The following is a report back from our friends at West Street Recovery, who have been organizing through over three years of recovery from Hurricane Harvey and providing ongoing support to the community groups Northeast Action Collective (NAC) and Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus. Their reflections on their essential disaster preparedness and advocacy work paint a telling picture of what long-form support of communities abandoned by government aid structures and facing reoccurring disaster can look like.
Dear West Street Recovery supporters friends and family,
Happy Juneteenth! We hope that you are happy and healthy, that you are getting vaccinated and spending some time in close proximity (Yes, like actually physically in the same room) with those who you love and care for.
The first half of the year has been a period of huge growth WSR. In response to the #TexasDeepFreeze in February we reconnected over 100 families (and counting) to their water supply, and our community organizing efforts have grown leaps and bounds. As hurricane season gets underway, we know the rapid response will likely be needed again soon. And with utter sincerity, we couldn’t do it without your continued emotional, fiscal, technical and labor support.
Before June even began, storms from tropical depressions drenched Houston. The 2021 Hurricane season is predicted to be “more active than the historical average” but the late May storms that saturated the soil, and sent water flowing across streets weren’t hurricanes; they weren’t tropical storms; but they were bad. Two WSR clients had ceilings collapse and another had several inches of flood water. Luckily members of the Northeast Action Collective (NAC) and the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus sprang into action to patch the ceilings, and resilient design interventions at the flooded home protected the family from any serious impacts. While we are proud of the social infrastructure, collective care and skills we deploy with increasing frequency, we are tired of being “resilient” and we know the incredible NAC and Caucus members and their neighborhoods in NE Houston are too.
Instead of relying on the ability of residents and community groups to withstand and recover from repeated shocks, Houston needs a better disaster preparedness system. To make that possible we need to acknowledge that major storms are no longer rare events. The probabilities conveyed by the phrase “500 year flood plain” standard are outdated to the point of bordering on misinformation. Considering the current mood of relentless self congratulation and tireless climate inaction from our political and economic leaders we must prepare for the worst as autonomous organizations while simultaneously advocating for a much more fundamental shift in the way we consume energy and live our lives.
WSR has been trying to enact preparedness with our small community to both protect each other and model what real preparedness would look like. We are doing door knocking to create phone trees and spread information about how to respond during storms; installing generators for people with extreme health vulnerabilities. We have also created “Go-Bags” that will help families evacuate or shelter in place safely. (pictured below: Margarita, Doris and the rest of the disaster prep team assemble and show off the bags)
WSR has been trying to enact preparedness with our small community to both protect each other and model what real preparedness would look like. We are doing door knocking to create phone trees and spread information about how to respond during storms; installing generators for people with extreme health vulnerabilities. We have also created “Go-Bags” that will help families evacuate or shelter in place safely. (You can donate to our disaster bag effort here.)
Our disaster preparedness efforts have been demanded by our community, and have been noticed. We have been asked by both county commissioner staff and city counselors if we could get bags to more community members. It’s both flattering and deeply depressing. WSR should not be on the cutting edge of preparedness. We need to be realistic about more formal efforts. In a recent meeting Houston Office of Emergency Management met with NAC members and suggested that disabled people’s best bet for getting help was to sign up for a program called SEAR. Ben Broadway, NAC member, blind person and blindness advocate, was blunt, he has been signed up with SEAR for ten years and never received any help whatsoever. During the winter storm Houston had 800 beds with appropriate precautions ready in case of an emergency. Over two million Houstonians lost power. The utter lack of readiness is even more frustrating when you learn that according to FEMA, every dollar of Disaster Prep and natural hazard mitigation spending saves seven dollars of recovery funds. But this is not about dollars, it’s about lives.
Ultimately, even if it was heavily invested in, preparedness at the household level can only go so far. We need big infrastructure projects, both grey and green, to more effectively move water away from homes, to make sure electrical supply is safe, to make sure that people have places to shelter during storms. Sadly no level of government is delivering the needed protections. This month, from the State of Texas General Land Office ruled that it would send zero dollars, ($0.00!) of the $1.1 billion of flood mitigation money requested. These funds are key to addressing a $1.4 billion gap that has been left to complete projects from the 2018 flood bond. The GLO decision is blatantly racist and an act of procedural violence that cannot go unchecked. We are glad a fair housing complaint to HUD about the GLO is in the works; we will support it however we can. At the same time we believe that the county has also violated their own bond regulations around equity. While there is a total funding shortfall of 27%, Halls and Greens Bayou, where our clients live, and which had the most units of housing flooded during Harvey has a shortfall of 74.4%. This is not equity and the county knows it. Maybe that is why (and the NAC pressure certainly was a part of this) Harris County Flood Control director Russ Poppe resigned this past weekend. They are releasing a new plan on June 29, and we have testified every single court meeting since March hoping to push for the best possible protection for NE Houston.
We are proud of our efforts this year, and we are excited to keep building the disaster justice ecosystem in Houston and beyond. But we cannot do it alone and we need our political and cultural leadership to show much more urgency. We hope you are inspired to be part of the movement that makes that urgency happen. The time for small steps has sadly gone. The moment requires bravery, discomfort and growth. We will be there. We hope you join us.
– West Street Recovery