As Arlington plots course after Hermine floods, families sit in limbo during holidays

ARLINGTON -- The Gouldings, Wilkeses and Lowes all have something in common.

They aren't returning to their homes for the holidays.

Three months after Tropical Storm Hermine sent floodwaters from Rush Creek raging through west Arlington, they are among dozens of families still living in limbo while the city deliberates whether it will buy their damaged homes.

Debbie Goulding and her husband commute at least 21/2 hours daily from a relative's house in Cleburne to their jobs in Arlington while waiting for more than $100,000 in repairs to be completed on their Woodland Park Court home.

Ray and Leslye Wilkes, who were covered by flood insurance, spent $93,000 fixing up their five-bedroom home, but it still sits vacant. The retired couple is afraid to move back in for fear of another flash flood and has taken out a mortgage on another home.

George Lowe, whose home on Woodland Park was heavily damaged, has been living in a Mansfield hotel while his neighbors Bob and Ruth Farley are living in a rental home.

"We are trying to have the Christmas spirit even though we are not decorating or putting up lights as we usually do. My kids and small grandchildren want to know where we will be having Christmas this year. I just tell them we don't know," said Debbie Goulding, an instructional facilitator at Blanton Elementary School.

"It would be a wonderful Christmas present if we could sleep in our own home."

'It is an ugly situation'

More than 200 homes and condominium units citywide were damaged during the Sept. 8 storm. More than half the affected properties were along Rush Creek, where flooding has worsened over the years because of development upstream.

Though Mayor Robert Cluck and other city leaders have said they desire a voluntary buyout program for flood-prone homes along the creek, Arlington has not yet identified where the millions of dollars needed for such a project will come from.

In November, Arlington applied for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the city doesn't expect to hear word until at least July, officials said.

"I know people are very frustrated. They want a decision," Public Works Director Bob Lowry said. "It is an ugly situation. There are a lot of people hung out, and there is not a whole lot we can do except wait."

So far, Lowry said, the city has identified 16 homes that have the best shot of being bought out by federal grant money. Of those, 11 have flooded at least twice and have received flood-insurance payouts amounting to more than the homes are worth, Lowry said.

City officials have estimated that buying and tearing down all 57 flood-prone homes along Rush Creek could cost $13 million to $18 million.

The City Council has been discussing the situation privately in executive session.

"If the council wants to buy them all, they obviously will have to issue debt," Lowry said. "They haven't decided."

If the city identifies funding or receives grants, it would offer fair market value for homes -- in pre-flood condition and without deductions for being in a flood plain, he said.

New home for holiday

Ray Wilkes, who has been to nearly every council meeting the past three months seeking answers, said he is frustrated that city leaders haven't given him and other affected residents any idea on how soon buyouts will come, if they will at all.

"The council says they care, but I don't think they care one iota," Wilkes said. "If they buy me out, great. But I don't look for them to do it. They haven't made a commitment on anything."

The Wilkeses' Woodland Park home had flooded twice before but never as severely as during Tropical Storm Hermine, he said. Wilkes, 74, and his wife were rescued by boat after water from Rush Creek surged through the house, where they have lived for 26 years.

"We had trouble getting out. The water was too swift," said Wilkes, recalling the flash flood. "If it had been nighttime, me and my wife may not have been able to get out of there. Someone is going to drown."

The city also recently told Wilkes that his home, appraised by Tarrant County at $169,000, is no longer eligible for a federal buyout because he spent so much on repairs, a disqualification he didn't know existed. City officials said Wilkes would not have been issued a permit to make repairs had they known the cost to repair the damage was greater than 25 percent of the home's appraised value.

"Nobody told me not to. It was 85 percent complete when [the city] said, 'You ought to stop spending on it,'" Wilkes said.

At least 16 other homes have been denied repair permits because of their extensive damage, officials have said. Among those was the home of Louis Marroquin, who also had flood insurance. He and a friend, Evan Salituro, have been living with other friends since their Valleycrest Drive home flooded with 19 inches of storm water.

The friends have tried to stay positive during the holidays, but it's been tough, Marroquin says. Salituro strung Christmas lights outside their now-vacant home. Many of the houses around theirs are dark because the families haven't moved back either.

"We drive by the house every night just to see the lights. That has been our Christmas tree this year," Marroquin said. "We wanted to have a reminder of how Christmas has always been."

Condominium conundrum

Lowry said the city has acted more quickly than it did in 2006, when Rush Creek flooded the Shady Valley neighborhood in west Arlington. The city is already gathering private appraisals on damaged properties so it can make offers to owners more quickly once buyout funding is identified, Lowry said.

Those appraisals are expected to be complete by the end of the month.

"We are doing a lot of things in advance that we didn't do before," he said.

The city has not found any grants that could be used to buy the heavily damaged Willows at Shady Valley condominiums, many of which are owned by investors. The condos remain fenced off while the homeowners association and the city consider what to do with the flood-prone property. Arlington has also been collecting appraisals on the condo units.

"At some point in time, if the council decides to buy them, they have to have a basis to make an offer," Lowry said.

Many of the homes in the Shady Valley area were built before a 1972 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study helped determine the 100-year flood plain. Over the years, development upstream increased storm-water runoff flowing into the creek and through the Shady Valley area, Lowry has said.

Dick Barry isn't interested in the city buying his Southpark Drive home, where he has lived for 38 years. He has been pushing Arlington and the corps to dredge decades of built-up silt and widen the creek so it can better handle storm water. Residents also pushed the city to clean out the creek after the 2004 and 2006 floods.

"Time is of the essence! The creek has no conscience. ... Just like a coiling viper, the creek ... waiting to strike once again with the next major storm ... could prove deadly," Barry wrote to the mayor in late November.

Lowry maintains that no amount of dredging will stop flooding on Rush Creek and that tearing down the homes and creating green space to absorb storm-water runoff is the only practical solution.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639