When Pam and Drew Shefman of Houston heard last week that a tropical storm was barreling toward the Texas coast, they both had the same thought: Not again.
On Memorial Day of 2015, Houston received ten inches of rain in ten hours, causing the city’s bayous to overflow their channels and flood large portions of the city. One of the worst-hit areas was the low-lying Meyerland neighborhood in southwest Houston, just outside Loop 610, which has the misfortune of being bisected by Brays Bayou. About 730 houses in Meyerland were damaged or destroyed by the flood, including the Shefmans’ one-story, 3,000-square-feet mid-century modern, which took in 27 inches of water. “It ‘s really unpleasant to have to walk through your house when the water is up to your thighs, trying to save your things,” Pam Shefman said.
The Shefmans were forced to move with their two young children into a rental house for ten months as they waited for about $280,000 worth of repairs to be completed. Much of that was covered by their insurance, but not all. (The Shefmans said that their insurance company declined, for example, to pay for rewiring the electricity in the house.)
Finally, in March 2016, the repairs were finished, and the Shefmans were able to move back into their house. They were there all of six weeks before another monster storm, the “Tax Day Flood” of April 17-18, sent thirteen more inches of water into their newly remodeled house. “We had just finished installing this really nice new carpeting,” remembered Drew Shefman, a software engineer for Major League Baseball. “We hadn’t even walked on it yet, and suddenly we were ripping it out with box cutters. It was just a waste.”
The Shefmans had considered moving after the Memorial Day flood, but they loved their house and were deeply attached to Meyerland’s tight-knit community and central location. “We know everyone in the neighborhood,” said Pam, who works at the University of Houston. “We can walk our kids two blocks to their elementary school in the morning. I can drive to work in fifteen minutes.”
The Tax Day flood once again forced the Shefmans out of their home. This time they borrowed an RV from friends and camped out in their driveway while the house underwent another $160,000 in repairs. To assure their house wouldn’t flood for a third time, they decided to literally lift it ten feet off the ground with the help of Kemah-based Arkitektura Development, Inc., which specializes in elevating homes in flood-prone areas of the Texas coast.
The process is time-consuming and expensive, but it was about half the cost of another option the Shefmans considered: tearing the house down and building a new flood-proof home from scratch. The work crew started digging tunnels under the house earlier this month so they could place about a hundred new pilings that would be used to jack up the house.
The actual lifting was scheduled to take place on September 1, but when Arkitektura owner Phillip Contreras heard about Hurricane Harvey last week he quickly pulled a crew off a job in Austin and sent them to Houston to expedite the process. On Thursday, a crew of about 25 workmen jacked the house four feet and eight inches into the air before filling in the space under the house with the dirt that had been excavated while building the tunnels. “We finished up around Friday at three, just as the rain was starting,” Contreras said. “It was close, but we got it done.”
The Shefmans are eager to help their neighbors in Meyerland. “Having been through this twice, we kind of know what to do,” Drew said. Once the storm blows through, the Arkitektura crew will pour a new concrete foundation and jack the house another five or so feet into the air, leaving it ten feet above ground level. That, the Shefmans believe, will be enough to withstand even the most biblical of floods. Best of all, they didn’t have to move any of their furniture during the operation.
“I feel like it’s now high and dry and well out of the storm’s way,” Drew said. “The only way for it to flood now would be if Houston were literally underwater. Like, in the ocean.”
Since Contreras founded Arkitektura in 2002, the company has elevated hundreds of homes across Texas, often with FEMA grant money. In addition to the Shefmans’s, they’ve lifted eight other homes in Meyerland, with a couple more jobs in progress. “When we first started out, we were doing one or two houses a year,” Contreras said. “After Hurricane Ike, business really blossomed. And I would anticipate there to be a lot more work after this storm is over too.”