These days, the streets in the Onion Creek neighborhood look desolate.
Rows and rows of homes are still boarded up. But as you walk down the streets, you can see the occasional truck hauling construction materials and hear the clatter of recovery, as crews work to rebuild what was lost in the flooding over Halloween weekend last October.
While the cleanup efforts continue, and homes are rebuilt, over the holidays it was the giving spirit of strangers that really helped families get back to normal after the floods.
16 year-old Jacob Esparza lives in one of the homes being repaired. Esparza says this past holiday season – from beginning to end – was transformed by the floods.
"It's the first time I hadn't gone trick-or-treating," Esparza says.
After the flood, he and his mother moved in with relatives while his father focused on the clean-up. As a self-employed man, his dad could afford to get the time off. But, Soledad Serrato’s husband could not get the time off. Serrato says her husband works construction and has had to make repairs on their home at night and on weekends. The Serrato family moved back to a barren home just in time for Christmas.
"My son was sad because we didn't have a tree and he thought Santa wouldn't bring him anything if we didn't have a tree," Serrato says.
Serrato’s 5 year-old is the youngest of her six boys. His sadness disappeared when some total strangers came by the neighborhood and asked him what he wanted for Christmas. The next day, the strangers returned with a tree and some ornaments. That random act of kindness – along with others from the community – kept the family warm through the holidays. And it taught them to cherish their possessions more than they did before.
"Because each and every thing that we now own is thanks to the people who gave it to us, I don't even know if that family went without a tree, so that we could have one," Serrato says. "So now we have to love and care for our things even more."
As we talked, Serrato’s boys are hard at work helping their dad restore their home before they go back to school next week. One of the boys paints a bedroom. Another tapes the wall’s edges to get them ready for paint. One hauled the trash outside.
The trash has been a problem for neighbors like Diana Russell. She says right after the flood, it was common to see garbage trucks hauling the debris. But it’s been a while since they’ve been here and trash is piling up. Russell says this part of Onion Creek has been neglected for decades and the trash is bringing back familiar feelings of desolation for many residents.
"I'm just like, 'did they leave forever?'" Russell wonders aloud. Her voice lowers in frustration because – although her circle of friends and family have been generous to her family of five – she finds it hard to find her new normal rhythm of life when public services are scarce. "[I]t was nice...people did come and help, but it takes a really, really long time to do all of this," Russell trails off. "I'm kind of tired of talking about it. I just want to get my family home."
That may be soon.
Meantime, city officials say trash collection in the neighborhood is set to resume next week.