Day 6

'I don't feel as happy as I used to': Rebuilding a house — and a life — one year after Hurricane Harvey

On Aug. 25, 2018, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. It was the second-most costly hurricane in the U.S. in the past century. For writer and poet Sara Cress, it meant having to rebuild everything in her life.

'You just have this constant level of, 'When is it going to go away again?''

Sara Cress is a writer and poet based in Houston, Texas. (Submitted by Sara Cress)
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It's been tough for Sara Cress since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, Texas, last August.

The 41-year-old writer, whose home flooded during the deluge, left her job from the stress of the Category 4 hurricane and her mental health has suffered.

"I don't feel as happy as I used to ... I don't experience nice things in the same way," she told Day 6 guest host Gill Deacon. "I'm just like, 'Well, this is going to end soon.'"

Harvey was the strongest hurricane to hit the Texas coast since Carla more than four decades ago. More than 140,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and it was the second costliest storm in U.S. in the past century behind Katrina.

A recent survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and Episcopal Health Foundation found that about eight per cent of affected residents remain displaced and 4 in 10 say they haven't received the help they need.

In this Aug. 28, 2017 file photo, rescue boats fill a flooded street as rising floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey force evacuations in Houston. (David J. Phillip/File/Associated Press)

Under three feet of water

In the days before the storm, Cress and her husband worked from home. She was busy preparing her company's communication plan for the hurricane.

But the couple didn't expect the storm to hit as hard as it did.

As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast, their furniture was in its place and yellow party decorations — Cress's favourite colour — remained sprinkled throughout the home. Her 40th birthday was just weeks before.

"I didn't want to say goodbye to my birthday just yet since it was such a big one," she said.

Brown water sits in the bathtub at Sara Cress's Houston home six days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. (Submitted by Sara Cress)

Then the storm hit. The pair tried to move furniture away from the rushing water, but as it continued to rise, they fled.

Three feet of water eventually consumed her home and set off a period of bouncing from one home to another for shelter.

'People have flashbacks'

In the months following Harvey, storms became an emotional trigger for Cress.

"I sleep a lot in the aftermath of storms," she said. After an early July flood in Houston, she says she struggled to get out of bed for days.

Dr. Asim Shah, who examined the storm's ripple effect, says mental health-related hospital visits jumped immediately following the storm. A year later, he and his colleagues continue to see a greater number of mental health-related visits to clinics and emergency rooms.

Dr. Asim Shah is still collecting data about mental health issues following hurricanes, but the anecdotal evidence is clear, he says: 'We see these patients ... who are coming with depression, with anxiety, with PTSD.' (Submitted by Baylor College of Medicine)

Among changes in sleep and eating habits, "any time severe rain happens, people have flashbacks to Harvey," the Baylor College of Medicine psychiatry chief said.

"I'll you why it has continued: a lot of people have not been able to go back to where they were," he said.

Experts saw similar increases after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, largely from the trauma of a "near life-threatening" natural disaster.

Sometimes unfamiliar, but a home

When Cress saw her home for the first time days after the storm, it was covered in "a fine film of filth." Her belongings were destroyed.

"Everything was moved around which I wasn't expecting," she said. "We had three feet of water [inside], so it moves everything around, it dumps things out."

Books from other parts of the house ended up in the living room. A bag of charcoal made it to the office. "There was cat litter everywhere ... it was just really disgusting," she said.

Sara Cress's waterlogged piano was thrown out, among parts of the home. (Submitted by Sara Cress)

She and her husband began the process of tearing apart their home — knocking down walls to reveal the studs and ripping out insulation — so they could rebuild.

It was a difficult journey.

"You're trying to grieve while you're trying to rebuild ... and while you're trying to hold down a job," she said. "It just became really overwhelming to me."

But now with everything shiny and new, and only a few things left on the DIY to-do list, things are returning to normal.

"It's an unfamiliar place sometimes, but it's becoming home," Cress said.

Nevertheless, the couple worries. Their insurance payout only covered interior renovations and it was too costly to raise their home above the floodplain. The next storm could wipe out their hard work once more.

"You just have this constant level of, 'When is it going to go away again?'"