Houston Families Struggle to Preserve Holiday Traditions in Aftermath of Repeated Flooding
For Houston families who have endured floods, it's hard to sustain traditions around furniture that isn't there anymore or build traditions when there's no guarantee your home will stay the way it is.
By Sarah Smith
HOUSTON -- It took until Christmas Eve for Chris Tiner to realize he hadn't put on a single Christmas song all season.
The silence is unusual for the Tiner household. Chris, a Nazarene pastor, likes to blast Christmas music starting in October. When people rib him, he just says, "I like it" and keeps the song on. His wife Stephanie, a music teacher, sings right along.
But after two devastating floods in four months, Christmas feels obligatory.
The Tiners live with their four children in Elm Grove, a neighborhood in Kingwood. Elm Grove flooded in May and again during September's tropical storm Imelda. Residents sued Perry Homes, a development company, after the May floods, alleging that the company's clearing of natural drainage caused the flooding. The company denied responsibility and counter-sued.
So much of Christmas for me is stuff that's tradition," Chris said. "It doesn't feel like this is our house we've lived in for a long period of time. It's not gonna be around enough to develop that kind of tradition."
For many families, Christmas is about tradition: Passed-down recipes, presents opened at a certain time and a tree always placed in the same corner. But for Houston families who have endured floods, it's hard to sustain traditions around furniture that isn't there anymore or build traditions when there's no guarantee your home will stay the way it is.
One of the Tiners' Christmas traditions -- a nativity snow globe from Stephanie's dad, who died 15 years ago -- washed away in the May flood.
Their house looks complete at a glance, and they know that they have neighbors in worse positions. But there's nothing to show that the downstairs has been home to a family of six for four years: There are no pictures on the wall, and the Christmas decorations are confined to a corner. All the furniture is donated.
Every time it rains, we have a physical reaction of panic," said Stephanie, 40. "We know we will flood again. And that's always on the back of our minds."
They had just moved in after the May flood when Imelda happened. Stephanie and Chris sat on the third step, watching the water rush in and take away everything they had just put back. Now, they do not let themselves get attached. They have no desire to put pictures up again. Their 15-year-old daughter has a nagging sense of dread. Their other children -- 14, 12, and 8, the middle two with autism -- keep asking if the home will flood again. They don't lie.
The Tiners can have Christmas because of donations: A church gave them money to go shopping, and school counselors put together a Christmas drive in which families adopted families who flooded. Someone knocked on their door and brought an inflatable snowman.
When people want to give you something, it's hard at first," said Chris, 38. "You don't want to say yes. This is what a situation like this does: It enables you to say 'thank you' to people."
John and Sandra Hulon have lived a few streets over from the Tiners for 21 years. Like the Tiners, they flooded twice -- once in May and again during Imelda. They're in no rush on the second rebuild. During the first flood, Sandra, 66, dove into muddy water trying to rescue her family photographs.
A Hulon Christmas revolves around Sandra's cooking, a tradition passed down from her mother. Her children and her four grandchildren look forward to it every year. She doesn't need a recipe book anymore.
"This is the first time it's quiet for me," she said. She's decorated a little: She put Christmas cards on the side door and a few ornaments on an outside tree. She has Christmas presents for the grandchildren stuffed in the closet. They have a small tree. John, 72, scooted under it and took an upward-facing shot with his smartphone. In his picture, it could be 12 feet high.
Petra Ringeisen, 57, who lives on the same street as the Tiners, likes to say that her house vomits Christmas. She usually puts up eight trees, deer, an angel, a purple rhinoceros, a bow across her balcony and lights. She lines the inside of her house with white felt to look like snow and puts deer on them to create a winter scene. She has a ceramic bear nativity.
In her native Germany, her family bought and decorated the tree on Christmas Eve. She was fascinated by the American way of decorating for weeks. When she lived in Elm Grove for 18 years, she managed to accumulate seven bags of decorations stored in the attic. They come out right after Thanksgiving.
Her decorations have taken a different tone this year. She attached a mini-skeleton to a chair and propped up insulation and bits of wood that had to be torn out of her home. She attached tinsel to them.
She made a tinsel Christmas tree and put it on the corner on one of the neighborhood's favorite signs, conceived by a local 12-year-old: a smiling beaver holding a log above the slogan "DAM IT PERRY HOMES."
A few Elm Grove lawns have an inflatable Santa or a snowman. More common than Christmas decorations are dumpsters sitting on residents' lawns, filled with the ruined contents of their homes.
Some of the homes are empty: People packed up and left, or haven't been able to move back in. Or people just aren't up for decorating.
"It's really disconcerting, not being able to observe the holidays," she said. "It's not like we can have a Christmas."
Her downstairs is bare and still in the rebuild process. Nearly everything is white plaster. She has one donated Christmas tree in her living room. The lights do not work.
She and her husband (and their four cats) have lived upstairs, walled off by plastic. She attached her Christmas cards to the plastic barrier instead of the pantry. She put a one-foot tree atop the microwave in the bedroom-turned-kitchen.
Imelda hit the day before they were set to move back in after the May flood. Ringeisen and her husband, who moved for his job at Halliburton, were eight months from fully paying off their house. They don't want to be 90 years old with a mortgage. They had planned on leaving the home to their children.
The Tiners are worried the floods have become the new normal for their younger children. At church, when Chris was doing a lesson on the Bible story of Noah and the flood, his 12-year-old turned to him and said, "Did his whole neighborhood flood, too?"
The second rebuild is impersonal. He has no desire to get attached to what feels like a temporary house.
"We're not gonna stay here for 20 years -- " he began.
-- and we had hoped to," Stephanie said. "We love this community. We wanted to be here forever."
"It's back to that, not feeling like we can have traditions," Chris said. "It's inevitable at some point that we move. We just don't know when or how."
(c)2019 the Houston Chronicle
Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service