The Barbie house is gone, and it’s important for Matilda Rose Brown, 8, to explain this.
Her voice is a little raspy through her tracheostomy tube and her eyes are wide with a dreamy look as she walks through the skeleton of her Friendswood home, which flooded during Hurricane Harvey and took the Barbie house away.
The Browns’ house got 53 inches of floodwater, her father, Daniel Brown, said.
Daniel and Beverly Brown evacuated their six special-needs children from their home near Mary’s Creek on the Wednesday before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. As soon as they heard about the potential for catastrophic floods, they packed their children and their medical equipment and left.
“We’re the first to leave and last to come back,” Beverly Brown said. “There’s too many things that could possibly go wrong.”
Geronimo Brown, 8, lifts his shirt to show two tubes in his abdomen.
“This is where I do my flush every night,” he said as looked at his belly.
When the Browns bought their home on Shady Oaks Lane, it was in a non-flood zone. Their insurance carrier told them in August, just days before Harvey hit, that a new flood zone map changed their status along with a new hefty payment due. They paid it days before Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport.
The six children need constant attention. Five are on ventilators and feeding tubes during the night, and the family typically has five to six nurses who stay overnight, Beverly Brown said.
“We have to have electricity and running water,” Daniel Brown said. “They could get more sick if we don’t.”
The Browns evacuated to the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma where Beverly Brown grew up. Her tribe got the family a hotel room and sent food. They helped all the children get their prescriptions filled, even though the adopted children aren’t Choctaws. They are several different races.
The children needed to come back home, though, to see their regular doctors and therapists, Beverly Brown said.
The Browns are now staying with relatives in Deer Park, but space is cramped. The Browns are not sure when or if they will be able to move back into the Shady Oaks Lane house.
Several houses on their block have “for sale” signs in the pocked front yards.
BUILT ON A DRAIN
Daniel Brown, who is a member of the Cocopah tribe in California, adapted the two-story home to fit his family’s unusual needs. The Browns needed a space for nurses, outlets for medical equipment and strategically placed toilets.
“This is the only home they’ve known,” Daniel Brown said. “It’s looking more and more like this isn’t going to work.”
That’s because if he has to repair more than 50 percent of the house, building codes will require him to raise the house, he said. Combined with all the other needed repairs, he’s looking at spending more than $350,000, he said. Because the Browns had insurance, they won’t be getting any Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. They also never got any assistance from the American Red Cross, he said.
It probably makes more sense not to move back because the house could flood again, Daniel Brown said.
“We’re built on a drain,” he said. “Friendswood is a bathtub, and you are built on a drain.”
Even if their insurance pays their mortgage value, the Browns will lose equity.
“We don’t want to walk away,” Daniel Brown said. “We don’t want to ruin our credit. And we agree, it’s not safe to stay here. I don’t want to go through this again.”
Along with the furniture, the drywall, the carpet and the Barbie house, the Browns also lost their children’s school. The family home-schools, and the flood swept away all the textbooks, workbooks and records, Beverly Brown said.
Daniel and Beverly Brown adopted the six children after fostering them first.
None of the children have one single medical condition; they all have myriad conditions, Beverly Brown said.
Cesar, 12, was the first special-needs child the Browns took in when he was 16 months old. He was born prematurely, at just 23 weeks. He weighed only 12 ounces.
He was dependent on a ventilator and was abandoned. Until the Browns took him home, he had never been outside the hospital.
After Cesar, the Browns adopted Rudy, who is now 12. Then they adopted Xander, now 11. Next came Liliah, 10, and then Matilda, 8. Next came Geronimo, 8.
When Daniel and Beverly Brown were dating, she talked about adopting babies with serious medical problems who were abandoned at hospitals.
“When I was finishing nursing school, they were putting a name on AIDS then,” Beverly Brown said. “People would leave HIV babies in the hospital. I wanted a home to take them to.”
The Browns got married, had their own baby, who is now an adult, and worked at their jobs, Beverly as a nurse and Daniel as a contractor.
In 2006, they decided it was time to take in an abandoned baby in need.
“We had done a lot of things we wanted to do by then,” Beverly Brown said.
They started out as foster parents.
“We don’t make good foster parents,” Beverly Brown said. “We just adopt them. It’s hard to take a child in your home, love them like they are yours and then let them go.”
But the Browns did foster a special-needs baby once to help the mother.
“That is the goal, to reunite families,” she said.
But their calling is to get the children with no families to go back to.
“Nobody else would step up,” Daniel Brown said. “And they turn out to be the most needy, most medically fragile children. For a lot of people, it’s too hard. We waited and we picked the hardest ones.”
PUSH, PUSH, PUSH
When they became foster parents, they got a license as an intense-level home to care for special needs children. It’s not just the medical attention these children need, Beverly Brown said. Unmet emotional needs — such as love — contribute to a failure to thrive.
“Nurses don’t have time to touch them and cuddle them,” she said. “If no one is fighting for them, they just languish in hospitals or nursing homes.”
The early years with Cesar, Rudy and Xander were hard and exhausting.
“I’d show you pictures, but all our pictures are gone,” Beverly Brown said.
The Browns are teaching their children to understand their medical issues and to face adversity.
“Our goal is to push self-care,” Beverly Brown said. “Understand why you had a tracheotomy. If they are going to have these conditions, they have to know how to take care of themselves. I push, push, push for independence.”
One of her house rules is that everyone has to be able to walk by 3 if it’s possible, she said. Another is not to sugarcoat things.
“We don’t lie to them,” she said. “We’re honest. That’s the easiest way. We help them to be strong enough to process truth. That’s what life is about.”