Vital Signs
2:14 pm
Mon August 16, 2010

Floods Worsen Housing Crisis for Some

Last month's floods made life more desperate for people with limited means. That's according to the latest Vital Signs report the Greater Milwaukee Foundation released Monday. It gauges the level of economic need in the four-county area. WUWM's Ann-Elise Henzl visited an older Milwaukee woman who can no longer live in her home, to find out how she's coping.

Marie Irby stands next to her favorite flowers.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Piles of flood debris still line the neighborhood near 19th and Hampton. But there's nothing outside Marie Irby's home. That's because it's all still in her basement -- or what's left of it. July's floods overwhelmed the neighborhood filling basements with storm water and sewage. The 77-year-old's home was damaged so severely that it's unsafe to enter.

"I can't eat, I can't sleep, I'm a nervous wreck just to think about all my stuff I lost down there. Everything. Shoes, clothes, coats is destroyed, my furnace is gone, my washer and dryer is gone, and I don't have nothing," Irby says.

While we can't go inside to survey the destruction, it's in plain view from the back yard. There's a gaping hole along the rear of the house where the foundation collapsed. The resulting mudslide engulfed bricks from the patio, as well as a wrought iron table and chairs. They look like they were tossed into the hole.

"I used to sit right there in that corner on the table right there and eat my breakfast and drink my coffee every morning and do my flowers in the yard. But that's gone now," Irby says.
 

The inside of Irby's basement can be seen from the back yard, where part of the patio was engulfed as the foundation collapsed.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

It's hard to tear your eyes away from the basement, and the flies that buzz around the now-rotten food in a damaged freezer. But the rest of Irby's back yard is gorgeous, with flowers sprouting up everywhere.

Irby walks with a cane because of back and hip problems. But she's been hauling buckets of water from a neighbor's house, to keep watering her garden.

"This was my pride and joy. I enjoyed my flowers and I enjoyed my yard. That's where I spent my time at when I don't spend it at church. I do a lot of volunteer work at my church. That's where I spend my time at, trying to help somebody. But I need help myself," Irby says.

The help Irby has needed includes a place to stay. So far she's been sleeping at her daughter's house. But Phyllis Easley says her mother longs to return home.

"The neighbors, it's ironic -- every morning they come here and sit. They come to their porches and they sit and they talk and they go to their yards, and that's what they know to do and they talk to one another so they are pretty closely tied together and just wondering what is the next step for them," Easley says.

Their biggest need is money. Contractors estimate it would cost at least $30,000 to rebuild Irby's foundation. Easley says then, there's everything else her mother lost in the flood.

"Now we know that we're going to replace water heater, furnaces, all that. TVs, clothes. To us that part of it is minor, that will come in time. We are not proud people. We go to Goodwill, we go to rummage sales, we go to wherever we have to replace those kind of items. But when you're talking about the concrete work, when you're talking about the foundation here, that we can't do," Easley says.

Easley says her mother lives on a fixed income and doesn't have savings to cover her losses. So right now her future hinges on whether FEMA will help pay for homeowners to recover. The city says that unless significant repairs are made, her home must be razed. Irby isn't sure what she'll do, without FEMA's assistance.

"If I could work, I would work. I worked two jobs all my life. But nobody's going to hire me. And somebody said, 'give us a loan.' Who's going to give me a loan? I don't have a job and I'm not able to work. Ain't nobody going to loan me a dime," Irby says.

Irby says she's frustrated that there is so much uncertainty, more than three weeks after the flood. And she threatens that if the house is razed, she'll stay on the porch, and go down with it. But her daughter says Irby is resilient and will make it through this difficult time.

"She prays daily, she has a very strong faith in God, and she has been reading the book of Job. And we do know that Job lost everything, but God blessed him over and over. He had more than what he lost, and so we remain prayerful, we remain faithful, and we know that all things work together for the good for those who believe in God," Easley says.