Angles and Expectations: Building with Habitat for Humanity of Jefferson County

Beaumont, Texas and the surrounding coastal areas of southeast Texas were hit hard by Hurricane Harvey in late August 2017. In addition to the catastrophic flooding, residents in the greater Beaumont area had to contend with the lack of running water after the pumps failed as well as food and gasoline shortages due to the lingering floodwaters preventing vehicles from entering the city for days after the storm passed. Thousands of homes were outright destroyed and tens of thousands severely damaged by the flooding and wind. Many of these houses were in areas that had never flooded in previous weather events and residents found themselves unprepared.

In the face of such wide-spread damage, Habitat for Humanity of Jefferson County halted their upcoming new construction and went to work rebuilding and repairing damaged homes. Over the past 8 months the affiliate applied for grant money, hired more people, and began the process of working with owners to repair their homes at a reduced cost and 0% interest, following the Habitat model. Thirteen of the homes they’d previously constructed needed repair, but they also opened applications to the community, using a need-based formula to determine eligibility and priority. Suddenly, the small affiliate that had been constructing 5 homes a year had dozens of projects and almost a dozen new people to write grant proposals, sort applications. secure permits, review bids for materials, handle the loans, and do the necessary repairs. This in itself would explain the unusual experience we had during our 2 weeks there, but on top of that, the permits for pouring slabs on their next 2 houses was delayed due to backlog – which meant that we couldn’t start building.

Project schedule board

These permitting delays were the ultimate reason that our expectations did not end up matching reality: instead of the combination of rehab work and new construction to replace destroyed homes, our first task was building shelves. Our first response was, “Huh?” But it was quickly explained that with so many new people and so much paperwork the affiliate needed somewhere to put the boxes of files stacked around all the cramped workstations. They had recently built a room adjacent to the office space and now they needed to transform it into as much storage space as possible. And so we built shelves, using the plywood and 2x4s laying around the adjacent warehouse. As the Care-a-vanner motto goes, “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape.”

Ripping 2x4s for shelf brackets

Tom making shelving

Some of the finished shelves

Work the following couple days were more of what we did expect however: We went to a home that had been flooded and began removing and patching damaged drywall and then replacing flooring, trim, and exterior doors. This was exactly the type of thing we had anticipated doing but after it was complete we were assigned another unexpected task – that of building sheds. Since various delays in permitting, bidding, and/or material acquisition prevented us from starting another project in the construction queue, we were asked to work on four sheds, two for already-occupied homes that had been built before the hurricane and two slated for the next homes.

The sheds, at various stages of construction, were sitting on skids at the multi-lot property the affiliate was building on when we arrived. Unfortunately, the new construction staff that accompanied us were unable to provide much direction – or explain why they were all built slightly different – but we took it in stride and jumped in after examining the more complete buildings.

What the 4 sheds did have in common however was that they all had the same style gambrel roof. This meant two different roof pitches that had to meet up – and meant that I had another struggle with getting angles correct as we started putting up the subfascia. Once we’d completed that we thankfully moved on to the less brain-taxing jobs of papering the roof, nailing on drip edge, and shingling, but once we started siding the battle of the angles returned as we had to cut the Hardie Board siding to fit a combination of slopes under the eaves of the roof. It probably took me twice as long to get the tricky pieces correct – and man was I frustrated – but I do feel like I’m making progress with figuring out angles.

Tom installing flooring

Construction Site Supervisor Jeremy doing drywall repair

Putting in outlookers

Supervisor Patrick and Assistant Supervisor Bruce working the angles for the fascia

Papering and drip edge

Shingling on a tiny roof

So. Many. Angles.

Siding

Tom measuring for where he’d start cutting the angle on the siding plank

Hanging doors

Our two weeks in Beaumont also included some down-time of course. With the city located relatively close to the shore we took a couple excursions south for some beach time. The first trip was east – through the town of Port Arthur, where we glimpsed the utter devastation left by Harvey – and into the sparsely inhabited coast of west Lousiana. Our second day trip was down to Galveston, a touristy summer favorite of Houstonites, where we indulged in more beach walking in addition to some beer at Galveston Brewing Company. Both days featured Abby frolicking in the water and running after sandpipers; us humans occasionally played along. There was also the usual dogwalking before work each day – in this case on a pretty Folsom walking trail.