Houston News & Search
Photo: Scott Kingsley
Joy Rizzi’s voice quivered as she approached the pile of rubble, tossed like flotsam along the banks of the San Jacinto River.
She girded herself.
It had been four days since Rizzi was evacuated from the Riverview at Forest Cove complex in the Kingwood area. Four days since she had last visited the townhome that has been her sanctuary for nearly 20 years.
Hurricane Harvey had bulldozed through the Houston suburb, flooding dozens of neighborhoods, turning roadways into roiling rivers, displacing hundreds of families, ravaging schools.
Holed up at her daughter’s place 6 miles north in Porter, Rizzi had watched the disaster unfold on her smartphone. Through social media posts, river and lake reports, messages from friends, photos snatched from news reports.
Over the course of 108 hours, the updates grew increasingly grim.
Then, around 8 o’clock Friday morning, a niece sent Rizzi a screenshot plucked from a CNN broadcast. It showed two buckling and damaged beige townhomes. Next to them, a heap of mangled wood and warped metal.
“Aunt Joy,” she asked. “Is this your house?”
Two hours later, Rizzi, a former Marine with strawberry blonde hair and azure eyes, tread carefully over the mounds of wet sand that shrouded the road leading into her complex.
Past a deep gulf, filled with murky water and darting fish, was what was left of Rizzi’s house. It looked as if it had been minced in a blender. The twisted roof jutted up toward the sky, cinder blocks scattered like toys, a washer-dryer and water heater poked out from crevices where there used to be walls.
Three adjoining units, which had stood to the west of hers, were gone – ripped clean off their foundations and washed away into the river.
Flooding alone couldn’t have done that, thought Rizzi. Neither could the rain. That kind of damage had come from the force of water gushing from the Lake Conroe dam. The force of water spilling from a record river crest. The force of water funneled from seven tributaries all heading straight toward Rizzi’s house.
The force of all three happening at once.
Rizzi took two shallow breaths and gulped hard. The palm trees had made it, she joked through tears. So had she.
Everything else was gone.
The only thing left to do, the only thing she could do, was to salvage the bits and pieces that remained of her life.
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Rizzi had been through storms before.
Her four-story house, in the middle of a six-unit block, sat just 15 feet from the west fork of the San Jacinto River. So, even as Harvey lashed towns 500 miles to the south and rain had not yet reached Houston, she knew her house would flood.
Last year’s Memorial Day flood deposited 5 feet of water in her first-floor garage, where she had marked the height in black marker on a white post.
Still, she had been drawn years earlier by the tranquility of life along the riverbanks. When she moved in, she garnished the interior with an Asian theme, created a meditation room, installed decorative pavers in her back patio, planted yucca trees in her driveway island.
At 62, Rizzi relished the serenity of her home, the sunsets over the water, and the company of her four cats, including one rescued from last year’s flood and named “Floodie.”
As Harvey circled slowly closer, Rizzi stocked up on food and water. She covered her backyard in blue tarp, hoping for an easier clean-up. She hauled plants and backyard furniture inside and stacked as much as she could 6 feet off the ground.
Her house, like the 24 others in the community, was built with breakaway walls, designed to withstand flood waters. It had gulped in 5 feet with barely a scar. Eight feet would batter her garage, but not reach her second floor. Twelve feet would seep into her second floor living area, but the structure would hold strong.
At least that’s what was supposed to happen.
Yet, early on Aug. 26, as Harvey pushed through the Gulf Coast and claimed its first life, Rizzi grew worried. Something felt different.
At 4:36 a.m. that Saturday, she wrote a two-word Facebook post:
“It’s starting …”
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At 1:45 a.m. the next day, Rizzi began checking the National Weather Service reports for the San Jacinto River. The reading was 50.82 feet, with a predicted crest of 57 feet, which would mean first floor flooding.
Five minutes later, her Facebook mood was “feeling depressed.”
“Everything I’ve done to repair last year’s devastating flood is going to be gone in just a few hours,” she posted.
Nine minutes after that: “Oh Jesus NO! They are releasing the flood gates at Lake Conroe!!”
In 1994, the surge from a dam release had knocked an end unit off its slab and into the river. Rizzi prayed that would not happen again.
By 8:45 a.m., the river was at 53 feet and expected to rise to 62, translating to 5 feet of water in her house. Should she leave? Should she take her cats?
She remembered how the house shook during the last flood as water slammed debris against the exterior.
Her daughter came to get the cats.
At 1:58 p.m., Rizzi told Facebook friends that forecasters were predicting “a devastating and destructive crest.”
“I may end up with 12 ft of water, which goes into the second floor.”
Five hours later, as the water crept into her garage, Rizzi packed five tops, five pairs of shorts and her black and silver cowboy boots into an overnight bag and climbed aboard a rescue boat.
The next morning, Rizzi was “feeling emotional.”
“Why did I leave my home this time, when my home can handle a flood? I left because I knew the San Jacinto predictive flood models were grossly inaccurate,” she posted at 10:25 a.m.
Within two hours, the Lake Conroe release sent water hurtling at a rate of 79,141 cubic feet per second – more than two times the rate during the ’94 flood. It raced toward the San Jacinto and Rizzi’s house.
Rizzi called up the river reports every two hours. The San Jacinto River kept jumping. 62.36 feet. 63.27. 64.14.
At 4:45 a.m. on Aug. 29, it hit 67.31 – breaking the record set 23 years ago.
We survived that, Rizzi thought. But this time, she couldn’t imagine what would be left of her home.
That afternoon, the San Jacinto crested at 69.1 feet.
Rizzi calculated the worst.
The garage door, sliding glass doors and windows shattered by the water pressure. The surge from Lake Conroe ripping through walls and Sheetrock.
Water was sucking all her furniture into the center of the river.
The foundation and soil vacuumed from under the house.
The cement patio dropped into an abyss. The balconies, braces and brackets collapsing.
The roof tumbling onto the debris, crushing everything inside.
Later that day, a friend shared aerial photos of the complex. The first Rizzi had seen since she left.
Her abandoned block seemed to bob in the middle of a lake. The residents had all fled the churning waters. Three end units had vanished. Her house was sagging, the corner starting to give way.
But it was still standing.
Two days later, the walls were folding in, the support beams snapping in half.
Then, on Friday morning, Rizzi posted the CNN photo and wrote:
“My home is now gone.”
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Rizzi stood in front of the remains of her house on Sunday and smiled.
It was two days since she first returned to her property to find a mass of splintered wood and tattered furnishings where a home once stood.
The floodwaters had mostly receded, leaving behind a thick coating of sand and exposing even more of the destruction.
Some of Rizzi’s furniture – a coffee table, sofa cushions, a chair – had turned up stuck in trees about a mile down river.
All weekend, Rizzi had rummaged through the wreckage, hoping to find something intact. She had unearthed a stained glass light fixture. Panels were missing and the metal bent, but she put it aside – “just to have.”
She found a rag doll she had handcrafted as a child, white Christmas lights neatly coiled, a framed photograph of her grandmother in Czechoslovakia.
Each find had restored a fraction of her peace of mind.
But many treasures, like the baptismal gown stitched by her mother and worn by her two children and a granddaughter, were still missing.
On this morning, she had brought along a knife and planned to cut through the roof to the attic and, if possible, the fourth floor. She wanted to recover as much as she could.
The house next door was shifting and what little left ofhers sinking even deeper into the wet ground, so “we have to listen to noises. If we hear a noise, we have to get out.” Looters had already been arrested at the complex, trying to scavenge through the abandoned houses.
She still questioned the decision to open the Lake Conroe flood gates, pointing to the line of trees flattened to the ground, as if in the path of a tornado moving from west to east.
The San Jacinto River Authority says that the release was necessary to keep the dam from breaching and endangering even more homes.
Rizzi did not have flood insurance. She had paid the mortgage off last year and was finishing repairs from the Memorial Day Food damage before getting an elevation report required by her new insurance company.
So, she found comfort in her own ritual, bidding goodbye to the items too waterlogged to keep and giving thanks for those she could retrieve.
The tiny jade elephant missing a trunk and two legs. The macrame plant holder still dripping and sodden. The wooden Christmas decoration from “the old country.”
And items close to the heart: The flag from her father’s burial place at Arlington National Cemetery. Her grandfather’s Bible from Czechoslovakia. Her children’s baby pictures.
Rizzi’s friends have asked what she will do next.
For now, she tells them, she is living in hope – and hope can be found in the bits and pieces she retrieves from the ruins.
Houston News & Search