Speaking of America: 'Now, I feel like home'

After a tumultuous year, a reporter took a cross-country journey to sample Americans' views of their country. Today, a survivor of hurricane Harvey reflects on what she has to be grateful for, even after a tough year. Part 3 of 5.

Doug Struck
Petra Cervantes is still recovering from hurricane Harvey. Her family lived in a tent for three months as volunteers helped them gut their house after hurricane Harvey.

When the morning arrived, the sleepy bayou near Petra Cervantes’ home had arisen in fury, and the water in her house covered her ankles. In 30 minutes, it was up to her knees. Soon, it was up to her chest.  

“It was time to leave,” she says.

Her daughter, a paramedic, had planned ahead for hurricane Harvey.  She had bought three plastic boats – toys, really, but buoyant. Cervantes and her family scrambled aboard. Ms. Cervantes brought what was important: two grandchildren, her son and daughter, her disabled husband, and 18 animals – five Chihuahua puppies, two chickens, a pheasant, rabbits.

“I love animals,” she says simply. “I grew up on a ranch.”

Four months later, the Cervantes family and most of her pets are living a camping existence in her East Houston home. The walls have been torn out, the appliances thrown away, all fouled by five feet of water.

After sleeping in a tent beside the home for three months, living in a carport draped by tarps, the family moved inside a few weeks ago and put donated mattresses on the bare floors as the winter cold arrived. Cervantes cooks huge pots of tamales over a propane stove outside, and feeds the volunteers who still come to help repair the simple one-story home.

It has, she concedes, been “a bad year.”

Yet, Petra Cervantes is thankful to be here. She came from Mexico four decades ago as a teenager, first to California, then to Boston, and finally to Texas. Her husband, Raul, put in hard-labor years as a landscaper and later loading shipping containers, until the work broke his body. Their son served in the Navy. Both her son and her daughter gave her a grandson. Cervantes worked throughout, pressing clothes at dry cleaning shops, operating the big mechanical steam machines six days a week even in the brutal heat.

It’s a good country, she says. They could work here, buy a home, raise kids. Keep animals. They were wiped out in 2001 by tropical storm Allison and again by Harvey. Still, she says, it is better than being in Mexico.

“There’s no money over there, there’s no jobs. A lot of people are so poor. And a lot of killing. They’ve been killing so many people,” she says.

If the Federal Emergency Management Agency was slow to help – she finally got a check in late November to pay a small part of her rebuilding costs – others have not been slow. Neighbors who remained share anything they have, she says. And volunteers have come from Tennessee and Ohio, Massachusetts and Nevada and other places to help her family rip out the molding walls, haul out debris, and hang new drywall.

“Wonderful. Wonderful people,” she says.

She is hesitant to offer any complaints, and leaves criticisms of the relief efforts to others. Like Christine Clinkenbeard.

“For wealthy communities, the waters have receded, the sun is shining, and they are starting to carry on. In the poor communities, it’s not going that well. There are still people at Day 5” of recovery, Ms. Clinkenbeard says.

She was a Houston mother devoted to caring for her daughter, who has a rare kidney disease, when Harvey hit. “The situation was so out of control I felt I had to do something” for victims, she says. She took to Facebook and her kitchen. “I didn’t realize I had started a business. One day I was making 150 bologna sandwiches to give out, the next day it was 3,000, and the next day I was buying an RV.”

Deluged by offers, she has helped organize the distribution of thousands of pounds of food, clothing, blankets, appliances, and furniture, and has funneled donations to get people into apartments and make car payments. There are other stories in Houston of volunteers such as Clinkenbeard who who stepped up. FEMA, she says, “finally showed up 17 weeks after the hurricane. They have kids out here who have been through a 12-hour training. They don’t understand anything.”

She has helped the Cervantes family and thrown the spotlight on victims still living in tents and vehicles while they try to rebuild. Around Cervantes’s neighborhood, campers sit in driveways, housing families. Mounds of debris and ripped-out drywall crowd the simple frame houses, and some homes have piles of bricks and lumber.  But some stand mute to any revival.

“It is really dark around here at night. It’s like a zombie neighborhood,” says Cervantes. Many people have left for good. One family of six from the next street over died when they tried and failed to flee the water in a van. Others were plucked off rooftops by helicopters, and never came back.

Cervantes and her family lived in a shelter for only five days before returning to their ruined home. “Somebody called me and said that my parakeets were still alive – their cages were pretty high. And my duck was still waiting for me,” she says.  

“I couldn’t wait to come back.”

Sewage from the dirty water was everywhere. She has been cleaning ever since.

Now, she says, “I feel better. It’s a house now – not completely a house. Now I feel like home. I feel like we are going up.”

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