.

The friends were returning to salvage what they could from their condos at The Pines, a 254-unit development on 15 acres that stretched along the pine- and oak-shaded streets of Houston’s exclusive Memorial neighborhood.

Ms. McPheeters, a sharp-witted retiree who turns 67 on Friday, had lived more than 30 years in the ground-floor condo she inherited from her grandmother. Ms. Martinez, an easygoing 61-year-old sales manager, had moved to a townhouse nearby, but she still owned her condo and often visited The Pines. Both units were wrecked.

Before Harvey, a one-bedroom at The Pines rented for $1,000 a month and sold for around $90,000 and up. The affordable complex drew a tapestry of middle- and working-class residents—families from Iran, Korea, China and Mexico who could enroll their children in the Spring Branch Independent School District, one of the Houston area’s best.

At Harvey’s beckoning, the Buffalo Bayou, which for decades drifted harmlessly behind the complex, had swamped The Pines with 3 feet of brackish water. Flooding claimed the life of one resident, a wheelchair-bound woman who lived alone in her ground-floor condo.

The property damage was stunning. Overnight, tidy condos became soggy, fetid dumps. Dazed families dragged out what remained of their life’s belongings and built roadside piles for refuse crews to haul away.

In the early days after the storm, Ms. Martinez and Ms. McPheeters joined neighbors—both acquaintances and strangers—determined to save The Pines. A year later, nearly half of the condos remain empty.

Owners angrily split over repairs that would cost them each thousands of dollars, their share of the more than $1 million needed to fix and rebuild. Some favored selling their units or the entire property, hoping to recoup a fraction of their investment. Others, forced out of their condos for months, sought the quickest possible return, no matter the cost.

The goodwill that had united residents through the storm seemed to recede with the floodwaters, leaving behind conflict and resentment.

Choices forced by Harvey’s wreckage even split the two friends who first navigated 1980s Houston together as single working women—chasing love and success, celebrating holidays and birthdays, giving comfort during heartbreak.

“I don’t think it will ever be the way it was,” Ms. Martinez lamented.

“The flood took my fun and my spunk and my spirit and a friendship,” Ms. McPheeters said.

The story of their struggles mirrored those of greater Houston in the year since Harvey caused more than $125 billion in damage, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Only Katrina was worse.

Voters in Harris County, which includes Houston, decide on Aug. 25 whether to approve a $2.5 billion bond measure to overhaul the region’s flood-protection system. Weighing the price of restoration and security has been a calculation for many residents after Harvey, including the estimated tens of thousands who are still out of their homes.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, an architect of the bond-measure campaign said, “Now is going to come the test: How well are we going to work together?”

Lucy and Ethel

A mutual friend introduced Melva Martinez and Marilyn McPheeters at the Adam’s Mark Hotel bar in downtown Houston, a favorite of the singles crowd. The two women found they had much in common and hit it off right away.

Ms. Martinez, a third-generation Mexican-American, was raised in South Texas, where her parents owned a chain of small grocery stores. Ms. McPheeters grew up around Houston, and her father had owned pharmacies. Both women had worked in their family stores when they were young.

Ms. Martinez always imagined she would leave her hometown of Beeville. She moved to Houston in her early 20s and found work as a secretary in the office of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famed heart surgeon.

Ms. McPheeters, an urbane woman with a passion for art and antiques, was six years older and in her early 30s when they met. Ms. Martinez said she had never encountered anyone quite like her. Ms. McPheeters had attended a fashion design school, wore the latest clothes and had an easy confidence that drew people, including eligible men. She briefly worked in retail before taking an administrative job at a Houston law firm.

They soon became neighbors. “Melva came over one day and said, ‘Oh, I love your apartment. If any become available, let me know,’” Ms. McPheeters said, recounting Ms. Martinez’s first visit.

“Her place was gorgeous,” said Ms. Martinez, describing her friend’s paintings, lithographs and framed posters.

Not long after, a condo four doors away went up for rent at $450 a month. Ms. Martinez grabbed it. In their free time, the new friends danced at discos, shopped for antiques or drove to the beach at Galveston.

Ms. Martinez, who went into sales, bought her condo at The Pines in 1992 for $29,000. “She was Lucy and I was Ethel,” she said, referring to neighbors played by Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in the 1950s TV sitcom “I Love Lucy.”

Ms. McPheeters imagined a life with a husband and children. She had been engaged to a man 25 years her senior, the owner of a tubing company. She broke it off after she worked for him, but they remained close. Ms. McPheeters said it probably kept her from getting serious with anyone else.

Ms. Martinez’s relationships with men never seemed to last. Once, when she was stranded across town in a downpour and flash flood, Ms. Martinez called a boyfriend to pick her up in his truck. He told her to find a hotel.

Then Ms. Martinez called Ms. McPheeters, who barreled through the storm in her small Honda. “Never see that guy again!” Ms. McPheeters told her friend. Ms. Martinez broke up with the man soon after.

In her mid-30s, Ms. Martinez met Richard Meronek, an oil-and-gas engineer. They were volunteers at a school for autistic children. “I shook his hand, and I knew I was going to marry him,” she said.

After dating two years, they married in 1995. Ms McPheeters was the maid of honor. The newlyweds moved to a townhome in a fancier development where Mr. Meronek lived, about a 12-minute drive from The Pines.

Ms. Martinez still visited The Pines several days a week after work to see Ms. McPheeters. On Sundays, they would meet for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Every few months, Ms. Martinez hosted a movie night for her girlfriends that Ms. McPheeters never missed.

When Ms. McPheeters’s mother died three years ago, she gave Ms. Martinez, a practicing Catholic, a cross that belonged to her mother.

Harvey knocks

On Aug. 25 last year, Harvey slammed the Texas coast and headed toward Houston. Ms. Martinez made plans to hunker down at home with her husband. Two days later, the city flooded.

Ms. McPheeters told Ms. Martinez over the phone that water in her condo had risen to her ankles and then her calves. Ms. Martinez promised to get her friend, but the roads were impassable. As the hours passed, Ms. Martinez couldn’t reach Ms. McPheeters and called a neighbor at The Pines to check.

Ms. McPheeters and others had escaped to a second-floor clubhouse until rescuers ferried them to a church for the night. A family friend later retrieved Ms. McPheeters to stay with her and her husband.

In the days that followed, residents of The Pines realized that no one would be moving back soon. Flooding had left the 127 ground-floor units rotting and uninhabitable. The sour stench of sewage hung over the entire property.

Ms. Martinez and her husband spent hours clearing out their condo. Their tenant said he wasn’t coming back, leaving behind flood-soiled belongings.

That week, Ms. Martinez and others helped Ms. McPheeters cart away what little that could be saved—a few paintings, her mother’s glass table, a carousel horse from her ex-fiancé. Ms. McPheeters wept at her losses.

Among the heaps of waterlogged debris piled outside, Ms. Martinez spotted one of Ms. McPheeters favorite lithographs. She dug it from the muck and put it in her car. She planned to return it as a surprise housewarming gift when her friend moved back.

Residents lugged into courtyards stacks of ruined photo albums and mud-caked recipe books, broken toys and mildewed teddy bears. Mattresses and couches lined Memorial Drive.

Owners sought guidance from The Pines’ Homeowners Association Board, which administered the bylaws governing the condominium complex. It fell to the board to decide if and when it was safe for residents to return.

At a Sept. 14 meeting, a crowd gathered at The Pines’ management office and demanded the board president explain the plan for restoring The Pines.

Sina Zadeh, a 35-year-old lawyer who had grown up at The Pines, asked what the board was doing to help residents. Mr. Zadeh said many of the longtime immigrant families he knew were scared and confused. “It was chaos,” he said. “There were people who didn’t understand what was going on.”

Residents circulated a petition that called for a special board election. Ms. Martinez helped gather signatures, and Ms. McPheeters eagerly signed. By November, a new board was in place.

The Pines then faced its most daunting decision: rebuild or sell. Ms. Martinez was wavering. Ms. McPheeters planned to return no matter what.

Stay, sell or fight

By Thanksgiving, the neighborhood surrounding The Pines had sprung back to life. Construction crews patched up nearby homes. Customers crowded shopping centers. At The Pines, ground-floor units were gutted and eerie.

The new board agreed to assess the damage to foundations, roofs, plumbing and common areas. The previous board had decided years ago to drop its flood-insurance policy because The Pines had never flooded before. Owners would have to pay for all repairs.

The board heard from developers interested in buying the entire property. Under The Pines’ bylaws, all owners would have to agree.

For Ms. McPheeters, the prospect of such a sale was wrenching. To keep up her spirits, she imagined her remodeled condo: new concrete floors, a sliding patio door and a shower instead of bathtub.

Ms. McPheeters had received about $15,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and estimated she could rebuild her condo for around $20,000. It was pointless to sell, she said. Prices for ground-floor units at The Pines had plummeted. The market value of her condo in 2017 was $130,588, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. By January, it was $33,679.

On a night in November, Ms. Martinez picked up Ms. McPheeters for one of the movie-night parties. It was the first time Ms. McPheeters had ventured out socially since the storm. When women in the group asked Ms. McPheeters how she was doing, she cried.

Ms. McPheeters said none of them understood what she was going through, not even her best friend: “She didn’t lose everything in her life. I did.”

Ms. Martinez wept with Ms. McPheeters while driving her home that night.

With the development’s future unclear, Ms. Martinez’s husband raised the idea of selling. They weren’t collecting rent but still owed a monthly homeowners’ fee, which ranged among the units from roughly $335 to $530.

Ms. Martinez resisted. Not only did her best friend still live there, she always thought she and her husband would retire to her ground-floor unit at The Pines once they were too old to navigate the stairs of their townhouse.

The Pines had about $900,000 in reserves. The board began applying for a 30-year FEMA loan of just under $1 million. There was no promise the property qualified for such a loan or whether the sum would be enough.

Broken ties

As the holiday season arrived, owners at The Pines had splintered into factions: residents who wanted time to rebuild; those seeking a swift return; owners in favor of selling the whole property; and others seeking to sell their units.

At a board meeting in early December, residents were asked for a show of hands from those who wanted to sell. Ms. Martinez’s husband raised his hand.

Ms. McPheeters thought she saw Ms. Martinez raise hers, too. “I felt betrayed,” she said. Ms. Martinez said she had raised her hand to stay.

Yet, in the weeks after the meeting, Ms. Martinez wondered if her husband was right. “As we find out more things, I think it would probably be best to sell, financially,” she said in late December.

Ms. McPheeters suspected Ms. Martinez was considering selling, despite her assurances that she had no such plans. In their phone conversations, Ms. Martinez would ask Ms. McPheeters if she would be OK if owners agreed to sell the property. “I told her ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Ms. McPheeters said.

Throughout December, the bad news kept coming. Harvey had possibly damaged foundations of the more than 50-year-old complex. The board advised residents to delay any remodeling until structural repairs were done.

Ms. McPheeters grew more despondent. She said she had no problem if Ms. Martinez decided to sell her own unit, but worried her friend would join others who favored selling the entire property and dividing up the proceeds.

“I could see both sides,” Ms. McPheeters said. “This was an investment property for her. Melva is still working. Melva has a husband. Melva’s life is the same. For me, this was my home, and I wanted to be back.”

In February, Ms. McPheeters skipped a party thrown by a mutual friend, who relayed the reason to Ms. Martinez.

“She couldn’t stand being around you because of Harvey, and you haven’t stood by her,” Ms. Martinez recalled the friend saying. Ms. McPheeters said she remembered not feeling up to seeing any of her friends.

Later that month, Ms. Martinez decided to join the board of The Pines. By then, meetings turned into shouting matches and prompted the hiring of a uniformed Houston police officer.

In March, after sifting through contractor bids, the board estimated it would cost at least $1.2 million to fix building foundations, rebuild walls and remove mold. The entire project could take between six and eight months, delaying any homecoming until the fall.

As a board member, Ms. Martinez said it was best that people wait to start remodeling until after The Pines was declared structurally sound and mold-free. Then she resigned at a March meeting, saying that with the board attacked over every decision, it was impossible to get anything done.

When she finished speaking that night, she noticed Ms. McPheeters had left the room. Ms. McPheeters said she didn’t like how the board meeting was going. By then, she was tired of people giving reasons why she should wait.

“Every day, they change the rules. So I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to rebuild,’” Ms. McPheeters said. She put in new walls, wiring and concrete slab flooring—and dared anyone to try to stop her.

Ms. Martinez said the growing tension with Ms. McPheeters made it easier to text rather than to talk. In the days after Harvey, she wore the cross her friend had given her, but now she had stopped.

“She was always happy. She had the cutest, angelic smile. But now she’s angry. This is so not Marilyn,” Ms. Martinez said. “Our conversations started out really nice, but when it turned to rebuilding—it became horrible. It didn’t sound like her.”

The homestretch

The Pines scrapped its FEMA loan application in May because the loan required a $200,000 flood insurance policy, which it couldn’t afford. The agency said about 80% of the households damaged by Harvey didn’t have coverage.

Bank loans turned out to be another dead end: The Pines had no collateral and was still only about half-occupied. The latest board president, Danielle Trettin, said each owner would have to pay an assessment fee, roughly between $3,000 and $5,000, to help cover $1 million of the repairs.

Ms. McPheeters moved back in July. She didn’t care if the board took action against her for not waiting until her building was declared free of mold.

Her refurbished condo sprang from her imagination to real life, dressed in marine-blue walls, slab floors, gleaming cabinets and new appliances. “I am so happy to be home,” she said.

For more than a month this summer, she and Ms. Martinez didn’t speak beyond an occasional text. Ms. McPheeters said she was upset, believing her friend disapproved of her returning home before the board gave its blessing.

“I can’t imagine my life without Melva in it as a friend. But I can’t imagine this kind of friendship either with Melva. It’s too strained,” Ms. McPheeters said.

While visiting a flea market where she and Ms. McPheeters used to shop, Ms. Martinez ran into friends who asked about Ms. McPheeters. Ms. Martinez didn’t know what to say. “It breaks my heart we’re not as close,” she said.

Their friendship proved more resilient. In late July, the two women made plans for dinner, like old times, at a Mexican restaurant. They laughed, caught up and reminisced, steering clear of any talk about The Pines.

After dinner, they went to Ms. McPheeters’s condo. Ms. Martinez gushed over the remodel and returned the lost lithograph. Ms. McPheeters cried.

“It was great to see her,” Ms. McPheeters said later. “I think I’d just got my feelings hurt.”

Their relationship, like The Pines, needs work. Foundation repairs and mold inspections at the complex are about done, but there remain problems with air conditioning and drainage, and lingering tension among owners. Residents have returned to about 20 ground-floor condos, leaving more than 100 still vacant.

The two friends agree they, too, are only partway home. “I think it will be fine, if we don’t talk about Harvey,” Ms. Martinez said. “He’s the boyfriend that none of us wanted.”

Write to Dan Frosch at

Corrections & Amplifications
Credit of a photo of Melva Martinez and Marilyn McPheeters in the floodwaters after Harvey goes to the Meronek family. An earlier version of this article incorrectly credited the photo to the Maronek family. (Aug. 16, 2018)

Appeared in the August 17, 2018, print edition as ‘The Year Harvey Wrecked a City And Split Friends.’


« »