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"This is the worst because it's not stopping": the extraordinary Houston floods

Hurricane Harvey Slams Into Texas Gulf Coast Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Susan Dickson, 71, stood on her driveway on Sunday with her husband, Russell, marveling at the flow of water along Bissonnet Street. She rattled off the other great floods she'd seen since moving here in 1968: Alicia, Allison, Ike. "This is the worst because it's not stopping," she said. "I've not seen it go on and on like this before."

People in Houston awoke bewildered Sunday to the most catastrophic floods the city has ever seen. High water on neighborhood streets and major highways pinned the population in places, while first responders evacuated neighborhoods accessible only by boat.

Dickson’s street was not draining like it normally does, she said, an ominous sign for the fate of the folks who live near the channels into which these streets flow. High water was still standing far downstream on Clear Creek in Friendwood and League City.

To help his street drain, Klaus Thoma, 72, used a plastic rake to scrape debris from the storm sewer inlets, but he said it wasn't working.

"We are lucky," he said, gesturing to the neighbors who'd turned out to see the flood. "When you think of other people getting rescued by boat, it's horrible."

FEMA issued a disaster declaration for Harris County Sunday morning, opening the effort to federal resources, funding, and personnel. The National Weather Service reported five people had died. The Houston Fire Department on Sunday morning posted that it responded to 2,000 calls overnight and had a backlog of 1,000 more.

The city knows the scourge of high water: Storms have swamped neighborhoods here repeatedly through the decades, so the people are familiar with the pains of owning a previously submerged property.

This is the reality that so many of those homeowners will confront as the waters recede.

The home will be uninhabitable for weeks or months or more. All the flooring must be removed. The sheet rock and beams in the wall must be cut at the water line and replaced. The soaked furniture is trashed, along with many possessions and memories stored at ground level.

If the house goes under, often so do the cars. The financial damage can be crippling, especially for homeowners without flood insurance. Some may choose to walk away and sell the house at a great loss.

Families that repair their houses need to find somewhere else to live in the meantime, yet owe property taxes for the uninhabitable home.

What's worse, some areas that flooded overnight this weekend were also submerged in 2015 and 2016, creating crushing liabilities and repeat trauma for homeowners there.

"Sadly as of 0200 water entered my house for the third time in three and a half years," one such homeowner posted early Sunday morning in a Facebook support group for victims of a 2015 flood. "I have relocated to higher ground. I am at a loss for words."

As the waters recede, a clearer picture of the damage will emerge. Authorities haven't yet released an estimate of the number of damaged or destroyed homes and the cost to repair it all. Many homes will need to be torn down.

For now the city has opened its convention center as a shelter for the flood refugees, and other aid groups operate shelters throughout the area. The involvement of FEMA in the recovery effort typically means a supply of temporary housing for those displaced.