For This Family, Hurricane Harvey Was Only the Latest Blow
Adrian Tobar, 10, touches the face of Red Cross volunteer EMT Rachael Thielen as she examines him outside his ruined home. Adrian and his brother Julian, 13, right, were badly injured in a road accident in May and were left homeless by Hurricane Harvey. Maggie Fox / NBC News
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HOLIDAY LAKES, TEXAS — The day that Hurricane Harvey hit south Texas, Juan and Brenda Tobar’s house was just about finished.
They’d survived a flood in 2016, a road accident that almost killed their youngest son, and a job layoff. In a matter of hours, the storm’s flooding destroyed all the work they’d done to recover. And the family of six is now struggling to help their sons heal safely after being made homeless for the second time in two years.
“First we have a 100-year flood and now, a year later, we have something called a 1,000-year flood,” said Juan Tobar as he walked past solidified and useless bags of concrete on his small lot in Holiday Lakes, Texas.
“People think it’s easy to leave. But this is paid for,” added Brenda, who says they have owned the house and land for 11 years.
The couple had been working for months to rebuild their small, wood-framed house in the tiny community after it flooded out in heavy rains in June of 2016. Knowing the risk of repeat flooding, they were starting a new structure on 10-foot-high supports.
Juan alternated working for an out-of-town oil company with recruiting friends and his teenaged sons to help him finish the work. He lost that job, but found another. The family lived in a small trailer on the site.
Then in May, a truck rear-ended their family van on the highway. All six family members were hospitalized; the two youngest sons, Adrian, 10 and Julian, 13, were seriously hurt. Adrian, who has a traumatic brain injury and a badly damaged spine, uses a wheelchair while he heals.
The truck driver who hit them did not have liability insurance. “We could sue him, but what good would that do?” Brenda asked, shrugging.
“We lost everything that was done. We have got to start all over again."
It was a struggle to finish the work after that, but friends, family and charity workers pitched in.
“That Friday, we had finished everything,” Juan said. "It was beautiful.”
Adrian would have his own bedroom, with a wheelchair-accessible bathroom.
Hurricane Harvey hit that evening, August 25, dumping several feet of rain on southeast Texas and causing unprecedented flooding.
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“We lost everything,” Juan said, walking through the wrecked remains of the house whose walls he had just painted with cheerful, bright colors. “He had the medical bed here. All the medical supplies were here. Everything was new,” he said.
“We were going to decorate it all over with Batman.” Brenda points to window appliques and wall stencils on what remains of the drywall in the room, now stripped to the studs.
“We lost everything that was done. We have got to start all over again,” Juan says miserably.
“We didn’t get to enjoy any of it.”
When Red Cross volunteer nurse Holly Jones and emergency medical technician Rachael Thielen found Juan earlier this week, he had been working for hours in the hot sun to clear waterlogged drywall, cabinets and furniture.
The water in Holiday Lakes had only receded days before. Unlike most of Houston, 45 minutes north, the low-lying community, built around several small oxbow lakes, remained mired long after Harvey passed.
Juan, 36, was getting help from his two older sons Sebastian, 16 and Christian, 14, but it was more than 90 degrees outside and humidity was above 90 percent that day.
“I pulled up and he was pretty close to dehydration. His heart rate was high. He was struggling,” Thielen, on leave from her job as an EMT in Hutto, Texas, said.
“We were worried he would have a heart attack,” added Jones, a registered nurse taking time off from her job in Detroit to volunteer. Thielen and Jones had been patrolling as part of a Red Cross “hotshot” team out looking for people in need of services.
It’s a perfect example of the health conditions Americans in particular face after natural disasters: the stress and strain of trying to recover without electricity, running water or other services.
And while the late summer hurricane tally has gone past Harvey, to Irma and now to Maria, the Tobar's struggle shows that each storm leaves a lasting wound.
Thielen and Jones persuaded Juan to get into his car and turn on the air conditioning, then gave him cool water to drink. They flagged down a church volunteer group to help clear the property. Now they’re trying to connect the family with case workers to help them negotiate health insurance needs.
“We’re already getting hospital bills,” Brenda said.
After the accident damaged his back, Juan took his 12 weeks leave guaranteed under the Family Medical Leave Act and now is taking unpaid time off. His employer is continuing to provide health insurance, something the family is grateful for. “They’re a good company,” Juan said.
Even if the ruined house was habitable, it’s not suitable for Adrian. Nor is the trailer.
“He could not be in this house,” Jones said. “He needs air conditioning because he already has problems breathing. He needs to be in a clean environment.”
Mold spores would be especially dangerous to a child who needs help breathing – and a house that’s been flooded is a perfect environment for invisible mold to flourish.
They’d been staying at a Ronald McDonald House near Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas while Adrian finished treatment, but that stay ended when Adrian was released from the hospital. Even with discount vouchers, they felt they could not afford a nearby hotel so they brought Adrian home, with a tracheostomy tube and special braces for his spine and neck.
For the present, the family is crammed in with Juan’s parents, who live 20 minutes away, while they organize medical care for Adrian and Julian, who still needs surgery on an eye socket damaged in the accident. “He broke the window with his face,” Brenda said.
Without a car of his own — the family van was totaled in the accident — Juan is using his parents’ van.
It serves to keep his younger sons cool and protected as he prepares to leave his house for a first-time appointment at Texas Children’s Hospital in downtown Houston. Even that presents a challenge.
“I know we are going to have to pay for parking,” Juan says, looking down at the ground. The gas tank is nearly empty and he has not earned any salary in months. A GoFundMe account started by a friend didn't raise much.
“Ask people to pray for us,” he says.
Maggie Fox is a senior writer for NBC News and TODAY, covering health policy, science, medical treatments and disease.