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Jul 7, 2018

Families splintered apart, by government and by storms

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This week, we continue our ongoing investigation into what happens to immigrant children after they’re detained by the U.S. government. Our latest story investigates a vacant office building being used by a defense contractor to house children.

Then, we travel to the Gulf Coast to learn why last year was the costliest hurricane season on record. In Houston, we discover that homes flooded by Hurricane Harvey were actually built inside a reservoir.

We end on the Louisiana coast, where officials say they can no longer provide protection to homes most vulnerable to flooding, and that residents will have to abandon them.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Defense contractor detained migrant kids in vacant Phoenix office building
  • View: Here’s a map of shelters where immigrant children have been housed.

Credits

Edited by Brett Myers, Deborah George and Taki Telonidis. Produced by Laura Starecheski, Neena Satija, Stan Alcorn and Phoebe Petrovic. Special thanks to Dave Harmon from the Texas Tribune, WHYY, Reveal’s senior data reporter Eric Sagara, the Ford Foundation and to CPI's Carla Minet and Jennifer Wiscovitch.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: Support for Reveal comes from a new show from our friends at KUOW, Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace, the show that breaks down how sexism works in the modern workplace. And with help from some badass experts, brings you real tactics you can use to fight back.
On this podcast, they're taking on everything from the gender wage gap, to imposter syndrome, to manterruption, to being working moms. We've all experienced it. Let's figure out what we can do about it. Find Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're starting today's show with a story about the Trump administration's immigration policy. Two weeks ago, we devoted an entire hour to family separations. That was after news broke that border officials were taking children away from their mothers and fathers, so the parents could be prosecuted for entering the country without authorization.
This sparked an outcry so loud, that it forced President Trump to announce an end to this practice. Since then, our newsroom has stayed on the story, reporting on what the Federal Government is doing and where the kids are ending up. Our immigration reporter, Aura Bogado, has more on that now.
Hi Aura.
Aura Bogado: Hey, Al.
Al Letson: So, what story do you have for us today?
Aura Bogado: This next story actually came to us from a tip. There's a young woman in Phoenix who observed some really unusual activity, and she sent us some video, and it was so disturbing to some of us here in the newsroom, that I decided to book a flight the next morning to go out and visit her.
I'm going to show you that video in a little bit, but let me introduce you to her, first. Her name is [Leanna Dunlap 00:01:44]. She is a 25-year-old teaching assistant for children with autism in Phoenix. She lives in this fourplex apartment in the Camelback East Village neighborhood.
Leanna Dunlap: Hi.
Aura Bogado: Hi, I'm Aura.
Leanna Dunlap: I'm Leanna.
Aura Bogado: "Really nice to meet you."
The video that she sent us has to do with this office building right next door to her apartment. So, I knew that it was next door based on what she told us in the video that she shared, but when I got there and I looked out the window, it's like right there. It's like five feet away.
"Oh, it's right here."
Leanna Dunlap: So, I moved in in February and the building was vacant up until probably the end of May, and I noticed a bunch of the white vans in the driveway, maybe like five to ten. And I was like, "Oh, there's a new business," and I didn't think that much of it.
Aura Bogado: It's a one-story gray brick office building. The windows are impossible to see through. They're tinted and they're reflective, so you can't really see what's going on inside, and there's no signage. There's no sign saying, "Hey, this is what's operating inside this building." It's totally unmarked.
But, something caught her attention in early June.
Leanna Dunlap: One day, I was home and I looked out the window, and I saw two vans pull up. And I was just standing here. I was doing something in the kitchen, so I was just kind of watching.
Aura Bogado: What she saw next really bothered her, and Al, it's probably a lot easier if I just show you the video that she sent us. She recorded this video on the following day, on the 5th of June, when the same thing happened again. There's no sound, so let's just talk through what we're seeing out loud.
Al Letson: Okay, so let's start at three, two, one. All right, so I see a gentleman getting out of the van and he's marching like a group of kids ...
Aura Bogado: Yeah. Do you see all the kids? Do you see the little toddler, looks like she's probably not old enough to walk?

 

Al Letson: And then there's maybe like a four-year-old size wise, maybe eight-year-old boy.

 

Aura Bogado: And there's more.

 

Al Letson: And they're all dressed in blue, like it's almost like a uniform, right?

 

Aura Bogado: Yeah.

 

Al Letson: Okay, so the older kids have different sort of sweats. Like they have gray-and-white and blue-and-white, where the little kids had all blue sweats.

 

Aura Bogado: And you'll notice that those were all boys.

 

Al Letson: Yeah.

 

Aura Bogado: Let's pause it if we can. The kids all sort of seem solemn. You'll see how often they're kind of looking down on the ground. They don't seem to interact much, if at all, with the adults who are dressed in regular civilian clothes, around them.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, and it's like ... In this lineup, there's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Oh, okay.

 

Aura Bogado: Altogether from the videos that we've seen, we counted 32 kids. One neighbor says that it's as many as 40. Leanna describes that over time, she saw as many 80 kids go into this office building.

 

Al Letson: And then what? I mean, did she ever see them come out?

 

Aura Bogado: No. Leanna and other neighbors that I spoke with, didn't see any children leave this building for almost three weeks. She did see supplies going in. There were baby and booster seats, pallets of water, big boxes of snacks, like chips and fruit snacks, going in.

 

And she also said she saw workers come by one day.

 

Leanna Dunlap: I saw them installing the locks on the doors, and the cameras, and that's kind of when I was like, "Okay. Something fishy really is going on here."

 

Aura Bogado: She shared with me a text. It's a text she sent to her husband, and she said, "I think something really weird is going on here. I think these kids are being trafficked."

 

Leanna and her husband, Juan Carlos, would eventually go outside and confront a few of the workers in the parking lot. They asked them, "What is this business? What's going on here?"

 

Leanna Dunlap: One of the guys, he was to my husband, he said, "I'm sorry. I can't talk about it. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I can't tell you what's happening," and that was it.

 

A lot of times, I would just stare out my window, waiting to see something, or late at night I would go out in my back yard and just look at that window, waiting to see if I could hear anything or see any lights. It was just like, if there are kids in there and they have those windows blocked off, they're not even seeing sunlight, and how long have they had them in there?

 

There's been times where I drive by, and I just start crying because you know, it's right behind my house and I don't know ... I think that's the worst part, is not knowing what's actually going on in there, and just hoping that they're okay.

 

Al Letson: Aura, this is where your reporting came in, so what did you find out about what's going on at this office building?

 

Aura Bogado: Al, I want to take you through all that we know. First of all, the building is leased by a company called, MVM, Incorporated. They're based out of Virginia, and they have a five-year lease on this property. They just signed it in March. That's one month before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy. That's the policy that resulted in children being taken away from their parents at the border.

 

Al Letson: To leave out this company, MVM, like who are they?

 

Aura Bogado: MVM is a huge government contractor. The company, itself, was founded by former secret service agents. That's its origin. Its vice president, he's a former CIA agent, and they've been doing work for the Federal Government for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, for the Justice Department, for more than 30 years. They've been paid $248 million dollars by ICE ... That's Immigration and Customs Enforcement ... to transport immigrant children since 2014.

 

Al Letson: How does MVM explain what they're doing with this building?

 

Aura Bogado: We called MVM. The company wouldn't agree to be recorded, but a spokesperson did tell us that the building, and I quote, "... is not a shelter or a child care facility. It's a temporary holding place." That's what they refer to it as, a temporary holding place.

 

The company said that the building is used to hold children being flown out of the Phoenix airport. They declined to answer our questions about how many hours or days the children were being held there. ICE told us it's not an overnight facility, and MVM said it's intended to hold children for a few hours before they take a flight out.

 

But, when we asked if the children were sleeping there, they said they couldn't confirm if children had slept there overnight. They also would tell us how many other unknown, unmapped, unmarked facilities like this one operate in Phoenix or other cities.

 

What we do know, is that MVM does operate nationwide.

 

Al Letson: Is there any way to know what's going on inside the building, like what conditions might have been for these kids.

 

Aura Bogado: Yeah. We've seen floor plans for the building. There's what looks like a main office area, and then a handful of individual offices, and then two bathrooms with what looks like toilets and sinks. There's no kitchen, and there are no showers, and we don't know where the kids would sleep.

 

We also know that the lease says that the premises can't be used for sleeping, can't be used for lodging, and can't be used for cooking. It also mentions no singing or whistling on the property, so those things that kids usually do, like singing and whistling, that's not allowed.

 

Al Letson: Oh, so maybe that's why it was always silent when Leanna would stand and listen in her back yard.

 

Did you ever try to go in yourself?

 

Aura Bogado: We did. Leanna and I did go right up to the building.

 

"Oh, there's a little bell."

 

We rang the bell, and nobody answered, so we looked through the window.

 

"I'm looking inside the office. It looks pretty dirty. I see a Costco child seat on the floor, a fan, some kind of ... What's that?"

 

Leanna Dunlap: "Is that a blowup mattress right there?"

 

Aura Bogado: "That does look like a blowup mattress. Good catch, because I couldn't see that."

 

We're just looking into this front desk area. That's all we can see, just this one messy room.

 

Leanna Dunlap: "On the desk, there's a box, a white plastic container that says Baby Shampoo labeled on it, and then there's gloves. They look like medical gloves. Over here there's some post-it notes that says, Van five, Van one, Van Room UAC."

 

Aura Bogado: "Oh, UAC. Can you ..."

 

Any time I see the acronym UAC, I know that the government is referring to an unaccompanied alien child. That's an immigrant child who's crossed the border by themselves. More recently, UAC would mean a child who'd been separated from their parents at the border, and had been turned into an unaccompanied child.

 

Al Letson: The big question I still have is, who are those kids? Where do they come from? Are they still there?

 

Aura Bogado: Leanna told me that on the 22nd of June, she saw a bunch of vans lined up outside. She wanted to take more video, but the workers saw her, and she says that they actually parked the vans in this kind of rectangle formation to block her view. And Leanna says that she saw several car seats and booster seats for younger kids, and then she saw all the vans just get loaded up with dozens of kids.

 

Although she wasn't able to fully see the kids, she was able to see their feet underneath the vans. And they drove away, and she hasn't seen the kids since.

 

From her accounting and our reporting, it's possible that this group of kids was inside the office building for up to three weeks. It could have been shorter, but MVM won't tell us, and we don't know where they went, or where they are now, but we are trying to find out.

 

Al Letson: Thanks, Aura.

 

Aura Bogado: Thank you, Al.

 

Al Letson: Aura Bogado and our team will continue to report on families separated at the border and we'll bring you those stories over the coming weeks and months. If you have a tip for us, or maybe you know something about these kids, or you have another family separation tip we should know about, you can email us at border@revealnews.org. That's border@revealnews.org.

 

Next, we move to a different kind of story about families whose lives were suddenly splintered. It's been almost a year since the devastating hurricanes of 2017, and in Houston, some families are learning that the damage to their homes was not only predictable, it was preventable.

 

That's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

We're already more than a month into hurricane season, so we're going to spend the rest of the show revisiting our reporting from last year's storms. Irma, Nate, Maria, these were just a few of the hurricanes that struck in 2017. It was the costliest hurricane season on record, causing nearly $270 billion dollars in damages in the US alone. One of those storms, Hurricane Harvey, brought the worst flooding ever seen in the city of Houston.

 

Speaker 2: Hurricane Harvey. State of Emergency.

 

Speaker 3: We're not measuring in inches of rain. We're measuring in feet of rain.

 

Speaker 4: Harvey, the most powerful hurricane to hit this state since John F. Kennedy was president, is now a massive tropical storm.

 

Al Letson: When people talk about Harvey today, they use words like unprecedented, unimaginable, but in this story, which we first brought you in January, we want to take you back in time, nearly a year before the storm hit, when we were talking to a guy who saw some of that flooding coming, flooding that was entirely preventable.

 

Richard Long: You're going to have to buckle up, I'm afraid.

 

Al Letson: Richard Long works for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Neena Satija, our producer, based at the Texas Tribune, drove around with him back in October of 2016.

 

Richard Long: Okay, we're going to take a ride up the slope.

 

Al Letson: Richard drives his white Ford pickup truck 35 feet up a steep earthen dam, so steep, Neena's a little nervous.

 

Richard Long: We'll do it without any issues.

 

Neena Satija: Okay.

 

Al Letson: A few seconds later ...

 

Neena Satija: Is this the top of the ... This is the top of the dam.

 

Richard Long: We're on top of the dam right now. You're looking into the reservoir right now.

 

Al Letson: Looking down from the dam into the Barker Reservoir, Neena doesn't see water. Instead, it looks like a giant park.

 

Richard Long: We have deer, bobcat, people recreating. We have soccer fields out here, ball fields, shooting ranges.

 

Al Letson: If you look at Houston on Google Maps, there are two massive patches of green way west of downtown. One is the Barker Reservoir, which Richard and Neena are looking into right now. There's another one just like it nearby, called Addicks. They're what's called dry reservoirs. They only fill up during really big rainstorms, and the idea is to collect the rainwater here, so it doesn't flood downtown Houston.

 

Richard's job is to make sure the 20 miles of earthen dam surrounding the reservoirs hold all that water in place.

 

Richard Long: I've had some people call me and say, "Hey. My kid can't play soccer. Get the water off my soccer field."

 

Neena Satija: Do they realize their soccer field is actually a reservoir?

 

Richard Long: Well, you explain it to them, and some of them get it.

 

Al Letson: There's more than soccer fields inside those reservoirs. To make that point, Richard drives just a few minutes away to what looks like a typical Houston suburb. No sidewalks, two-story houses with big two-car garages, and a few scattered apartment buildings.

 

Richard Long: So, we're on the inside of the reservoir right now, and here's apartment complexes on the inside of the reservoir.

 

Neena Satija: We're inside, but ...

 

Richard Long: We are inside the reservoir, not on government property, okay?

 

Al Letson: Apartments inside the reservoir. How can that be? Well, when these projects went up back in the 1940s, the Army Corps built them so that a total of 50 square miles of land would flood behind those earthen dams, but they only bought 38 square miles.

 

At the time, it didn't matter, because hardly anyone lived out there. It was mostly rice farms and ranches. But eventually, developers bought that extra land, and they built houses and apartment buildings.

 

Neena asks about the people who live there now. Do they know they live in a reservoir?

 

Richard Long: Most do not. Is it a secret? No, it is not, but they just don't know. So, if we ever go to maximum flood-

 

Neena Satija: These guys are all under water.

 

Richard Long: They're going to have water in their first stories.

 

Al Letson: Maximum flood is exactly what happened 10 months later.

 

Speaker 5: Tropical Storm Harvey, now a history-making disaster.

 

Al Letson: And a few weeks after Harvey, Neena went back to see what happened to those apartments. She takes the story from here.

 

Neena Satija: Hi. Is it okay to drive in?

 

Speaker 6: No. To be honest, they shut it down.

 

Neena Satija: They shut it down? Why is that?

 

Speaker 6: Because we're flooded.

 

Neena Satija: I'm back in the same neighborhood and it looks completely different. The whole apartment complex is cordoned off. Windows are covered in plastic. Workers are walking around in white coveralls.

 

 

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Neena Satija: ... Windows are covered in plastic, workers are walking around in white coveralls. Eventually a supervisor drives up to the front gate to talk with me.

 

Hi there.

 

Speaker 7: How's it going?

 

Neena Satija: Good. I'm a reporter, was the flooding here really bad?

 

Speaker 7: About four to six feet high.

 

Neena Satija: Four to six feet?

 

Speaker 7: Yes, are you recording?

 

Neena Satija: I am recording.

 

Speaker 7: We have to be careful because we can't release information from the property without authority.

 

Neena Satija: That's the end of it., he asked me to stop recording.

 

Thanks a lot. Have a good one.

 

I want to know if residents around here realize they're living inside a reservoir. I end up on a street called Lochmere Lane, almost all the houses here flooded too. There are heaps of drywall, furniture, and wet carpet on top of manicured green lawns. People are home cleaning up.

 

Hi there.

 

Anita Bunning: Hi.

 

Neena Satija: My name's Neena, I'm a reporter with the Texas Tribune. We're driving around these neighborhoods to talk to people about what they've been doing with the flood.

 

This isn't how Anita Bunning usually receives visitors. She's holding a bag of trash. Behind her, the walls of her first floor are totally ripped out and fans are drying what used to be her living room. I'm standing on this piece of cardboard on her front step.

 

Anita Bunning: Do you love my lovely welcome mat? My original welcome mat is long gone.

 

Neena Satija: Anita tells me more than a foot of water sat in the house for weeks. It's unlivable right now. For the moment, they're doing a lot of the repairs themselves.

 

You pulled all of that out yourself?

 

Anita Bunning: I pulled that out myself.

 

Neena Satija: All that wood from the bottom shelf?

 

Anita Bunning: Yes. We're getting quotes but I don't know what we can afford.

 

Neena Satija: All the damage is going to cost at least $100,000, the Bunnings don't have it. Like many people here, they never bought flood insurance. Their county government doesn't consider them to be in a floodplain because they're far from any rivers or creeks. Anita's husband Tom says that was a big selling point when they moved here.

 

Tom Bunning: I never wanted to live anywhere near or purchase a home that would be in a floodplain.

 

Neena Satija: It's been weeks since Harvey and the Bunnings still don't know their house is actually inside a reservoir. I pull out a 25 year old document I got from the local property records office in Fort Bend County.

 

It's called a plat, a big map that developers have to draw up when they build a new neighborhood. Local officials have to sign off on each plat before development's allowed to go through. Most home buyers never see it.

 

These are general notes on this document. Do you see that on it, it's number 14.

 

Anita Bunning: Something is designed to-

 

Neena Satija: The font is too small for Anita to read. Her daughter Meredith reads it instead.

 

Meredith B.: Oh my, I feel like I'm at the eye doctor. This subdivision is adjacent to Barker reservoir and is subject to extended controlled inundation.

 

Neena Satija: Extended controlled inundation under the management of the US Army Corp of Engineers is what the rest of the sentence says. In other words, your property could be flooded for an extended period of time.

 

That's not the whole story. When the plat says this subdivision is adjacent to Barker Reservoir, that just means it's next to the government owned portion. Remember, there's a lot of land designed to flood that the Army Corp didn't buy in the 1940s. Back then it was rice fields, today it's their neighborhood.

 

The Army Corp told us that it's accurate to say that your homes are inside Barker Reservoir.

 

Meredith B.: Wow.

 

Neena Satija: Not adjacent, but inside.

 

Meredith B.: That preposition is key.

 

Neena Satija: According to our analysis their home is one of 14,000 inside the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, more than 5,000 of them flooded during Harvey. How is that people like the Bunnings could buy a home and never be warned that, "Hey, by the way, this house was built inside a reservoir and one day it might flood."

 

We found a realtor Sam Chaudhry who sold more than 50 homes out here, a lot of them in a neighborhood called Grand Lakes.

 

Do you ever give your clients the plat? Do you ever see the plat?

 

Sam Chaudhry: We actually give them something better, we actually have the survey done.

 

Neena Satija: A survey is a newer map and it's supposed to have more information about a particular property. Sam says plats are old, used mostly when developers are building a neighborhood, not when someone's buying a home. When Sam shows me the survey, there's nothing on there about Barker Reservoir.

 

Sam Chaudhry: Flood note according to farm dah, dah, dah, this property is in zone X and does not lie within the 100-year floodplain.

 

Neena Satija: Are you required to give the buyer the survey?

 

Sam Chaudhry: The buyer actually buys it, they pay $500 for this thing. $400 to $500 for this thing actually.

 

Neena Satija: I have the plat for Grand Lakes here.

 

I show Sam where the tiny font is.

 

Sam Chaudhry: And is subject to extended control inundation under the management of US Army Corps of Engineers. What exactly does that mean?

 

Neena Satija: It basically means Grand Lakes is actually designed to flood in a situation like Harvey.

 

Sam Chaudhry: Really?

 

Neena Satija: It's behind these dams. In essence, Grand Lakes is inside the reservoir.

 

Sam Chaudhry: If it is inside the reservoir, how would they approve these plans?

 

Neena Satija: I wanted to know the same thing. To try and get an answer, I went to see this guy.

 

Steve Costello: Come on in, have a seat.

 

Neena Satija: Here we are again.

 

Steve Costello: Here we are again. I don't know why you guys want to talk to me, you should be tired by now.

 

Neena Satija: I've been to Steve Costello's office a lot over the past couple of years. People call him the "Flood Czar", and he works up on the fourth floor of Houston City Hall. He helps direct policy to protect the city from flooding.

 

I asked Steve if he knew that homes in the Houston area sit on land designed to flood by the Army Corp.

 

Steve Costello: No, I wasn't paying much attention to that to be candid. I'm not quite sure if I really knew that much about it.

 

Neena Satija: The guy in charge of flooding policy in Houston is telling me he didn't know there were thousands of homes in these reservoirs. He says all those homes were built before his time.

 

Steve Costello: I don't know when the developments occurred, it's not like they occurred yesterday. They've been there for quite a long time.

 

Neena Satija: I pulled out a plat to show Steve, it's the same one I showed realtor Sam Chaudhry.

 

This plat was approved in 2004, and it actually has Costello, Inc there on the corner. That's your engineering or development firm?

 

Steve Costello: Right, that was the engineering firm I formerly was employed with.

 

Neena Satija: He's being modest. Steve Costello founded Costello, Inc and was president of the firm until 2015. Even as I'm showing him this plat, he's still doesn't seem to understand that it's in the reservoir.

 

Steve Costello: It's outside the government owned land.

 

Neena Satija: Even though it's outside the government owned land, it's still inside the reservoir. It's still in a part of the land that's designed to flood.

 

Steve Costello: Well, if that information was available at the time that these developments occurred, they probably wouldn't have happened. The developer wouldn't have developed those lands.

 

Neena Satija: Except I point out to Steve the information was available at the time. It's written on the very plat that his engineering firm worked on.

 

They were within the flood pool of Barker Reservoir.

 

Steve Costello: I'm not familiar with that, I didn't personally work on the project. It was my firm that worked on it. You probably have to ask other engineers and other developers.

 

Neena Satija: Even for your own firm?

 

Steve Costello: You could ask the firm, the people that actually worked on the project.

 

Neena Satija: We go back and forth about this for a while. Eventually Steve just says he doesn't want to look backward. He also says the city of Houston can't fix this alone. The reservoirs extend into the outskirts of Houston, which means county governments are also responsible.

 

Bob Hebert: My name is Bob Hebert, I've been county judge in Fort Bend County since 2003. I'm in my 15th year in office.

 

Neena Satija: The title is kind of a weird Texas thing. Bob Hebert doesn't have judicial powers, he's just the top elected official in the county.

 

Bob Hebert: Maybe as everything worked out, they wouldn't have built back there, they would have taken more steps. I don't know, I wasn't there. I'm not a career politician, I just stepped into this job when my predecessor had a heart attack.

 

Neena Satija: In fact, our reporting shows that thousands of homes went up inside the reservoirs after he took office. There were plats for those new neighborhoods, plats that he had to sign.

 

There's a plat here that I found from your time as county judge, it was approved in 2004. Your signature is here. Why sign these documents when they have the disclosure but then say, "Actually, I didn't realize that we had all these homes in reservoirs."

 

Bob Hebert: I don't read the plats. We sign dozens of plats every week.

 

Neena Satija: Could the engineer have done a better review since it has the disclosure on there?

 

Bob Hebert: No ma'am. You're playing Perry Mason now. Screw your head around and go back to July of this year. Platting in Fort Bend County wasn't important to you, wasn't important to the Texas Tribune. Why didn't you come in here and talk to me? Didn't you know Harvey was going to happen?

 

Neena Satija: Actually, we've known for more than a year that these homes would one day flood and we've been reporting on it. Allow me to screw my head around all the way to October 2016. Remember, that's when Richard Long from the Army Corp gave me the tour we heard earlier.

 

Richard Long: We're on the inside of the reservoir right now and here's apartment complexes on the inside of the reservoir.

 

Neena Satija: Richard Long isn't allowed to talk to me anymore because the Army Corp is facing lawsuits from flooded residents. Not just from people inside the reservoir, but also ones who flooded downstream when Addicks and Barker got too full.

 

Speaker 8: The record rain in this region has put reservoirs and dams under tremendous strain.

 

Neena Satija: During Harvey, the dam surrounding the reservoirs had to hold so much water the Army Corp worried they might fail. If that happened, downtown Houston could have literally been swept away by a massive wall of water. The Army Corp made a hard choice, opening flood gates to relieve the pressure.

 

Speaker 9: The Army Corp of Engineers says it had to let the water out of those reservoirs, essentially to save downtown because they were filling up too fast.

 

Neena Satija: When the engineers opened those flood gates, they sent water rushing towards neighborhoods downstream. Thousands of homes flooded, including Cynthia Neely's.

 

It's like the wall is curved.

 

Cynthia Neely: It is, it's buckled way out. If you get down you can see really how much it's buckled.

 

Neena Satija: Oh my God.

 

Cynthia's showing me a brick wall on her house that looks like it's about to collapse. During Harvey, she thought her home was safe. Then just as the storm was petering out, water started pouring in because the Army Corp opened those floodgates.

 

Cynthia Neely: Then it got to a point that it started coming in faster and faster. We just had to go upstairs.

 

Neena Satija: Nearly two feet of water sat on Cynthia's first floor for weeks. Now she's suing the Army Corp.

 

Do you think this is salvageable, the house?

 

Cynthia Neely: I don't know, but I don't really care. I don't want to salvage it, we're in harm's way.

 

Neena Satija: Addicks and Barker were supposed to protect Cynthia, but all those houses upstream inside the reservoirs put her at risk. Back when the area was just grasslands, water absorbed naturally into the ground. As it's been developed and paved over, now more and more water collects behind those earthen dams during every storm.

 

For years, the Army Corp has warned congress and local officials that the aging dams can't handle it. They're now at the top of a list of most dangerous dams in the country. Cynthia says the Army Corp should never had let things get this bad.

 

Cynthia Neely: Their excuses are so lame they make me sick. They've had almost 80 years to make those dams safe. They saw danger, they did nothing.

 

Neena Satija: Will you stay in Houston?

 

Cynthia Neely: No.

 

Neena Satija: You'll leave Houston?

 

Cynthia Neely: I love this city, I have loved this city from the moment I stepped foot on the ground. I'm 68 years old, my husband's 71. I want to be able to sleep at night.

 

Neena Satija: Since Harvey, local officials have requested $6 billion from congress to buy out and demolish homes in the reservoirs. There's no telling if it will ever be approved.

 

Al Letson: Since the storm we've been keeping our eye on those neighborhoods inside the reservoirs. Believe it or not, people are still buying houses there. We haven't found any real estate listings disclosing the risk. In fact, we've never seen any mention that these homes sit on top of land that's designed to flood.

 

That story was produced by Reveal's Neena Satija, who's based at the Texas Tribune. She had reporting help from the Tribune's Kiah Collier and from Al Shaw at ProPublica.

 

To find a lot more houses in dangers of catastrophic flooding, you don't have to look inside a reservoir. You can just go to Louisiana coast where the next storm could change thousands of lives.

 

Speaker 10: People will migrate one after another and towns will fall apart as a result.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In the last few years there's a phrase that people started throwing around.

 

Speaker 11: The world's first climate change refugees.

 

Speaker 12: You should expect to see more climate migrants.

 

Speaker 13: In some ways, they are also environmental refugees.

 

Speaker 14: Climate change migrants and climate change refugees and evacuees.

 

Al Letson: Whatever you want to call them, people are forced to leave their homes because of things like rising seas, rising temperatures, and extreme weather. The UN says there can be up to a billion in the coming decades, including millions right here in the US.

 

People like Malcolm LaCoste or as his friends call him, "Little Mackey". He's a shrimper about 100 miles southwest of New Orleans. He's on his boat just getting back from four days catching shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Malcolm LaCoste: It's nice to be getting home.

 

Al Letson: On board with him is WWNO reporter Tegan Wendland.

 

Tegan Wendland: It's real pretty up here.

 

Malcolm LaCoste: I think that's why I like it so much. My scenery all the time is what people take pictures of.

 

Al Letson: The early morning sun sparkles on the water of Bayou du Large, a channel that runs from the ocean all the way to Mackey's house.

 

Malcolm LaCoste: That's my deck hand.

 

Al Letson: Here on the Louisiana coast, the bayou is like the main street of a small town.

 

Malcolm LaCoste: Every house we pass so far it's first, second cousins.

 

Tegan Wendland: Oh wow.

 

Malcolm LaCoste: You go from the LaCoste to the Lovells, to the DeHearts. It's all family.

 

Al Letson: The water that connects these families also makes their neighborhood increasingly dangerous. The land here is disappearing, making it one of the most vulnerable places in the state to flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms.

 

Some of the houses are raised up high on stilts, some are empty because owners have moved away. Those who remain like Mackey have to plan their lives around hurricane season.

 

Malcolm LaCoste: The first thing I do is watch the weather, especially once you get into June and July when your storms start really brewing up around. I have to get in, lift everything up that I can, get it out of harm's way, secure my boat, and then get out of dodge.

 

Al Letson: As storms continue to get worse, Louisiana's republican legislature has been reluctant to place the blame on climate change, but they can't ignore the effects. The state's been planning for the next big storm ever since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago.

 

Thousands of people like Mackey are waiting to see if those plans will help them. Tegan Wendland takes it from here.

 

Tegan Wendland: You can't really see what's happening to the Louisiana coast when you're on a boat. First off, the coast is all around you and isn't a straight line of beach or cliffs. On a map, it looks more like the bottom of the state's boot shape is unraveling into marshy fingers that reach out into the gulf.

 

The best way to really picture it is to see it from above. I take a tour on a tiny propellor plane. On board with me is a coastal scientist, Alex Kolker, and an environmental law professor, Rob Verchick.

 

Alex Kolker: Look at those birds over there. There's white pelicans it looks like.

 

Rob Verchick: Yes, they get up pretty high.

 

Tegan Wendland: We dodge the pelicans and look down on what's making Louisiana's coast such a dangerous place to live. Alex points out how the land is becoming marsh and the marshes are dissolving into water.

 

Alex Kolker: That intact marsh that we flew over at the start of the flight is probably what these areas used to look like 100, 150 years ago. Now if you eyeball it, it's 60/40, 70/30 water to land.

 

Tegan Wendland: Land is washing away into the gulf. 2,000 square miles have disappeared since the 1930s. It's caused by sea level rise, long term erosion, and oil companies.

 

Alex Kolker: You can see how this area was drilled for oil, see all these little canals?

 

Tegan Wendland: They've dug canals so their boats can reach oil rigs they built out in the marshes. Those canals have eroded and turned to open water. To preserve the land that remains, the state's pumping in dirt to create marshes and barrier islands and building levees, basically walls to hold back the ocean.

 

As the plane turns, Alex tells me to look down.

 

Alex Kolker: That very unnatural feature is the shape of the levee.

 

Tegan Wendland: It's a straight line made of tons of dirt dividing the open water from land where you can see houses. Not all of the houses are safely behind the levees.

 

That was Little Mackey's house right back there.

 

Alex Kolker: Nice.

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:51:42]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Neena Satija: Behind the levies.

 

Speaker 16: Those were Mackey's house right back there.

 

Speaker 15: Nice.

 

Speaker 16: Yeah, we flew right over it.

 

Speaker 15: Nice.

 

Speaker 16: The water seems to be very, very close.

 

Speaker 15: In the air you can really see how close the water is.

 

Neena Satija: Mackey's house is on an unprotected little spit of land surrounded by water.

 

Speaker 16: So, how do you think it feels to be some of the families that are watching this big levy go up and they know that they're outside of it?

 

Speaker 15: That's got to be devastating I would think, because they know exactly what that means. That's like the life boat sailing away without you on it.

 

Neena Satija: After we land, I ask him a followup. What happens to the people who are left behind?

 

Speaker 15: Well, people will migrate one after another and towns will fall apart as a result. And economies will tank. And it will all be very chaotic. It will happen. The only question is, are we going to get ahead of the curve?

 

Neena Satija: Louisiana has tried to get ahead of the curve. After Hurricane Katrina, the state unified it's planning powers under a single agency, The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Bren Haase is the lead planner.

 

Bren Haase: You look more prepared than I.

 

Neena Satija: He's a little self deprecating, which must come in handy when you're trying to pull off such an ambitious mission.

 

Bren Haase: We are charged with restoring our coastline and reducing risk, protecting our citizens from hurricane storm surges.

 

Neena Satija: For the last decade, that's meant trying to save the land by building all of those marshes, barrier islands and levies. But in the 2017 version of the agency's coastal master plan, that's changed.

 

Bren Haase: We know that the future of our coast will be a much different coast than it is today.

 

Speaker 17: And with different, you mean there'll be less of it?

 

Bren Haase: Yes. We can't restore our coast to the level that was at 10 years ago, a hundred years ago certainly.

 

Neena Satija: The state is now admitting it's a losing battle. Some lands will be lost forever. Flooding from storms will get worse, and there are some people on the coast the state will not be able to protect. The Coastal Agency used an elaborate statistical model to forecast how bad flooding might get. If a strong storm would cause at least five feet of flooding, they say you should raise your home a little higher than that. And if the floodwaters are projected to hit 12 feet, you should just move. They estimate there are 2,400 houses like this, and the plan is to pay the homeowners to leave and knock those houses down. Just putting that down on paper, Bren says, "That's kind of a big deal."

 

Bren Haase: I think it's important to note that this is really the first time we've had kind of this level of discussion about this sensitive topic.

 

Neena Satija: People don't want to be told they have to move, and especially coastal Louisianans. They're fiercely independent. Many of their ancestors moved to the coast in the first place because they didn't want the government telling them what to do. Native Americans driven into the marshes by the Indian Removal Act. And scrappy French settlers, like the grandparents of Mackey, the shrimper. A big storm could cause 14 feet of flooding for his house, and that would make them eligible for a buyout. I wonder if he would take an offer to buy and demolish his house.

 

Mackey: I would have to think about it a lot because that's my whole livelihood. It's not just where I live at. Probably now that I've been doing it a while and I'm getting toward the end of my, I would probably consider it. I could seriously consider it. It's not going to get any better. The marsh isn't coming back.

 

Neena Satija: Now remember, Mackey's house is just one of 2,400, so I wonder what the rest of them would think? And would money change their thinking? I decided to do an informal survey of Mackey's neighbors.

 

Speaker 18: Hello.

 

Neena Satija: Starting with a group of older men fixing the engine on a shrimp boat Reveal's Stan Alcorn came with.

 

Speaker 19: How big would a government check have to be to convince any of you guys to [crosstalk 00:40:09]?

 

Speaker 20: [crosstalk 00:40:09] dollars a piece.

 

Speaker 8: A hundred million dollars.

 

Speaker 21: See, most of us down here we wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

 

Neena Satija: I think that little interaction gives you a sense of what you encountered down here a lot. But as we talk to people, we find it doesn't take much to change their minds. For instance, we come up to one house, windows covered in plastic and plywood.

 

Al Letson: Hi there.

 

Speaker 22: Hi. We're reporters.

 

Diana Liner: Okay.

 

Neena Satija: Diana Liner answers the door.

 

Speaker 23: Is that something that you would be interested in if there were money to help you move? Would you move?

 

Diana Liner: Oh, I mean, I'm 57 years old, my husband is 61. We're too old to start over on a new house and new payments.

 

Neena Satija: She says she's flooded and rebuilt so many times she can't remember. After Katrina, she applied for help to elevate her house, but she couldn't get the money. The bureaucracy involved was just too complicated.

 

Diana Liner: And the laws are so stupid that my house didn't get raised.

 

Neena Satija: Somebody [crosstalk 00:41:15].

 

Diana Liner: That's my daughter.

 

Neena Satija: Her daughter, Consuela Punch peaks through the window shades to see who her mom's talking to.

 

Consuela Punch: Hi.

 

Neena Satija: Then comes out the front door wearing a cheetah print robe.

 

Speaker 23: So we were asking your mom about buyouts. If there were any kind of buyout program. The oceans coming up, more storms are coming. People here will have to move. It's one of the most vulnerable parts of the state. And so we were talking about-

 

Consuela Punch: We don't want to move.

 

Speaker 23: But if there were money would you?

 

Consuela Punch: Yeah.

 

Neena Satija: They don't have a lot of faith that a new government program will help them, but if it was easy, if it paid enough money, that's a different story. Again and again, it doesn't take long to get from, no, we don't want to move to name a price. All it really takes is a conversation about flood risk, but also about dollars and cents which Bren Haase, the planner at the Coastal Authority, understands.

 

Bren Haase: Our first step needs to be to go to that local entities, that community whatever it may be and say, here's what we're seeing, here's what our data is telling us about land loss and storm surges and vulnerabilities, and here's some options to address those bad situations.

 

Neena Satija: Are those happening? You are going to those [crosstalk 00:42:22]?

 

Bren Haase: That's not happening yet. No, it's not happening yet.

 

Neena Satija: It's not happening yet. The state hasn't told any of those 2,400 households they should move. In fact, despite their elaborate computer modeling. Do you know where these specific properties are?

 

Bren Haase: I do not. I don't have a list of structures in my pocket or anything like that.

 

Neena Satija: The agency couldn't tell us where the houses were, so we requested their data about where the worst flooding will happen and we made our own map. That's how we found Mackey and his neighbors. Do you want to see the map with me?

 

Bren Haase: Sure.

 

Neena Satija: Reveal's data team used red to mark the areas where the state wants people to leave and large swaths of the coast were red. Bren takes a long hard look at the map.

 

Bren Haase: I think it's very interesting.

 

Neena Satija: He didn't have much of a reaction, but he did email us later asking if he could get a copy. It seems like they could have made the map themselves if they really wanted to. But Bren says the state is purposefully not going out and looking for these people, for a very simple reason. The buyout program would cost 1.2 billion dollars. And so far, Bren says they don't have that money.

 

Bren Haase: There has been almost none. There really has been not much that would have been available for this kind of thing.

 

Neena Satija: And without money, the buyout plan is really just a fancy blueprint. But if the coast is such a big priority for the state, why don't they have the money? Why can't they just appropriate it from the state budget? We asked state representative Jerome Zeringue.

 

Jerome Zeringue: Why not appropriate it? Because we don't have it. Why aren't you driving in a Lamborghini right now? Because you can't afford it. The reality is the state doesn't have the money.

 

Neena Satija: States usually don't have the money to deal with major disasters like hurricanes and floods. They turn to the federal government and disaster related grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of those grants pay for things that sound like Louisiana's buyout program, but they're different. I get a firsthand look at a program paid for with one of these federal grants in Roberta Groove. It's a subdivision, a half hour drive from where Mackey shrimper lives. I'm going up this bridge, right?

 

Jennifer G: Yes. Go up and over the bridge.

 

Neena Satija: I go there with Jennifer Gerbasi. She's a local planner whose whole job is managing federal disaster money. So these little plots here are where buyouts occurred?

 

Jennifer G: Yes. These are where buyouts have occurred.

 

Neena Satija: Okay. So we're just looking at just a mold lot here and there's houses on either side?

 

Jennifer G: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Which is how most of our buyouts are. They're next to other houses.

 

Neena Satija: I point to one of the empty lots. This one says it's for sale?

 

Jennifer G: Yes, it is for sale.

 

Neena Satija: So someone can build here again?

 

Jennifer G: Yes.

 

Neena Satija: People can build here again, as long as they raise the new houses a few feet off the ground. The federal money being spent here, isn't getting people to abandon dangerous areas before a storm. It's helping people who've already been hit. Republican congressman Garret Graves wants to change this. He represents much of Southern Louisiana, where people are still cleaning up after more than 100,000 homes flooded in 2016. When I met him, he had just come back from Washington, where he spends a lot of his time trying to get federal disaster money.

 

Garret Graves: It's an unpredictable funding stream.

 

Neena Satija: And now he's competing for relief funds in the aftermath of hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico. He says this whole approach where we come in with money after the disaster, is just not very effective. Studies show a dollar spent before a disaster saves $4 later.

 

Garret Graves: And I think instead of throwing a nickel at every $10 problem across the country, which is what we're doing right now, we instead come in and corral or focus those investments on things that are true priorities like for example, investing in buyouts and instances where that unfortunately is the best investment, to where we're spending money before these disasters strike and saving the billions that we come in and spend after disasters happen.

 

Neena Satija: But these days he says, that's beginning to feel like more and more of an uphill battle. In 2013, then President Obama ordered federal agencies to work together to prepare for climate change, but president Trump has rescinded that order. Since the state doesn't have the money and the federal government isn't coming to the rescue, coastal planner or Bren Haase says there's only one place left to look for money. A 2006 law that gives Louisiana a cut of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. There was a kind of justice to using this money since oil companies are already implicated, both in climate the change and in eroding the coast. Next year, Louisiana's cut is supposed to be 70 million dollars. That's a lot of money until you compare it to the price tag of the buyout program. I mean, that's not anywhere near 1.2 billion dollars.

 

Bren Haase: No, you can't ignore the fact that the dollars aren't there to do it. Obviously that's a huge roadblock to implementation.

 

Neena Satija: And as long as he doesn't have the dollars to actually help people, Bren doesn't see a lot of upside in telling people they should move.

 

Bren Haase: To go to an individual homeowner and say, this is what needs to happen in this particular location, might actually be irresponsible at this point.

 

Scott: That's ridiculous.

 

Neena Satija: Scott used his works for the Gulf Restoration Network. An environmental group advocating for people on the coast.

 

Scott: I mean, it is the responsibility of the state to inform its residents that there are threats to their public safety and they need to be talking to people about that now.

 

Neena Satija: He says, people don't even understand the danger they're in, let alone their options, and if they did, they'd be fighting to get help. If the state did have the money and helped all of those 2,400 households move, there would still be a lot of people left behind, like the Williams family.

 

Speaker 24: Hello. How are you guys doing?

 

Speaker 25: We good. Yourself?

 

Neena Satija: Ali and Daniel Williams live just north east of New Orleans. In a little rural subdivision called Avery Estates. They grew up out here.

 

Speaker 26: This is where we wanted to be forever. We wanted to build our home with our family, have memories.

 

Speaker 25: Our families have been living out here since the seventies, so I mean, my grandpa used to farm pigs out here. Never got water this bad.

 

Neena Satija: It floods all the time now and when it does, the water quickly rises in their yard. They've raised their home 13 feet in the air, so the house stays dry, but the cars get stuck. The kids miss school and life is tough enough already without the flooding. Daniel's disabled and they live off of his disability check. Only about a thousand dollars a month for them their two kids and five dogs.

 

Speaker 26: Personally, I only give myself another year on this property if that, and I'm fed up with it. I'm disgusted. I hate coming home. It's just we can't be the family we want to be back here. So it's cutting out a lot of our lives.

 

Speaker 25: But once again, is the government going to give you enough money to do anything? You know, I mean.

 

Neena Satija: At least when it comes to Louisiana's proposed buyout plan, probably not. On our map the area where the Williams live is just outside of the red zone eligible for buyouts. The projected flooding where they are, just isn't quite bad enough. So how does it make you feel to see that you're not in that red zone?

 

Speaker 26: That's sickening and sad. It's sad that we're like the only little square that's left out.

 

Neena Satija: It isn't just that little square that's left out. There are a lot of people across Louisiana who are getting flooded and want out. But for now, they're all waiting for the next big storm to hit and the federal money that comes with it.

 

Al Letson: That's Tegan Wendland. Coastal reporter at WWFNO. Our story was produced by Reveal's Stan Alcorn. Since we first aired this story, state officials have started to seriously consider how to relocate people on the coast. There's funding to move a small number of homes where Mackey lives. And a new inter agency council that could tackle relocation in the future.

 

Our show was produced by Neena Satija, Stan Alcorn, Laura Starecheski, and Phoebe Petrovic. Reid Byers, Deb George, and Taki Telonidis edited the show with help from Ziva Branstetter. Special thanks to Dave Herman from the Texas Tribune. Reveal senior data reporter Eric Sagara and to WHYY for production help. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Allende. We had help this week from Catherine Raymondo and Kat [Shipley 00:51:01]. Our theme music is because by Camerado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 27: From PRX.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:51:42]