In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many comparisons have been made to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans 12 years ago. Sensational news coverage and dramatic visuals of flooding and water rescues—coupled with memories of the multi-faceted Katrina disaster and a fundamental misunderstanding of Houston’s sheer size, population, and environmental hazards—have shaped people’s reactions. With this misperception about the on-the-ground reality here, communities and individuals across the country began mobilizing people and resources, ready to pour into an imagined ghost-town disaster area in extreme crisis, a la New Orleans circa 2005.
This communication is meant to educate anyone interested in helping with autonomous relief efforts about what happened and did not happen here, as well as what is and is not needed here right now.
But first, a word about Houston…
Houston Is Fucking Enormous
The first thing to realize is just how fucking big Houston is. The City of Houston is 667 sq miles but the metropolitan area is over 10,000 sq miles—about the size of Massachusetts. Driving from Katy (a western suburb) to Channelview (on the east) is almost 50 miles. The Woodlands (up north) to League City (south of the city) is 57 miles. Other major suburbs are even farther out, and are still included in the Houston metro. To get out of what is considered “Houston,” one must get to Brookshire in the west, Huntsville in the North, Galveston to the south, and Beaumont to the east—a space spanning six large counties.
Areas of Houston are often referenced in relation to the freeway loops that form concentric circles around the city. I-610, referred to as “the loop,” is the innermost circle, 38 miles around and roughly demarcating the inner city from the more sprawly urban, suburban, and exurban areas. Inside the loop, as we say, is an increasingly desirable area to live, particularly for yuppies and millennials, and significant portions of it are rapidly gentrifying.
The next circle is Beltway 8, an 88-mile tollway that connects some of Houston’s outlying neighborhoods and inner suburbs. The outermost circle is State Hwy 99, also known as Grand Parkway, a partially completed 170-mile toll road connecting some of Houston’s intermediate suburbs.
Complicating this enormity is a deeply entrenched and fully hegemonic car culture. Our freeways are massive, our traffic jams are brutal, and our public transit is total shit. The only rail lines do not reach outside the loop, and bus routes are sparse and often don’t run more than once or twice an hour.
It’s not just Houston’s geography that is massive. Houston is the third largest city in the U.S. by population and is home to over 2 million people while the metro area has more than 6 million people. Houston is also considered one of the most—if not THE most—diverse city in the United States. There are large foreign-born and undocumented communities, and large numbers of people have thriving communities here without speaking English—some of the most common languages in Houston other than English are Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.
While cosmopolitan, the racial and class divisions in Houston are still very sharp. Houston city government has made strides towards roughly reflecting some of the demographics of the city, but county government remains overwhelmingly white, and wields considerable power in the large, unincorporated suburban areas surrounding Houston. Policing, like it is everywhere, is heavily racialized, and acts with almost unparalleled impunity in law-and-order Texas.
Terror and Repression
Houston is a law-and-order city in a law-and-order state. The Houston Police Department had overt and obvious overlap with the Klan as recently as the late 1970s. The far right has a strong presence in Houston and particularly in surrounding suburbs and rural areas. Many right-wing groups and law enforcement have seized on the racialized specter of “looter” to impose more brutal regimes of terror and control on communities of color and migrant communities.
Beginning August 30 and still in place at the time of this writing, Houston has been under a nightly curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. to help prevent “looting.” But in a city this massive, it’s impossible to impose such a curfew on the entire city. Instead, the curfew serves to give the police carte blanche to stop, harass, and arrest people in targeted communities or people they profile as being targets. Other surrounding cities have imposed more stringent curfews, some stretching from 10pm to 6am. This state of exception easily slides into a state of normalcy—even when the curfews get lifted, the atmosphere of intensified repression remains.
The mayor, sheriff, and police chief (all “left-of-center” people of color) have spoken at length about zero-tolerance for “looters” and people “exploiting” the disaster to commit crimes, criminalizing exhausted and traumatized people’s drive to meet their basic needs. The District Attorney (also a left-of-center elected official) published a memo highlighting the Texas law that provides for drastic sentencing enhancements for anyone convicted of committing any crime of theft, burglary, robbery, or assault in an area covered by a disaster declaration.
What Happened (and Didn’t Happen) Here During Hurricane Harvey
There Was No Significant Wind Damage in Houston
Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm, with windspeeds as high as 132 mph. But the storm made landfall almost 200 miles southwest of Houston near Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, and Rock Port. The storm then slowly meandered around the region (losing much of its energy and dumping record amounts of water), wandered back into the Gulf of Mexico, and made landfall a second time near the Texas-Louisiana border and the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, over 90 miles from Houston.
As a result, Houston did not sustain major wind damage. Some trees fell because of the water-saturated soil not being able to hold them, but otherwise, there is very little evidence of wind damage in Houston (roof damage, toppled phone poles, broken windows, etc.). But during Harvey’s slow journey around the Texas Gulf Coast, it dumped a record-breaking amount of rain. When you get to Houston, large parts of the city will look “normal” and will have returned to work, because flood damage is not as visible as leveled buildings and signs from wind damage. We, essentially, just got a huge, devastating, unprecedented flood.
Most of the Water Receded Within a Couple Days (Overview of Flood Infrastructure)
Houston is called the Bayou City because it is built around a network of bayous that are crucial for the city’s flood control. When it rains hard, the bayous fill up and sometimes overflow into surrounding parks and streets, which are often designed to flood. But once the rain stops, the water quickly flows out of the bayous into the Houston Ship Channel and into the Gulf.
In conjunction with the bayous, the city has two massive reservoirs on the west side of town, Barker Reservoir and Addicks Reservoir, controlled by the Army Corp of Engineers. Most of the time, the reservoirs are dry and serve as parkland. But during a heavy rain storm, they fill with water, which is later slowly released into Buffalo Bayou through a controllable dam in the levee wall. The reservoirs are bounded by levees on the east side (towards town) and along I-10, but have no levees on the west side, where suburban neighborhoods and apartment complexes are built immediately adjacent to the reservoirs.
Like most important infrastructure in this country, the levees and dams on the reservoirs have been neglected over the past decades of austerity and prioritizing spending on the military- and prison-industrial complexes. During Harvey, the reservoirs began filling to record levels, flooding the adjacent neighborhoods to the west. Fearing a breach of the levees or a failure of the dams, the Corps took the unprecedented measure of releasing water through the dams while the storm was still happening, increasing flooding along Buffalo Bayou, but saving some neighborhoods west of the reservoir.
After the rain from Harvey stopped, most of the city drained very quickly. Areas that were entirely submerged and the focus of water rescues on Tuesday were devoid of any flooding by Wednesday. The exception is the area west of the reservoirs, that must wait for the reservoirs to drain a huge amount of water to significantly lower their levels. These areas could remain flooded for weeks. In addition, areas along Buffalo Bayou remain flooded from the water being rapidly released from the levees, as the Corps tries to reduce stress on their decaying infrastructure.
What Houston Is Like Right Now
Much of the City Has the Appearance of Normalcy
Unlike much of New Orleans during Katrina, most of Houston did not evacuate last week. Many who did evacuate their houses stayed in the metro area, relocating to houses of friends or family in areas that didn’t flood. Almost all of the 6 million people who live in the metro area are still here. Of course, many tens of thousands were evacuated and placed in shelters around Houston and other parts of the state, mostly temporarily in pop-up shelters; this does not speak to the thousands of people in Port Arthur and Beaumont who have been displaced by massive flooding. Even so, the day after the rain stopped, rush hour traffic jams were back to almost normal. Many businesses have been open for days now. Roads and highways are almost all passable. Many people have returned to work and to their homes.
There Is Immense Devastation, But No Room for Disaster Porn/Tourism
This is not to say that there is not immense devastation. Apartment complexes that look fine from the outside reveal extensive damage as soon as you get inside the complex. Main thoroughfares that look normal hide the back-road trailer park that flooded. Many people hide their desperation and need behind a façade of resiliency, often distrusting of authorities and do-gooders from the outside. And many neighborhoods and blocks have been self-organizing relief efforts and mold remediation activities. In many affected areas, Red Cross, FEMA, and other government agencies or services have not been visible, regardless of what their public relations statements have been saying.
There are definitely communities here that have been and will continue to be systemically neglected. And the impacts of Harvey on these communities will likely be both long term and largely invisible. So solidarity and mutual aid are needed now and in the long term, but particularly in the long term.
If you are planning to come out to aid in autonomous relief efforts, make sure you understand this clearly: Houston is not your disaster tourist destination. We will not pose for your disaster porn. If that’s what you are expecting, we will disappoint you and not apologize.
If you are planning to come here, plan to get involved on the ground in small crews helping affected communities away from cameras and in the absence of publicity efforts indicating who you are, what you’re doing, and why. Reach out to your friends and family members in Houston and ask what they need done, and if they can host you. If you don’t have friends or family in the area, come prepared to take care of your basic needs, including, possibly, housing. With so many Houstonians displaced, it is not a guarantee that mass housing for people who are just visiting for the first time will appear. Work your networks to drum up a place to stay—or bring a tent and some mosquito spray.
Where Autonomous Relief Is Needed, and What Kinds
Many of the Hardest Hit Cities Are “Outside the Loop”
Areas in “the loop” sustained damage, and have also been the main focus of autonomous and mainstream relief efforts thus far. These neighborhoods include Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens, Trinity Gardens, Galena Park, and Denver Harbor. A large proportion of the Houston damage was outside the 610 loop, but near the Beltway, including neighborhoods such as Greenspoint, Aldine, the Tidwell/Mount Houston area, Jacinto City, Meyerland, Missouri City/Sugar Land, Katy, Cinco Ranch, the Hobby area, Stafford, and Pearland. Then there are the heavily under-served smaller towns in the Houston metro such as Pasadena, Rosenburg, Spring, League City, Webster, Hitchcock, and Dickinson. And those on the Houston Ship Channel—which suffered a one-two punch of flooding and heavier-than-normal pollution from refineries and superfund sites—such as Baytown, Channelview, LaPorte, and Seabrook. The storm hit 1/5 of Texas (and have we said that Texas is fucking enormous?). We have just listed some of Houston’s affected neighborhoods.
We mention these names not to overwhelm you, but to stress that help is needed all over town, and not just in the neighborhoods that early autonomous relief efforts are in. When you come to town, think about what you’re here to do: Design? Medical aide? Trauma counseling? House mucking? Childcare? We need lots of help, but please come with humility and the understanding of the enormity of what’s happening, and all that Houstonians have done to self-organize for our own survival.
Areas outside of Houston also need a lot of relief, and coordinating those efforts out of Houston don’t make a lot of sense due to how far away they are. These areas include:
Beaumont and Port Arthur (hours east of Houston)
Corpus Cristi and Rockport (Southeastern Texas coastline)
If you’re not coming to town and just trying to send money, that is also needed! Consider sending some of it to these smaller towns that took the brunt of the violent landfall from Harvey.
If you’re trying to send money to autonomous relief efforts in Houston, two funds to consider are:
West Street Recovery: http://www.gofundme.com/west-st-response-team
Greater Houston Autonomous Relief: http://www.gofundme.com/greater-houston-autonomous-relief
What Relief Is Not Needed
Kayak rescues—Houston is drained and Beaumont still needs boats
Savior complexes or Manarchist heroes rushing in
Clothing (in mass amounts)
What Relief Is Needed
Physical labor to gut houses
Durable household goods for people who lost their possessions in the flood (furniture, bedding, towels, etc.)
Hot meals and grocery drops
Money—a lot of people lost cars that can’t be fixed. Rent is due. Sometimes you just want to pick what you get at the grocery store. Trust Houstonians to use the money to meet our needs.
Cleaning supplies (bleach, buckets, rubber gloves, respirators, etc.)
Demolition tools and supplies (crowbars, hammers, work gloves, work boots, etc.)
Groceries, diapers, baby food/formula, etc. delivered to the neighborhoods where people need it the most
Trucks—the bigger the better
A lot of humility and patience
Understanding that the situation is changing continually, as are our needs and the requests for solidarity and mutual aid that we’ll be making
How to Connect With Autonomous Relief Efforts
If you have connections to the Houston area (e.g., friends, family), we recommend that you reach out to them to see what is needed in their neighborhoods. If you are coming into town without those connections, good starting points are: Houston Autonomous Fund, Houston Mutual Aid Relief, and West Street Recovery.
These groups have been connecting with other Houston- or Texas-based groups (notably Black Women’s Defense League, Tejas Barrios, Houston Anarchist Black Cross, West Street Relief, Food not Bombs, Bayou Action Street Medics, and World on My Shoulders), as well as individual radicals and affinity groups who have already started coming to town, to organize relief efforts in the communities that are being systematically ignored by the State.
If you come to town to assist with relief efforts, be prepared to provide for your own food and housing, as there may not be reliable convergence spaces like many people might expect there to be.
Revolutionary Disaster Relief in the Age of Austerity
The question many of us in Houston are asking is how do we, as radicals and revolutionaries, engage with disaster relief in ways that are empowering to impacted communities, that are anti-colonial, and that build autonomy?
After Hurricane Katrina, the follow-up to the State’s abject failure to respond at all for several days was the State’s desperate attempt to control all the disaster relief efforts. There was a prevailing wisdom within FEMA and other official channels that relief had to be centralized, controlled, bureaucratic, and top down. In that context, decentralized, non-hierarchical, grassroots relief was an inherent threat to the legitimacy of the State and its corporate and NGO partners.
But the terrain has shifted. Corporate social media has co-opted many of the radical tendencies and threads that our movements created with Indymedia and open publishing. The “sharing” economy has co-opted aspects of informal labor/exchange economies.
And austerity seems poised to co-opt our efforts at decentralized grassroots disaster relief.
As Harvey rained destruction on southeast Texas, politicians and bureaucrats across the region were not actively trying to monopolize relief. To the contrary, they were welcoming anyone with a boat, anyone with supplies, saying quite literally that “you don’t need to fill out an application or get permission, just go do it.” It’s easy to read this as just one aspect of Texas’ libertarian “git ‘er done” culture, of professed “small-government” conservatives actually taking a break from policing every aspect of our lives. But it’s also a reflection of our new austerity governance—a way for the State to outsource and privatize what used to be one of its core functions with the open enthusiasm of the governed.
This is not to say we should be demanding that the State re-assert control over disaster relief, but to pose the question: If our decentralized disaster relief is no longer inherently threatening to the State’s legitimacy, how do we push our struggle further? How do we do more than replicate the non-profit, conservative service models of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or Boy Scouts?
For our comrades planning on coming to Houston, we ask that you consider this question as you figure out how to provide concrete, on-the-ground solidarity and mutual aid with the people and communities you build relationships with. This is the aftermath of Harvey: it is spread out, it is largely invisible now that the waters have mostly receded, and being in solidarity with the most affected communities will be a long-term endeavor.
Further Reading to Understand Houston and Its Flooding:
Building a Solidarity Network in Houston http://unityandstruggle.org/2013/06/10/building-a-solidarity-network-in-houston/
Boom Town, Flood Town https://www.texastribune.org/boomtown-floodtown/
Hell and High Water https://projects.propublica.org/houston/
Houston Dams Are Old, Beat Up, and a Vital Line of Defense http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Houston-dams-are-old-beat-up-and-a-vital-line-of-9199908.php
For Years, Houston has been Losing Ground http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/For-years-the-Houston-area-has-been-losing-ground-7951625.php
Why Houston Didn’t Evacuate http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/28/546721363/why-didn-t-officials-order-the-evacuation-of-houston
Guide to Houston During Harvey https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PRMsQJKlXfksMx4Dpy-yb8jIJHTFxxHqsfkNrD9yZgg/edit
Local / autonomous groups that are collecting money for direct aid
Introduction to Mucking Houses (from New Orleans Common Ground 2006) https://organizingforpower.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/house-gutting-manual.pdf