United States

Harvey's impact on a Hispanic neighborhood: 911 calls go unanswered and undocumented immigrants fear arrest

Heavy flooding in Houston has trapped members of one community in their homes – either for fear of venturing outside or because they cannot be rescued.

HOUSTON, Texas - Four people climb down from a boat carrying plastic bags with the few belongings they could rescue from their flooded home. They arrive on what has become a canal atop a road that until Friday was used by pedestrians, bikes and cars. They are in a community in northeastern Houston, in a small Hispanic enclave where residents are hiding not just from Harvey's rains, but also from immigration authorities.

There are Hondurans, Mexicans and Americans, each with their own problems. Behind every door there is fear. They are afraid of being arrested if they ask for help or seek out shelter; they fret their emergency calls will go unanswered; they worry about running out of supplies, abandoning their homes, or watching flood water rush under their doors.

Here are a few of their stories.


A water-damaged electronic shackle

Early Monday, around 5 a.m., Vicky walked outside to see why there was so much noise outside. Amid the insistent rain and wind, it seemed that a tornado was approaching in the distance. The water almost reached her knees – and then an alarm sounded: "Recharge the battery, please recharge the battery."

She says a neighbor noticed the electronic device around her ankle and asked: "what the heck did you do that you have to wear a shackle?" Her response: "I'm an immigrant."

She crossed the border three months ago with her two-year-old son and is awaiting an appointment with an immigration judge. She fled from gangs and is seeking asylum.

The alarm that sounded was the electronic shackle that she wears on her left ankle so that immigration authorities know her location. Harvey left her home without electricity for days, meaning she could not charge the battery. Hours later, flood-water damaged the shackle and now even the message has stopped sounding.

She fears that, in the absence of a signal from the shackle, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will come to her house and arrest her. "Maybe they will punish me," Vicky says.

A 911 call

Tina Hernandez does not remember how many times she called 911 for help; it was non-stop since Saturday when the storm began to flood Houston. Her sister-in-law, who suffers from a kidney ailment, was in severe pain. They called and called, increasingly anxious. But finally when the answer came 48 hours later, it was not the response she wanted to hear. "They said they could not come (due to the floods),” she said, crying.

This 10-member family began their odyssey two days ago. In the middle of the night they left their flooded dwelling. The beds and furniture were soggy. Tina remembers that the water almost reached her knees. But a neighbor rescued them in his boat and took them to his brother's house, a few blocks away. That's where they're sleeping.

"Thank God we're safe, but on the boat ride, when they brought my mom and dad, the boat tipped over. They fell into the water," recalls Hernandez. Some of the family has been back to their home to pick up a few things they could save from the flood, like clothes and food.

In the home where they're staying, the family has not considered evacuating, even though a street just a few yards away is completely flooded. For more than 30 years, they have lived in this Hispanic community.

"It makes it hard to breathe"

As soon as Ricardo Laredo opens the door of the house he smells the dampness and humidity. "It makes it hard to breathe," he says. He points to the red-wine colored carpet that is soaked, still wet under foot from the four inches of flood water that covered the room.

Like the rest of the community, there has been no electricity in his house for three days. In most cases, power outages limit people's ability to cook or use the bathroom. But in Laredo’s case, it's more a question of health. He typically uses two machines to help him breathe properly: one during the day and the other to counter the sleep apnea that chokes him at night.

"I called 911, they said someone was coming, but nobody came," he says. "I told them I was sick and that I had to use the machine to breathe. They told me there were almost 5,000 people ahead of me." Now, both machines are set up on top of each other, on the furniture, just like the three televisions he has, his VHS movies and the electric wheelchair he used to go out to do his errands.

Without water and light and with food running out, Laredo admits he doesn't know how long he can last.

A worrying comment on Facebook

In Lisette's house, on the ground floor, water flooded up to two feet high. The family remains without electricity and are cooking chicken wings on a portable grill inside the small room that acts at once as a lounge, kitchen and dining area. Much of the smoke hovers in the damp house.

Lisette is seven months pregnant. Although she thought about looking for a shelter, she ruled it out because of her lack of papers.

"On Facebook, they say that happened. Somebody was looking for shelter and ICE took advantage to make raids and deport people," explains the Honduran. Authorities have assured that they are not inquiring about immigration status at shelters.

Going to the bathroom at a gas station

Imelda Carrillo has no light or water. She has not showered since Saturday and is using the bathroom at a gas station near her house. She and three other adults live on the first floor of the building.

On Friday they went to look for four bags of cement to put in from of the door, but they didn't find any. "We have spent days without electricity, there is not enough food, the carpets are wet, there is a lot of humidity and the drains are covered."

This undocumented woman, from Mexico, admits she is terrified: "We are afraid to ask for help or move to a shelter."