Needy residents desperate for relief Busy signals, deportation fear increase anxiety in North Houston
By DANE SCHILLER, CHASE DAVIS and LESLIE CASIMIR
Sept. 16, 2008, 10:29PM
They pulled together Tuesday and used kitchen knives and brute strength to rip out sopping carpet and the padding beneath it. Their belongings, a pile of wet clothing and children’s toys, mingled in a stinky mound outside their apartment. The Suarez family wasn’t in Galveston or anywhere near the Gulf Coast. They live in North Houston, home to many gritty neighborhoods that know suffering.
Now, days after Hurricane Ike tore off roofs and overturned lives, tough times have gotten tougher.
The Suarezes, like many families, are taking matters into their own hands. “If there is no more water, we’ll be OK,” Maria Suarez, 40, said reassuringly as she took a break from the work. In her complex alone, the roofs of 15 apartments caved in, destroying those units and the ones below.
Across Houston, illegal immigrants like the Suarezes, who already live on the fringes of society, are afraid to ask for help for fear of being arrested. At the same time, citizens who have lived here all their lives are desperate for help and can’t figure out who to call or grow weary waiting on busy help lines.
Mayor Bill White said the City Council today will consider establishing a roof-repair program for people who lack insurance and whose homes were severely damaged. He issued something akin to an ultimatum to landlords: fix the roof or stop collecting rent.
“The first issue we’re going to deal with is people who have holes in their roof from the hurricane,” he said. “If you have a hole in your roof, you’re not up to code.”
The city has been in touch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has a program to place temporary covering over holes in rooftops. For some, the help can’t come soon enough. Warehouse worker Mario Calderon said he and his family, including three children, moved to his now destroyed East End apartment from Katy earlier this year. The inside of his place sat wet and musty in the late morning warmth. Debris carpeted his apartment after crashing through the skeletal ceiling. Calderon and his wife want to apply for financial aid, but they’ve been greeted by constant busy signals and long waits on hold.
“They tell us to apply on the Internet, but how are we supposed to get on the Internet? “They tell us to call, and we call and call, and they say it’s too busy,” he continued. “I understand that a lot of people had debris fly around and some people lost a roof,” he said, “but I lost everything … if there’s somebody that needs help, we need help ASAP.”
In an open courtyard in front of his apartment sat a molding pile of his family’s ruined possessions: mattresses and blankets, the splintered black hull of a DVD player, shoes and clothes from his three young children mixed with chunks of drywall and pink insulation.
“I tell (my children) the bogeyman came and tore everything down,” Calderon said.
“What else can I say?” In his North Houston complex, Johnny Garcia, 28, who works at United Parcel Service, was at a loss for words Tuesday as he described how his life changed since the roof fell in and rain soaked his home. He’d just worked a night shift — he didn’t even tell his boss what had happened — and was in search of a dry patch of floor to sleep on.
“I have to find someplace else to live,” he said. “I wanted to stick it out.”
Four men heating tortillas on a grill across the sidewalk from Garcia wasted no time looking for a place to live. As Ike tore into their apartment in the darkness, they grabbed their most prized possessions — snapshots of family in Mexico, a television and a stereo — and fled to an empty apartment next door.
One of them, a carpenter, used the hammer he works with to smash a section of window so he could reach in and unlock the door. Even if the men, who are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, were willing to venture out and ask for help, they said they wouldn’t know where to start.
“We don’t even have lights,” one said. “We just know what we hear on the radio.”
The storm also has pushed those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners and the disabled, to the edge of their already vulnerable lives.
The Third World arrived in the Fifth Ward, where Hurricane Ike toppled trees, shattered windows and caved in roofs of old row houses and bungalows.
On block after block, rooftops were patched with plastic sheets. But roof holes weren’t the worst problem.
As Norma Jean Smith, 55, sat on her couch while wrapped in a white blanket, she struggled to talk through tears and a hoarse voice. Her throat was closing in on her, she said, and she was scared.
Diagnosed with throat cancer, she had been receiving daily chemotherapy and weekly radiation treatments at Ben Taub General Hospital. All that stopped last week. Since the storm, the transportation companies that had driven her to the hospital haven’t shown up, and she said nobody answers their phone.
“This is my throat that I talk with, eat from, and it’s closing up day by day, and I have no treatment for it.”
A long wait
Her neighbor, Tweed Smith, 54, spent a half-hour on hold with the hurricane information line, 211, to call about Norma Jean ‘s dilemma. An operator told her to call 911 and an ambulance later picked her up.
“Nothing been offered to the people at all, and if it wasn’t for our neighbors — just people pitching in together — I don’t know what it would be like,” Norma Jean Smith said. “It’s just that bad right here. ”
A few blocks away, parts of roofs on six houses in a row were missing. Tiffany Jackson, 24, who is unemployed and married to a man who is disabled, was mopping bleach water on the hardwood floor, the sky beaming down into her 2-year-old son’s bedroom.
“I lost everything in my son’s room,” Jackson said. Soaked mattresses and a sofa were piled outside to dry. So was a television, but as it dried out in the daylight sun, someone stole it.
Chronicle reporters Matt Stiles and Bradley Olson contributed to this report.
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