Their American Dream Is Being Washed Away
The house was supposed to last the Fuentes family for the rest of their lives. They barely got a few years with it.
Becca and Sergio Fuentes first met in middle school, and by the summer of 2017 they had been together for 15 years. Ms. Fuentes was a special-education teacher, and Mr. Fuentes was a technician who had repaired combat vehicles in Afghanistan. The couple had spent years saving up to buy a house in Bear Creek Village, a leafy neighborhood that sits about 20 miles west of downtown Houston.
They were getting ready to have their first child, and they couldn’t think of a better place to be young parents: The homes in the neighborhood were quirky and spacious, the streets were quiet and safe, and the school district was excellent. Even with their combined incomes, though, it had taken them the better part of a decade to come up with the down payment, and a few years more to afford all the furniture.
In late August of that year, Hurricane Harvey barreled toward Houston, having steamed up to Category 4 strength on its way across the Gulf of Mexico. The Fuenteses were both native Houstonians, and they were used to the emotional roller coaster of hurricane season, so they weren’t too worried about it. Plus, they had bigger things to worry about on the weekend the storm approached: Ms. Fuentes was 31 weeks pregnant with twins, and she had a dangerous condition called vasa previa. She was supposed to check into a hospital the following week for bed rest.
Even as the storm made landfall, the couple still had no idea it was about to devastate their lives. The rain came down all day Friday, and all through Friday night, and it came down even harder on Saturday, but the storm drains seemed to be holding up, and there was still no water pooling on their street. On Saturday evening, Ms. Fuentes’s feet began to swell and she felt herself overwhelmed by nausea as her labor approached. She alternated between sitting in the bathtub to settle her stomach and crouching in the hallway during the tornado warnings that arrived every few hours.
Late in the afternoon on Sunday, they were urged to leave. The neighborhood sat on the edge of the Addicks Reservoir, a park designed to trap floodwaters, and officials said it would soon fill up and flood Bear Creek Village, submerging homes. If the Fuenteses didn’t leave soon, they would be trapped there. They loaded up their cars with clothes and papers the next morning and drove a few miles away to Ms. Fuentes’s mother’s house.
Ms. Fuentes’s labor pains kept mounting over the next few days, but she couldn’t make her appointment at the hospital because downtown Houston was flooded, so she and her husband just held on and waited. She didn’t get to the hospital until Friday morning — five days late — at which point the doctors put her on bed rest, hoping to delay a C-section for as long as they could.
In the meantime, Mr. Fuentes donned his thickest clothes and waded back into Bear Creek Village, pushing past a police line and stumbling through dark water that came up to his chest. When he finally reached his home, it was worse than he could have imagined: Stagnant water had filled the house, soaking the walls with mold and rupturing the floors. The furniture was floating upside down. The deeper he moved into the house, the more the destruction became apparent. Repairs would cost tens of thousands of dollars, far more money than the Fuenteses had. The couple had lost their home, and with it their dreams of a settled life.
The following week, with Houston still reeling from the storm, the doctors told Becca she had to give birth at once: one of the twins’ heads was pressing against an important vein, and the delivery couldn’t wait any longer. The doctors conducted an emergency C-section as Sergio rushed down to the hospital. He arrived just in time to meet his two sons, Marley and Hendrix, as they emerged into a strange and terrifying world.
As climate change ratchets up the risk of living in vulnerable places, it ratchets up the cost of living in those places as well. The people who rent and own homes in cities like Houston bear these costs, but so do the institutions that support them: the banks that lend them money, the companies that insure their homes, the local governments that maintain their roads, the federal agencies that help them recover after disasters. The greater these costs become, the more pressure they exert on these individuals and institutions, until all of a sudden the math no longer adds up and it becomes impossible for a family to stay where they are, to rebuild their house, to hold onto their community.
CreditCredit…By Rebecca And Sergio Fuentes
In Becca and Sergio Fuentes’s case, it was the flood of water from the Addicks Reservoir that pushed them over the edge. The birth of the twins should have been the start of a bright new chapter for the couple, but instead it was the beginning of an exile. They had emptied their savings to get the mortgage in the first place, and they didn’t have enough money to repair the house.
A changing climate, a changing world
Climate change around the world: In “Postcards From a World on Fire,” 193 stories from individual countries show how climate change is reshaping reality everywhere, from dying coral reefs in Fiji to disappearing oases in Morocco and far, far beyond.
The role of our leaders: Writing at the end of 2020, Al Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States, found reasons for optimism in the Biden presidency, a feeling perhaps borne out by the passing of major climate legislation. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been criticisms. For example, Charles Harvey and Kurt House argue that subsidies for climate capture technology will ultimately be a waste.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived soon after the storm to dispense aid money and low-interest loans, but even that wasn’t enough to cover a total rebuild. Some residents of Bear Creek Village had purchased flood insurance from the federal National Flood Insurance Program, but the Fuenteses hadn’t: They had never heard of any flooding around their house, and no one had brought it up when they bought the house.
The Fuenteses moved into Becca’s mother’s place. The house was a godsend, but it was also very crowded: They were living there not only with the twins and Becca’s mother but also with Becca’s brother, his wife and their two children, plus their own four dogs. Ms. Fuentes worried about how the frenetic environment would affect the twins, and she wanted to get out as soon as she could, so Mr. Fuentes went back to work on the house in Bear Creek Village, tossing out all the furniture and fixing up the walls on his own dime.
It didn’t take long for him to realize he would never be able to make the house livable again, and by the beginning of 2018 the couple’s plans had changed. Mr. Fuentes had been offered the chance to open a tools franchise, which required a lot of upfront investment, and the couple had no choice but to sell their home in Bear Creek Village to get the seed money. Even after they offloaded the property to another young family, though, they were still too short on cash to afford a new apartment, let alone a new house. They stuck it out at Becca’s mother’s house for another six months, and then another year, and then another two years, but nothing changed. They were stuck.
Hurricane Harvey damaged more than 200,000 homes in Houston, and other climate disasters in 2017 destroyed hundreds of thousands more properties in the United States; the destruction has continued since then, with floods and fires rendering about a million Americans homeless on average each year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. We don’t know how many of those people are unable to return to their original homes, but if even a small percentage of the displaced end up living elsewhere, the cumulative movement is already staggering.
Climate displacement looks different in every place, but in many cases the movements that follow a disaster look a lot like the movement Becca and Sergio Fuentes made out of Bear Creek Village: People move in ways that are turbulent, involuntary and only quasi-permanent. Right now these movements are scattered, even isolated, but they won’t stay that way for long. Over the coming decades, millions more people are likely to find themselves confronted by the same set of choices as the Fuenteses, and many of those people will pack up and move somewhere safer or cheaper rather than endure the constant risk of flood and fire.
The aggregate movement of all these climate migrants will be messy and chaotic. Over time it will alter not just neighborhoods like Bear Creek Village but whole towns and cities, sweeping more and more Americans up into a churn of displacement and relocation. The Fuenteses’ fall from homeownership into housing instability offers a preview of how climate change will affect us over the century to come: It will alter not just where we live, but how we live.
Long-term homeownership will become more difficult and more expensive in many places, and many communities will find themselves upended or erased, separating millions of people from the places they call home. By the end of the century, our ideas about what “home” means will have been substantially unsettled.
Four years after the storm, the Fuenteses were no closer to finding a permanent home. They sometimes drove out to the suburbs on weekends to go to open houses in the new subdivisions or at cheaper condo complexes, taking the twins along to visit nearby parks. It was a nice escape from the chaos of Becca’s mother’s house, but they couldn’t delude themselves that the tours were anything more than window-shopping.
Even so, they knew they couldn’t stay with Becca’s mother forever. The twins would start school the following year, and the Fuenteses still had no idea where they would enroll. They had received thousands of donated items after the storm, furniture and clothes and supplies, but they didn’t have space for any of it at Becca’s mother’s house, and many of the twins’ old toys sat in storage so long that they ended up covered in mold.
You can think of Hurricane Harvey as a bill coming due, not just for Houston but for the United States and the industrialized world. As the United States and other prosperous countries have warmed the planet through the combustion of fossil fuels, they have also made it easier for monster storms like Harvey to form: Extra-warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico allowed the storm to gather remarkable strength in just a few days, and the warm air above Houston also made the storm wetter, contributing to its record-breaking rainfall.
But that’s not the only kind of bill we’ve racked up. Developers and local officials in Houston also incurred considerable climate risk by building a city with enormous flood exposure. As Texas boomed in population during the late 20th century, developers channelized rivers and paved over absorbent grasses to build dozens of new subdivisions, and local officials permitted this new construction almost everywhere.
By the time county flood managers tried to restrict development in the floodplain, it was too late: Dozens of neighborhoods like Bear Creek Village already existed right in the water’s path, and the people who lived in them weren’t about to just pick up and move. This kind of risky construction happened all over the country during the 20th century — Americans moved right up to the edge of Miami’s eroding coastline and into the most water-stressed valleys of Arizona.
Bear Creek Village was the result of particularly poor planning. The adjacent forest preserve known as the Addicks Reservoir is a kind of giant natural bowl that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built in the early 20th century. The idea was that the reservoir could collect and store rainwater during big storms, preventing the water from flowing into downtown Houston, but the government made the reservoir only large enough to stop the largest flood that was on record at the time.
The government knew that the reservoir could overflow into the land around it, but didn’t do anything to stop development on that land, and decades later Bear Creek Village appeared right at its edge. Decisions like these put hundreds of thousands of homes in the direct path of climate disaster.
In 2019, a federal judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was liable for homes flooded inside the Addicks and Barker Reservoir basins during Hurricane Harvey. In his ruling, Judge Charles Lettow wrote, “The flooding that occurred was the direct result of calculated planning,” concluding that the Army Corps was aware that flooding would happen if a major storm like Harvey hit.
When Harvey struck Houston, various parties paid the bill for the destruction in Bear Creek Village. The first, of course, were homeowners like Becca and Sergio Fuentes, who had to empty their savings just to survive in the first few weeks after the storm. The second was FEMA, which spent billions of dollars to help Texas recover, setting up temporary housing and sweeping away debris from destroyed neighborhoods. The third was the National Flood Insurance Program, which offers federal flood coverage to homeowners since most private insurance companies don’t.
Some residents who didn’t have insurance found themselves forced to sell to the speculators and investors who flocked to the city after Harvey. These investors bought houses with cash at cut-rate prices, allowing stranded storm victims to recoup some of their home equity and make a clean break from the area. Hundreds of people in Bear Creek had sold their homes to these investors by the time the storm’s first anniversary came around.
This kind of wholesale housing turnover has occurred across the country over the past two decades as climate disasters have intensified and as governments and private actors have begun to respond to them in different ways. Take the neighborhood of Oakwood Beach, on the south shore of Staten Island, where the federal government bought hundreds of homes in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, razing most of a vulnerable neighborhood on a floodplain. Those who stayed behind found themselves abandoned by the city government, surrounded by empty fields.
In the aftermath of the devastating wildfires that struck Northern California in 2017, many wealthy homeowners found they lacked the insurance coverage to rebuild, but also found themselves unable to offload their empty lots. The result has been that whole mountainside neighborhoods remain scarred and empty more than five years after the blaze, even as apartment prices in less vulnerable areas continue to soar. In drought-stricken Arizona, a chronic water shortage has driven cotton farmers out of business, forcing them to sell their land to developers who throw up cookie-cutter houses for Phoenix commuters.
In Bear Creek Village, the sudden housing turnover also changed the face of the neighborhood. The residents of the area before the storm had for the most part been older, white, established families who had bought their houses on the tail end of Houston’s first boom in the 1970s. Young couples like Sergio and Becca Fuentes had been the exception then, but they were getting more common as older residents died or moved away. The swarm of investor activity after Hurricane Harvey sped up the process, bringing about a decade of demographic change in the space of a few months. The new arrivals to the neighborhood tended to be renters, younger and lower income than the former homeowners, and they were far more likely to be Black or Hispanic.
As was the case elsewhere in the United States, it was wealthy and white homeowners who had the equity to land on their feet after disasters, using insurance payouts and home sales to move away even as lower-income families crowded into a neighborhood that the market now knew was risky.
The sudden contact between the longtime residents who stayed on and the crop of new renters produced a tension that had never existed in Bear Creek Village before. Many of the older residents were suspicious of the new arrivals, and some were outright hostile. Others felt so alienated that they chose to leave the neighborhood even after paying to repair and rebuild their homes.
The new renters, meanwhile, felt ostracized in the neighborhood schools, and some of them despaired that they would never be able to afford a mortgage in the area. The tranquillity that Becca and Sergio Fuentes so prized in the neighborhood had vanished when the floodwaters drained out. When the couple drove through the area in the years after the storm, the houses and streets looked just the same as they always had, but the neighborhood they knew no longer existed.
We can’t stop hurricanes from forming or rivers from drying out, but we do have some measure of control over what happens next.
For decades, the federal government spent only a pittance on “resilience” measures — shoreline restorations, home buyouts, urban drainage upgrades, and other projects that can help communities lessen the impact of future disasters. That has changed over the past two years as the Biden administration and Congress have pumped billions of dollars into resilience programs, but much work remains to be done.
For one thing, research has shown that this funding tends to benefit wealthier and whiter communities, those with more resources to apply for grants and campaign for funding. For another, we still don’t know much about how these programs work, and whether they work — FEMA’s buyout database is flawed and incomplete, and until recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t even publish a database for the thousands of buyouts it has sponsored.
Furthermore, America’s disaster relief system is long overdue for a revamp. Not only does FEMA lack the resources to help communities fully recover after a major calamity, it also tends to focus on rebuilding things as they were before the floods or fires struck. It’s understandable that local officials might want to preserve the pre-existing environment in their towns and cities, but disasters can also present an opportunity to adapt to new dangers.
The federal government should take a leading role in helping communities build back safer after disasters like these, offering incentives to cities that remove development from low-lying areas and increase density in safer ones, and Congress should ensure that FEMA has the funding to stick around for the full length of a city’s recovery, not just the first few turbulent months.
Looking decades ahead, state and local governments also have a responsibility to draft a national strategy for climate adaptation. Instead of just protecting the most vulnerable places, lawmakers should encourage development in places that are climate-resilient and expand housing access programs, making it easy for climate refugees to find their ways to new homes that are both safe and sustainable.
Some places have already experimented with audacious relocation policies — the city of Surfside, Fla., for instance, has established a property tax fund to help residents move, and a program in the Queens neighborhood of Edgemere promises to allow residents to swap their flooded houses for new ones on higher ground. Without more of this forward-looking policy, millions of people like Becca and Sergio Fuentes will find themselves stuck in a cycle of instability, forced out of homeownership and security by forces they could not control.
The Fuenteses still haven’t found their footing. Last year, they managed to move out of Becca’s mother’s place and rent a house nearby, but inflation and high interest rates have all but doomed Sergio’s tools franchise, and the couple is now preparing to wind it down for good. Mr. Fuentes has moved on to a new job, but the couple’s finances are still tight, and they aren’t sure how long they’ll be able to stay in the house they’re renting, or whether they’ll have to move back in with Ms. Fuentes’s mother, or whether they’ll ever be able to afford another mortgage.
The couple are still optimistic that something will change, that one day they’ll be able to settle down with the twins in another permanent home, but nothing can give them back the years they lost to the storm. Their time in Bear Creek Village, which once seemed to them like the embodiment of the American dream, now feels like a nightmare from which they still haven’t woken. The family lives just a few miles away, but they hardly ever go back.
Jake Bittle is a staff writer at Grist covering climate change, energy, and housing and the author of the forthcoming “The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration,” from which this essay is adapted.
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