Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Oct 27, 2018

The storm after the storm

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Doctors in Puerto Rico are outraged at the government’s unexpected decision to declare the Zika crisis over in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Plus, communities in Houston and North Carolina struggle to put their homes and lives back together.

Credits

From reporter Beth Murphy with The GroundTruth Project, Reveal’s Neena Satija and The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters.

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.
Speaker 1: The best way to get all of our stories without anything in between, is just an email in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure, we like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. To sign up, just text newsletter to 63735. Again, text the word newsletter to 63735. I'll see you in your inbox.

 

Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It's been several weeks since Hurricane Michael tore through Florida's panhandle and still the images are hard to forget.

 

Speaker 3: Right now, I'm on the east side also of Panama City Beach. This is a Texaco gas station that is about to come down. Very big time wind. Winds gusting over 130 miles an hour. Our vehicle is bouncing up and down. We've got a bit of a shelter [inaudible]. We're not ... There's another piece of debris, sheet metal flying through the air all over the place out here.

 

Al Letson: Before Michael, Hurricane Florence took dozens of lives and destroyed homes, roads and power lines in several states, including North Carolina.

 

Speaker 3: Some of those evacuees are coming back home, only to find parts of their community are still devastated.

 

Al Letson: Later in the show, we'll talk about the cleanup efforts there. But first, we want to go to Puerto Rico. Last year, Hurricane Maria killed nearly 3000 people and devastated the island.

 

Valerie R: It was very awful and going through the things that I go through every single day, on a daily basis, catastrophe like that was very difficult.

 

Al Letson: That's Valerie Rodriguez. She lives in Bayamon, the island's second biggest city. Even before the storm hit, life was already a struggle for her young family. Valerie's son, Stephan, is 18 months old. He has a lot of health problems. He can't roll over or swallow soft foods. He will never walk or talk and he's on seven medications.

 

Valerie R: He hates this one because it's an actual pill that I have to ... He leaves it in his mouth and he doesn't swallow it. He thinks that I do not notice that.

 

Al Letson: It takes Valerie about two hours to give Stephan his medicine and feed him, a routine she goes through each morning and then again at night.

 

Valerie R: I have to strain everything so that there are no lumps and he doesn't choke.

 

Al Letson: Stephan needs care pretty much around the clock. It's because he was infected with the Zika virus when he was in his mom's womb. Zika was big news a couple years back, and for those of you who don't remember, the virus is spread by mosquitoes and through sex. Zika hit Puerto Rico hard and also found its way to some parts of the mainland US.

 

Valerie R: [inaudible] baby.

 

Al Letson: Stephan has microcephaly, the worst case scenario for babies with Zika. It stops the brain from growing and when you look at Stephan, you can see that while his chubby cheeks look a lot like a baby's should, his skull is smaller than it should be.

 

Even before Hurricane Maria, Zika had faded from the headlines but it was still a problem in Puerto Rico. According to the government, more than 1500 pregnant women caught the virus in 2017, just before the storm. Then something strange happened. Since the storm, the government has reported zero new cases. Zero. Puerto Rico declared the crisis was over. How could a hurricane make the Zika virus disappear? That's what reporter Beth Murphy wanted to find out. She's with the ground truth project based at WGBH in Boston.

 

Beth started following the Zika crisis when it started two years ago. After Hurricane Maria, she began investigating what happened to all the Zika cases. Here's Beth.

 

Beth Murphy: If you're covering the Zika crisis in Puerto Rico, one of the first people you have to meet is Dr. Carmen Zorilla. She asks me to call her Carmen. I first interviewed her back in 2016, when the Zika epidemic was exploding. She's an OBGYN at University Hospital in the capital of San Juan. Buttoned up in her white lab coat, Carmen is all business, except for her bright pink lipstick.

 

How many women who have been diagnosed with Zika are you caring for right now?

 

Carmen Zorilla: Last week, I saw two groups of women with Zika, I saw 32 patients and I said, "Okay, listen to me. You have Zika infection. You are pregnant. This virus can live in the placenta. We don't know what the impact on your baby is before the baby is born, and afterwards."

 

Beth Murphy: She wants me to meet some of her patients and takes me down the hall to a support group she set up for them. Nine women are here. Taking turns getting ultrasounds and looking nervous as they come back from behind the pink curtain to sit in a circle.

 

Carmen Zorilla: One of the rules here is that whatever we say here stays here. It's like in Las Vegas. Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays here.

 

Beth Murphy: That's when I see the real Carmen, the Carmen who lights up when she's helping other women.

 

Carmen Zorilla: I never had a sister and I think I went into OBGYN looking for my sisters, and now every patient is my sister.

 

Beth Murphy: Zika wasn't Carmen's first experience dealing with a deadly virus that can be passed on from moms to their babies. She was also there for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s.

 

Carmen Zorilla: I lived the same experiences of pushing for testing and pushing for screening in pregnancy because I believe that's important. I'm doing the same exact thing for Zika.

 

Beth Murphy: Test, test again, then test again. That became Carmen's mantra. Test pregnant women early and often. She believes women deserve options.

 

Carmen Zorilla: My responsibility as a provider is to have the conversation, you can continue or interrupt your pregnancy it is your choice. You don't need a diagnosis to have that decision because abortion is legal, but I don't want you to come six months from now and tell me that you never had an option because nobody told you about it.

 

Beth Murphy: Most people who get Zika don't have any symptoms, so the only way to know which babies are exposed is to test.

 

Carmen Zorilla: It's a double, actually triple job. I'm also concerned about public health. It's public health, individual health, future of the country in terms of the infants.

 

Beth Murphy: During our first meeting, Carmen talked a lot about how bad the economy was and how many doctors were leaving the island to practice on the mainland. Still, Puerto Rico was ahead of many places when it came to tracking Zika. All pregnant women were tested and for babies who were born with the virus, the government set up a system to track them for three years, and all this was free.

 

By 2017, Puerto Rico was tracking 4000 babies with Zika. Then in September came Hurricane Maria.

 

Speaker 3: Sustained winds, 165 and now the national hurricane center does believe [crosstalk]. A major storm with a direct hit on the populated eastern part of Puerto Rico, the governor issuing dire warnings saying this is gonna be a catastrophic storm. It is-

 

Beth Murphy: I tried reaching Carmen on the phone when the storm hit. It took me two weeks. She told me it was like the island had been hit by a nuclear bomb and she was exhausted from working around the clock.

 

Carmen Zorilla: Now we're in a much worse situation. Only six percent of people have power. Right now, 16 days after the hurricane, we're in a survival mode.

 

Beth Murphy: Even though her hospital was barely functioning, it was one of the few open and Carmen was delivering more babies than ever, 30% more than usual.

 

Carmen Zorilla: The healthcare system collapsed as well as the power system, as the communication system. We're only dealing with emergencies. Anything that's routine, like all the babies born from women infected with Zika, all these babies that need evaluations, that stopped and it will not be until maybe weeks from now that these services will surely start renewing and being implemented.

 

Beth Murphy: Weeks. That's how long Carmen thought it would take for the island to recover enough to start thinking about Zika again. After that first call, I checked in with Carmen at least once a month and on each call, she told me the same thing. There was no word from the government about restarting Zika testing for pregnant women.

 

In the spring of 2018, six months after the hurricane, I went back to Puerto Rico to find out what was going on.

 

Carmen Zorilla: There was no Zika testing ever done since September 2017, since the hurricane. We have no way of knowing if we are still have transmission or not.

 

Beth Murphy: Doctors could still draw blood to test it for Zika but there wasn't much point to it. That's because they were being told the government health lab that performs the test was closed for business. Not only that, this is when officials announced that the Zika crisis was over, that there were no new cases of Zika on the island. It was like Zika had been swept away by the hurricane.

 

Carmen Zorilla: The website of the health department, which by the way is no longer there. I checked yesterday the health department website, to see whether they had any Zika statistics, nothing. They have nothing there now. It's only the old reports.

 

Beth Murphy: Carmen couldn't believe it. The government was saying there were no new cases of Zika after the hurricane, but 1500 pregnant women had been diagnosed earlier that same year. Doctors she works with couldn't believe it either. Dr. Cynthia Garcia Cole is a clinical psychologist who spent 17 years teaching child development at Brown University.

 

Cynthia G: If you don't test for Zika, how are you gonna know how many people are being infected?

 

Beth Murphy: Before the storm, Cynthia spent a year traveling to government health centers around the island, gathering data on Zika babies after they were born, the ones the government is following for three years.

 

Do you feel like there have been attempts to silence you?

 

Cynthia G: Oh boy, this is a good one. At this point, the program that I was part of, monitoring the development of children born to Zika exposed pregnancies within the department of health, we have been stopped.

 

Beth Murphy: Cynthia tells me the government fired her and took all of the data she had collected. She says they didn't give her a reason for letting her go, and the health department wouldn't tell us either. After Cynthia stopped working for the government, she teamed up with Dr. Carmen Zorilla and they're monitoring children on their own. Cynthia is focusing on babies who were exposed to Zika but born looking completely normal. Babies like Kimberly.

 

Cynthia G: [foreign language]. What we're doing here is the baby scale of infant development.

 

Beth Murphy: Kimberly is seven months old and because today is actually her seven month birthday, her grandmother dolled her up in a fancy dress and a headband with one giant bow that seems to say, I don't have hair but I am a girl.

 

Cynthia G: [foreign language].

 

Beth Murphy: Cynthia looks like a kid herself, exaggerating her expressions and practically climbing onto the table. It looks like she and Kimberly are playing, but everything Kimberly does, how she reaches for the rattle, how she holds it, the way she tries to squirm off the table, it's all a test trying to answer one question. Is she able to do what's expected of a seven month old? For the most part, yes but ...

 

Cynthia G: I notice that there's a little fragility here in terms of self regulation is what I just notice so far.

 

Beth Murphy: As you've been monitoring babies exposed to Zika, what had you been noticing when [inaudible].

 

Cynthia G: There's a very wide range. Some kids are doing really well and some kids are very compromised. I'm noticing a lot of small motor delays, moving your hands, delayed sitting, delayed walking.

 

Beth Murphy: These kinds of exams are crucial because if a doctor notices that a baby's motor skills aren't developing the way they should, they can start therapies to help the baby. Studies like this also help researchers understand how Zika works. Yes, it can cause massive problems like microcephaly but it can also cause more subtle neurological issues, trouble swallowing, walking, seeing.

 

Cynthia G: Remember that there hasn't been that many studies on these kids. The samples right now, things that are seeing published are 30 kids, 40 kids, 10. We have 200. We have over 200, so that's why we think this data is really important to publish.

 

Beth Murphy: It's not clear if this study will ever see the light of day. The health department needs to authorize publication and so far, it's refused to do so.

 

Cynthia G: I told them, the last meeting that we had, I said, "I can't believe you're being completely unethical."

 

Beth Murphy: Who were you talking to when you said-

 

Cynthia G: The officials from the department of health, that were in charge of the Zika monitoring system. Now I've never seen politics getting involved on research the way that this looks like.

 

Beth Murphy: I've wanted to understand the politics behind Zika ever since I started following it two years ago. I did everything I could think of to talk to someone from the health department. At first, I called. [foreign language]. When that didn't work, I showed up at their offices again and again.

 

The problem is I've been to this office many times now in person and also called.

 

Speaker 8: You will have to set a date.

 

Beth Murphy: Finally I tracked down the assistant secretary of health, Dr. Concepcion Quinones Longo. We meet in the hallway of a convention center, where she's speaking at a press conference about a new lunch program and just like the doctor said, she's quick to give me the government's official line on Zika, that the crisis is over.

 

Concepcion Q: So far, we are not detecting new cases of Zika. Our state epidemiologist doesn't expect to have cases right now.

 

Beth Murphy: I ask her why the health department had stopped testing pregnant women for Zika. This is what every doctor I spoke to told me. She says that's not true, that the health department is performing the tests and has been since just a few weeks after the hurricane.

 

Concepcion Q: After Maria, we tried to make sure samples collected all over the island were brought to our central laboratory in the department of health San Juan, Puerto Rico, and these samples were sent to the CDC laboratories in the states because our laboratory in Puerto Rico was damaged.

 

Beth Murphy: I checked with the CDC and they told me that never happened. The health department never sent Zika samples to Atlanta for analysis. But Dr. Quinones is adamant that the testing is back on.

 

Concepcion Q: We are not testing the population in general, only pregnant females.

 

Beth Murphy: I just want to followup on a couple things. First the testing of pregnant women, the OBGYNs that I was talking with, they didn't seem to think they had a clear mandate from the health department to be testing, or that there was a way to get those test results back.

 

Concepcion Q: The mandate exists.

 

Beth Murphy: She blames the doctors for dropping the ball.

 

Concepcion Q: They're private physicians in private offices and we don't have that close contact with them to make sure they do the testing they should.

 

Beth Murphy: Dr. Quinones also tells me that women can ask to be tested but I find out later that that testing is no longer free. Women now have to pay 100 dollars. The other thing is, last year the government said the crisis was over, so why would a women even ask for the test? Then I ask her something else. When will all that data on developmental delays in Zika babies be released?

 

Concepcion Q: I think there will be some information released.

 

Beth Murphy: This is the kind of answer I get from Dr. Quinones on almost everything we talk about. She's hard to pin down. By the end of the conversation, she tells me that she needs to get permission from her boss, the health secretary before she can share any more details.

 

Concepcion Q: It's not that I can't talk to anybody openly without being authorized because we want to have the correct message.

 

Beth Murphy: After we part ways, I'm left standing in that convention center hallway and what starts to become clear to me is that the health department doesn't want to talk about Zika with me or even their own top Zika doctors. Several docs told me they stopped hearing from the health department all together. In that silence, doctors like Carmen Zorilla and Cynthia Garcia started wondering why. Why was it so important for the government to make Zika going away? Cynthia says they think it comes down to money.

 

Cynthia G: There is no question that the Zika epidemic, the notion of having a Zika epidemic here, affected all of us in terms of tourism.

 

Beth Murphy: Tourism. It's the lifeblood of the island. I reach out to the Puerto Rico tourism association and talk to the organization's president and CEO, Clarissa Jimenez about how much Zika affected the island.

 

Clarissa J: It was a huge impact.

 

Beth Murphy: Clarissa remembers when the CDC first issued warnings about Zika in Puerto Rico in 2016.

 

Clarissa J: The numbers they were giving were really, really high, and scary. We had lots of cancellations. There was the perception that you would step here and you would get the virus because that was what was portrayed. Those huge percentages of the population getting the virus.

 

Beth Murphy: Tourists stayed away and the island lost 100 million dollars. That, she says, shouldn't have happened.

 

Clarissa J: Let me see how we're gonna say this. The reality is that a lot of hype was created.

 

Beth Murphy: After Hurricane Maria, the government wanted to build back the tourism economy as quickly as possible and doctors I talked with, believed that meant getting rid of Zika.

 

Dr. Carmen Zorilla knows that Zika is still a threat, so she's found a way to restart testing of pregnant women for Zika.

 

Carmen Zorilla: I feel this is so important, to be able to identify because most of the patients who have Zika do not have any symptoms. If they are pregnant and they have Zika, they might be at risk for birth defects.

 

Beth Murphy: Carmen did an end run around Puerto Rico's health department. She teamed up with the CDC to provide free Zika testing for pregnant women. It's the only program like it on the island.

 

Carmen Zorilla: Melissa, we're starting the Zika testing today and you're pregnant.

 

Beth Murphy: On the first day back in the spring, eight women had their blood drawn, including Melissa.

 

Melissa: It's always been a concern because I've seen people sick with Zika and it's been ...

 

Beth Murphy: Did you know when the hurricane started that you were pregnant?

 

Melissa: No. I found out a week later. I was struggling with why now but ...

 

Carmen Zorilla: Don't call this baby Maria. Do not call this baby Maria. I think that name will be eliminated from the birth registries in awhile here.

 

Beth Murphy: The new testing continued through the summer and it's still going today. Doctors say the first results are in, and even though it's a small sample, they're alarming. Nine percent of women are testing positive. That's almost what the rate was the the height of the epidemic.

 

Carmen Zorilla: I'm a scientist. I'm a researcher. I'm not running for any political position. Therefore, I can actually honestly say what the evidence tells me to say.

 

Beth Murphy: The evidence is telling Carmen Zika is a very real danger today for pregnant women and babies. In Puerto Rico, around 26,000 women will give birth this year. So far, fewer than 300 have been tested for Zika.

 

Carmen Zorilla: I've been an obstetrician for more than 36 years. I've been blessed of being present for the birth of so many babies and I can tell you that the first thing a women asks, how's my baby? I think it's ethical in the sense that we need to do the right thing.

 

Al Letson: That story was from Beth Murphy at the ground truth project. She's the director of films there and also has a short film coming out about this story. We checked with the CDC about Zika in Puerto Rico. One of their epidemiologists told us that the risk of getting Zika now is less than during the outbreak a couple years ago, but the virus will always be there. People need to protect themselves from mosquitoes and sexual transmission to avoid getting infected.

 

In a moment, we head back to the mainland, Houston, Texas where a year after Hurricane Harvey, people who are using a government program to pay for housing are getting the door shut in their faces. You're listening to Reveal from the center for investigative reporting and PRX.

 

Speaker 1: Hey, hey, hey. You're listening to another episode of the podcast that Al Letson is currently binging, and today's contestant is the Thread, by Ozy. The Thread is like revisionist history meets six degrees of separation. Sean [Braswell] turns back the clock on one story at a time, to reveal how various strands of history get woven together to create a historic figure, an unthinkable tragedy or a really big idea.

 

This new season traces the untold and hidden connections between a powerful idea, nonviolent protest, from 250 years ago, to Martin Luther King Jr and forward into present day. The Thread, season three, a history of nonviolence is available now, so check it out at ozy.com. That's O-Z-Y.com, and subscribe to the Thread wherever you listen to podcasts.

 

Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Much like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Houston has also faded from the headlines. In August of last year, Hurricane Harvey inundated the city, damaging 800,000 homes in Houston and leaving thousands without a place to live. More than half of those homes were rental units, many for Houston's poorest residents. Even before the storm, the city was dealing with an affordable housing crunch. Now officials say it's gotten even worse.

 

Neena Satija and Edgar Walters, reporters with our partners at the Texas Tribune, have been covering the aftermath of Harvey and they recently spent time with a woman who's found herself at the center of that housing crisis, working with some of Houston's most vulnerable residents. Here's Neena.

 

Neena Satija: For months after the hurricane, I'd been seeing this one name on real estate listings for low income apartments. Pamela Banks. In April, I went to see her in this sprawling suburban office complex, about a half hour north of downtown Houston. Pam's office has a sign above it that says Banks and Banks Financial Services. There's also a sign that says el olam, word of deliverance. She's a pastor and a real estate agent.

 

When I walk inside, Pam's taking a phone call from a client.

 

Pamela Banks: Good morning. This is Pam. May I help you?

 

Neena Satija: Her desk is covered in paper and folders and post it notes. Walk in clients are constantly coming in and out, and as soon as she gets off the phone, it just rings again.

 

Pamela Banks: Sorry. Good morning. This is Pam. May I help you?

 

Neena Satija: As the client talks on the phone, Pam scribbles on a yellow legal pad.

 

Pamela Banks: When could you come in to do an application?

 

Speaker 14: What time do you leave the office?

 

Pamela Banks: 9:00 PM.

 

Neena Satija: You're here until 9:00 PM?

 

Pamela Banks: I haven't been off since Harvey. These people are displaced. Because they're not talking about it in the news anymore, that don't mean it ain't still going on.

 

Neena Satija: Pam's been hearing from a lot of flood victims. Besides wanting a place that won't flood again, pretty much everyone who calls or drops in has one request.

 

Speaker 15: I'm trying to be in a better area for myself, for my kids and stuff like that-

 

Speaker 16: I have a 15 year old son and a-

 

Speaker 17: Just somewhere in a good neighborhood. You know a [inaudible] with a good school district.

 

Neena Satija: One of those clients is a woman named Denise Taylor. She's from Chicago, and she reached out to Pam online just a couple months before the hurricane, when she was thinking about leaving. Denise did not feel safe in her old neighborhood, and she wanted her daughter, Christina, to go to a better school, to meet kids from all kinds of backgrounds.

 

Denise Taylor: On the west side of Chicago, it's just African-Americans and Hispanics. That's it. I used to try to explain, that is not normal. That's just not normal, but where can I take her to really see it?

 

Neena Satija: Like most of Pam's clients, Denise had something that's supposed to help her get what she's looking for. It's called a housing choice voucher, also known as a section eight voucher, a government benefit that helps low income people pay rent. About 20,000 families in the Houston area use these vouchers. The program was designed to be this ticket to a better neighborhood, maybe a better life. It's federal money so you can use the voucher anywhere in the country.

 

On the last day of July in 2017, Denise and Christina got into their Ford Focus hatchback and drove from Chicago to Houston. They hardly knew anyone there, except Pam.

 

Pamela Banks: I said, "When you come down, you can stay with me while you try to find something." How many [inaudible] is gonna do that? I didn't know her from nobody. She could've been a killer, but again, you know what I'm saying? I let them move in my house. I said, "Anything I got in here, you can have. There's clothes. You want some clothes? Go get the clothes."

 

Denise Taylor: She left me a key my first day. She was gone when I woke up. I was like she just left us here, and there was a key that said home.

 

Neena Satija: It didn't take long for Denise to find a job, at a pharmaceutical plant, packing and shipping. But just a few weeks after she moved in with Pam, Harvey hit and Denise's housing search suddenly got way tougher. Harvey damaged more than 40% of Houston's houses and apartment buildings. There was a lot more competition for what was left. The vouchers expire in as little as two months if you don't find a place in time. So she hit the phones.

 

Denise Taylor: My name is Denise and I was calling in reference to your apartments you have for rent.

 

Neena Satija: Denise's voucher would let her rent a two bedroom apartment, costing up to 1400 dollars a month, with the government paying maybe half of that. She found plenty of apartments within that price range, in neighborhoods she liked.

 

Denise Taylor: My next question is do you guys take the housing choice voucher? You do or you don't at all? That's okay. Thank you.

 

Neena Satija: Denise made dozens of calls like this. Everyone said no. A month after Harvey hit, then two months, Denise was still staying with Pam, and apartment managers were still telling her no. In some parts of the US, it's illegal to reject a renter just because they have a voucher. It's considered discrimination. That's not true in Texas though, which I'll explain more later.

 

Denise Taylor: It's degrading and if you're not built up morally, it can really put you on a depressed state. It'll make you put yourself in a category you're not in.

 

Neena Satija: One out of every four families in Houston that receives a voucher never gets to use it. That's according to the Houston housing authority. Denise was worried she'd have to give hers back.

 

Denise Taylor: Why don't you take section eight? What's wrong with section eight?

 

Neena Satija: Denise thinks this isn't about her voucher. She thinks it's because she's black, like most voucher holders. We ran the numbers and found that almost 90% of families in the Houston area with vouchers are African-American. Most of them live in areas with the city's highest poverty rates. The way Denise sees it, she's deliberately being steered towards the poorest and most racially segregated neighborhoods.

 

Local housing officials recognize that this is a problem and that Houston is actually one of the most segregated cities in the country. A few years ago, the Houston housing authority tried to take a small step to address the issue. It didn't go well. Officials had this idea to build a mixed income apartment building in a wealthier part of town, called the Galleria. It's known for this giant glitzy mall with an ice skating rink. Some of the units in the building would have to accept vouchers, giving poorer families access to better schools, but hundred of angry Houstonians revolted.

 

Speaker 19: I'm here to oppose this project. As you can tell ...

 

Neena Satija: Back in 2016, they showed up in force to a public meeting at the neighborhood elementary school. It was standing room only, lasted for hours. Almost all the people in the crowd were white. They complained that the building was too expensive, would overcrowd schools, lower property values.

 

Speaker 19: If I hand you a group of 40 grapes and I tell you that two of them are poisoned, how many of those grapes are you gonna eat? Affordable housing, great. It's wonderful to have compassion but I think if we look around our country, much of the compassion has led to problems for the people that we thought we were being compassionate for. Boy, all this money is ...

 

Neena Satija: People sent written comments too. One person complained about what they called pollution of upscale neighborhoods with the poor. Only a few people spoke up in favor of the proposal, including a woman named [Crishell Pelay].

 

Crishell P: Much of the opposition seems to really be rooted in the fear of a changing neighborhood.

 

Neena Satija: Crishell is black and she works for a housing advocacy group. She told the audience, the people who want to live here are your janitors, your baristas, your waitstaff.

 

Crishell P: These people are good enough to sustain your current quality of life, but they're not good enough to live in your zip code.

 

Neena Satija: When this whole debate was going on, Pamela Banks was watching it unfold and thinking about her clients. These apartments could've helped them. If they could move to that neighborhood with a voucher, they could get a leg up but the project was killed not long after that public hearing. I called Pam recently and played her some of the tape. The part where the guy talks about compassion for people who need affordable housing, but also about poisoned grapes. Pam told me it made her think about how after the hurricane, people set up animal shelters on that side of town.

 

Pamela Banks: You have compassion for a dog in the Galleria. You have shelters out there. You see what I'm saying? But we can't be out there. You value a dog more than you do us.

 

Neena Satija: You value a dog-

 

Pamela Banks: What you're really saying in a sense is you really don't want us in your neighborhood.

 

Neena Satija: There's a reason Pam is saying we and us here. For her, it's personal. In her late 20s, after she and her husband separated, Pam landed in Houston as a single mom. She applied for a section eight voucher and waited for seven years to get one. When she finally got her voucher back in 1997, Pam spent months searching for a place that would take it. One day she came across this listing, a brick house with a fireplace in the suburbs, in an area known for better schools. So she drove out there to meet the landlord.

 

Pamela Banks: It was raining, I got out there and it was a young African-American lady that was in a BMW. She got out and went to walk toward the house.

 

Neena Satija: Pam knew her odds had just gone down and was tempted to turn back, but she decided to wait for the woman with the fancy car to leave. She went to the door and introduced herself to the landlord.

 

Pamela Banks: I said, "I'm Pam," and I said, "I have housing, and I know you may or may not know about housing, and may have a stereotype image, but take this home and pray about it, and then let me know if you want to work with me."

 

Neena Satija: The guy said, okay, you can rent this house. Five years after Pam and the kids moved in, she bought her own house. This is why Pam does this work today and why she's trying so hard for Denise. In Cook County, Illinois where Denise is from, rejecting someone just because they have a section eight voucher is considered discrimination and it's illegal. It's also illegal in a handful of states, including Massachusetts, Oregon and New Jersey.

 

A few years ago, Austin, Texas passed an ordinance like this, but a few months later the state legislature overturned and it law makers went even further. They banned any other city in Texas from doing the same thing. Basically, Texas landlords are allowed to discriminate against people with section eight vouchers and they can't be punished for it. Texas was one of the first states in the country to pass a law like this in 2015. Indiana did too, the same year. Denise didn't know about the law when she moved here.

 

Does your daughter, does she understand that some people don't take vouchers and some people do take vouchers? Does she get that?

 

Denise Taylor: She gets that to a certain extent but I don't want her to understand the discriminational part of it. I don't want her to feel stereotyped because of a voucher.

 

Neena Satija: Denise was really hoping to use her voucher in one of two suburban zip codes, both majority white, very low poverty, better schools but out of the 17,000 families that get vouchers from the Houston housing authority, we found that only 36 were living in those zip codes. What's going on here? Why are so many landlords unwilling to take vouchers in Texas?

 

Stacey Hunt: I don't think that the utilization of section eight is a discriminatory tool at all.

 

Neena Satija: This is Stacey Hunt. He's on the board of the Houston apartment association, and he supports that Texas law that lets landlords say no to section eight. After it passed, housing advocacy groups sued. They said this is racial discrimination in disguise. My colleague, Edgar Walters interviewed Stacey Hunt earlier this year, and brought this up.

 

Edgar Walters: There have been all these lawsuits alleging that discrimination against voucher holders, what do you say to that?

 

Stacey Hunt: I disagree with that. I think that the voucher users in many situations, they choose to live where their support group is, where their family is, where there's transportation, where their job is.

 

Neena Satija: We spoke to more than a dozen voucher holders and none of them told us that. Edgar told Stacy Hunt about Denise.

 

Edgar Walters: She just heard from dozens and dozens of landlords, sorry, we just don't accept section eight. Is discrimination or stereotyping at least part of what's at issue?

 

Stacey Hunt: No. I don't think it's reflective at all because everyone has to deal with very stringent, fair housing requirements all across this country.

 

Neena Satija: Stacey told Edgar there are plenty of legitimate reasons Texas landlords don't take vouchers. The section eight program is run by government agencies that don't have enough staff and they're known to cut checks late. Stacey says this can hurt a landlord's bottom line and they shouldn't be forced to deal with it, but he did have a suggestion for Denise.

 

Stacey Hunt: I feel for this lady. I would advise her to call the people at NestQuest.

 

Neena Satija: NestQuest, we'd heard that name a lot during our reporting. The bureaucracy of section eight is so bad, Houston officials created an entirely new nonprofit last year to help deal with it. Edgar wanted to see if NestQuest could really help people like Denise, so I'll let him take it from here.

 

Edgar Walters: Here's how NestQuest works. They find landlords in areas with high rated schools who don't take vouchers. Then they make a pitch. Let this family with a voucher live here and we'll deal with the government for you.

 

Isabelle Lopez: On time rental payments. Those are automatic. We also secure all the utilities for the unit. The landlord does not have to do anything.

 

Edgar Walters: This is Isabelle Lopez, executive director of NestQuest.

 

Isabelle Lopez: We also guarantee that the client will maintain renter's insurance on the unit, and then upon move out, we are willing to foot the bill for any damages.

 

Edgar Walters: When Isabelle took this job, NestQuest had a 1.2 million dollar grant to spend. The goal, help 350 families with children move to neighborhoods with top rated schools.

 

Isabelle Lopez: I was extremely optimistic. Easy. I don't see anybody saying no to this, and the first time we actually had to start talking to landlords, honestly it was really discouraging.

 

Edgar Walters: Does the fact that under NestQuest that landlords have very little financial risk, and yet they're still so cautious of the program, does that suggest that there's still a lot of discrimination going on?

 

Isabelle Lopez: That's exactly what that suggests. I hate to say that but it is the reality of what it is right now. They have this guarantee that everything will work, that everything is gonna get taken care of and it's still that hesitation that I don't want to work with someone who's on section eight.

 

Edgar Walters: As of mid October, only 17 families with vouchers are renting places with NestQuest's help. Five of them are staying in properties managed by the company Stacey Hunt works for. That's out of 38,000 units his company manages in the Houston area. Five out of 38,000. I talked to Stacey about this.

 

It seems like cold comfort to somebody like Denise.

 

Stacey Hunt: Like I said, Rome wasn't built in a day. We're trying. The industry is trying.

 

Edgar Walters: In July, three months after we're first met Denise, she was still looking for a place and her voucher was about to expire. The deadline came and went, but I couldn't get in touch with her. Pam told me Denise was really stressed out and needed some space. Then a few weeks later, I get a Facebook invite from Pam. She's holding this women's empowerment conference around the anniversary of the hurricane. It's called I survived it, and Denise is going to be there. In early September, I drive down to Houston to this little church, not far from Pam's office.

 

Pamela Banks: How are you? You need anything?

 

Edgar Walters: I walk inside and I see Pam at the front of the sanctuary, gripping a microphone and pacing back and forth. There's about a dozen people sitting in the pews, dressed in their Sunday best, despite the Houston humidity. Pam's got the crowd going.

 

Pamela Banks: [crosstalk]. If you survive people and what they think about you, and how they look at you, you can survive anything. Amen. You can survive anything. I'm gonna tell y'all ...

 

Edgar Walters: After her sermon, I catch up with Pastor Pam. Can you just tell me a little bit, what is this weekend about?

 

Pamela Banks: Survivors. It's the anniversary of Harvey, the one year after Harvey. People still displaced. People still going through things. Bringing survivors together, let them share their story.

 

Edgar Walters: The morning is packed with prayer and personal testimonies. Denise gets up and talks about her struggle to find housing in a new city. When we break for brunch, I finally get a chance to ask her if she found an apartment. She says yes. How do you like it, just [inaudible].

 

Denise Taylor: It's a shelter over my head right now. I won't complain.

 

Edgar Walters: That's a diplomatic way of putting it.

 

Denise Taylor: I won't complain. It's mine.

 

Edgar Walters: Denise was not able to find the diverse, mixed income neighborhood she was looking for when she left Chicago. More than 20% of her new neighbors live below the poverty line and almost all of them are black or Hispanic. As for the apartments.

 

Denise Taylor: They really almost look like the projects from Chicago, because it ain't nothing but a group of people on a fixed income, living all in one area, gated in.

 

Edgar Walters: The high school her daughter goes to now got a D rating this year. Last year, it got an F.

 

Denise Taylor: Are we leaving Texas? No, but am I gonna be in that school zone? Probably not. I don't believe so.

 

Edgar Walters: Because you're aiming higher?

 

Denise Taylor: Most definitely. I'm aiming within the next year, you'll probably be coming to my home opening because that's my next goal, to be a homeowner.

 

Edgar Walters: Pam told me in spite of it all, she still sees Denise as a success story. A year after Hurricane Harvey, she's got a roof over her head. She recently got a raise at work. Besides, her lease is up in just a few months and she's already decided not to renew it. She wants a new place and Pam's already thinking about how to find her a better one.

 

Al Letson: That story from Neena Satija and Edgar Walters with our partners at the Texas Tribune.

 

Like in Houston, low income residents in North Carolina are having to put their lives back together after Hurricane Florence struck last month. Many are on their own.

 

Speaker 24: I am picking up. I am making arrangements for deliveries. I am trying to figure out who can cook food. I am unloading trailers.

 

Al Letson: 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.

 

Kim.

 

Kim Gore: Al, how are you doing?

 

Al Letson: I'm good. How are you?

 

Kim Gore: Fine. Let me apologize for our [inaudible].

 

Al Letson: I reached to to Kim Gore a few days ago on a crackly cell phone line.

 

Kim Gore: I'm in an area that the reception is spotty right now but I have moved to a good point and my head is turned to the left.

 

Al Letson: All right. Kim is from Pender County, North Carolina, north of Wilmington. It's an area still recovering from Hurricane Florence. The storm dumped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of the state and caused 13 billion dollars in damage. Pender County is off the beaten path, known for its blueberry farms, small towns and beaches.

 

Tell me a little bit about Pender County. What's it like there?

 

Kim Gore: I guess the biggest thing, Al, would be basically everybody's connected. I like to call it connective tissue. In my case, in this area I'm sitting in right now, which is White Stocking, I went to school with everyone here. We're all connected by virtue of being, I'll be honest, African-American and having the good old roots of church, gospel, family, friends and just togetherness.

 

Al Letson: More than a month after the storm, people there are still in the middle of cleanup. Kim was away in Texas when the storm hit, visiting family. It was two weeks before she could even get to her house because all the roads were flooded. She didn't know what to expect when she got home but she was lucky. Her house sits on a hill.

 

Kim Gore: My power had been out for nine days. There was the spoilage of food, but to be totally honest, nothing major was out of place at my home.

 

Al Letson: What about your immediate neighbors?

 

Kim Gore: Devastation. Two tenths of a mile from my home, just two tenths, four houses took water. Two houses were completely covered, and again, I can stand in my yard and I could see those neighbors.

 

Al Letson: How did that feel?

 

Kim Gore: It did feel weird. I felt extremely blessed but then I said ... I didn't question why I was blessed but I guess at that point it's like now it's time for me to do what I need to do to help others. I'm looking at their devastation, what can I do to help you? My church was actually okay, so the thing that crosses my mind is we need to use our church as a distribution because people around us need some access because they're a two to three hour drive to get anything.

 

Al Letson: What are we seeing right now? Where are you at right now? What do you see?

 

Kim Gore: Right now I'm directly in front of the church. They have set up portable showers for the residents here. We've got a couple of male and female showers, hot water set up. That came about three days ago.

 

Al Letson: What's your average day like now that you're out here trying to ... You're trying to spread the blessing around. What's that average day like?

 

Kim Gore: It's a lot. Last weekend, from Friday morning until Saturday evening, I drove 424 miles. Those were local miles. 424 in my car.

 

Al Letson: Wow.

 

Kim Gore: I am picking up. I am making arrangements for deliveries. I am trying to figure out who can cook food. I am having the food people drop off at locations. I am unloading trailers. I am trying to get more trailers in, and I do have a nosy streak. I was surveilling the area for damages, so that way I know what's in the neighborhoods that have a need.

 

Al Letson: One of the biggest needs right now is getting rid of all the debris that's piled up on front lawns and streets from homes that people now need to rebuild.

 

Kim Gore: Mainly all of this is sheet rock, insulation. You have refrigerators. You have stoves.

 

Al Letson: Where are they staying at now if they can't get back into their homes? Give us a picture here.

 

Kim Gore: They're staying with relatives. They're staying in lodgings. I'll be totally honest, I have been by tent city. People are living in pop tents, like if you went camping.

 

Al Letson: What has FEMA's reaction been to Florence? Because it sounds to me like what you're describing is a flood of, for lack of a better term, a flood of biblical proportions. This was really bad, so what have we seen from the federal government for your point of view?

 

Kim Gore: We do have FEMA coming in and I want to share some of the comments that I have received from residents in western Pender County that said we've seen FEMA once. They have a sense of frustration that says should it be FEMA here all the time, a FEMA person should be down here at least guiding and directing them on next steps.

 

Al Letson: We checked with FEMA and they said their job is mostly to handle reimbursements and to help homeowners with losses their insurance doesn't cover. A FEMA spokesman told us the agency has done over 5000 home inspections in Pender County and distributed millions of dollars of aid. They said it's up to the state and county to do much of the on the ground cleanup. A county rep told us that's happening. It's just slow going, that's why people like Kim are so important to the recovery.

 

Tell me have you ever done anything like this before?

 

Kim Gore: I chuckle a little bit. Actually my role, I had a position that was a nuclear service director. We did have one situation at one point where we had a team of employees that was in Japan, and the tsunami hit in 2011 and it was total chaos on a nuclear site. That got me thinking this situation is very similar if not the same. It's just water and it's home. You approach these things like what are your steps one, two and three? How do you get impact? How do you get donations? How do you get feedback? How do you get response? I'm in the community all the time, so just having me not really touched, I did feel a little guilty, but on the flip side of it, I was blessed. If I'm blessed, I need to bless someone else if I can. I took that approach, just personally. Like I said, I'm a regular citizen.

 

Al Letson: I would say that you are not a regular citizen. I would say you're an extraordinary citizen. Thanks for your work.

 

Kim Gore: Okay.

 

Al Letson: Kim Gore is one of the leaders of the effort to clean up Pender County, North Carolina. Soon after we spoke to her, we learned that FEMA opened up a disaster recovery office in her town. Thanks to Casey Minor for producing that story.

 

Our lead producer for this week's show is Neena Satija. Taki [inaudible] edited the show. Thanks to Mitch Hanley, Nathan Tisdale, Rachel Roar, Charles Bennett and Marissa Miley from the ground truth project, and to Dave Harmon from the Texas Tribune and Caitlyn Benz. Our production manager is [inaudible]. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Aruda. They had help this week from Catherine Ray Mondo. Our CEO is Chris [Desharfenburg]. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camarado] Lightly.

 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan foundation, the John D and Katherine T MacArthur foundation, the Jonathan Logan family foundation, the Ford foundation, the [Heising] Simon's 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 26: From PRX.