Empire Files: After Hurricane Harvey, Abandoned Community Takes Charge
Abby Martin travels to Houston one month after Hurricane Harvey, long after the cameras left, and reveals the untold stories of how, while abandoned by the state, the community banded together to save lives and rebuild their homes
ABBY MARTIN: One month ago, Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston, Texas with an intensity scientists say is a one in 1,000-year event. It destroyed nearly 17,000 homes, and damaged almost 160,000. A shocking 82 people lost their lives. Predictably, the corporate media was on the ground to bring mostly unwanted scenes of human suffering.
Speaker 2: Ya’ll trying to interview people during their worst times. That’s not the smartest thing to do.
CNN Reporter: I’m so sorry-
Speaker 2: You really trying to understand it with the microphone still in my face.
CNN Reporter: Sorry.
Speaker 2: With me shivering cold, and my kids wet, and you still putting the microphone in my face.
CNN Reporter: Sorry.
ABBY MARTIN: But almost as quickly as it came, Harvey was out of the news, a thing of the past.
One month later, long after the cameras left, I wanted to see the state of Houston, and how its people have recovered. With so many unprecedentedly strong hurricanes hitting the United States, Houston is much bigger than just a city getting back on its feet. It’s a microcosm of the U.S. empire’s ability — and willingness — to deal with natural disasters.
Immediately I saw that Houston was not only far from help, but entire neighborhoods remain in ruins with no sign of local or federal government doing anything whatsoever. I spent two days in one of these neighborhoods.
We’re here in the Lake Forest Park neighborhood of Houston. This was one of the hardest hit and most neglected communities in the entire city. As you can see, residents here lost virtually everything, and over a month later, they’re still in dire need of help.
Venus, talk about what happened when Hurricane Harvey hit.
VENUS: Well, 3 o’clock in the morning I saw the water coming under my floorboards and I told my mom, “It’s time to go.” Water was rising so high. It was horrifying to go outside, reach my car, water at my hip level, and make it outside my gate, water at my chest level.
I had my mom, my son … My 24-year-old was with me at the time. But not knowing what was in that water, because it was night time, and then they telling us not to evacuate, it was horrible.
ABBY MARTIN: They told you not to evacuate?
VENUS: Yes, they told us not to evacuate. They told us to stay in our homes. If the water started rising any higher to maybe get on our roof, but if we going to the attic, carry a hatchet with us, just in case we had to knock ourselves out.
ABEL FABIAN: We were asleep, we don’t know that was going to happen until I feel something wet in my bed, and I thought, “Did I pee while I was sleeping?” And I told my wife, “Look, look.” And my son started yelling, “Hey, we getting flood.”
So, from there on, I woke up like crazy and start doing something, and then I saw everything floating in the house. The water was about the waist. It was horrifying, because I got kids, and my wife doesn’t know how to swim.
So, what I start doing, first thing I went to my paper cabinets, and start getting all important papers that I can, and put it in a trash bag. And all I can do, because in here it was so deep already, so I just thinking, “Go to the attic.”
ABBY MARTIN: Fabian’s son, Jefferson, took harrowing video of the flooding while they were trapped in the attic.
JEFFERSON FABIAN: My dad bought that thing. Look at the neighbor’s house.
ABBY MARTIN: He showed me the pot of food they’d taken to survive, which they had to live on for days.
ABEL FABIAN: From there on, we stayed there for three days. But the horrifying thing is, I see the water goes up and up and up. It was rising, it was rising, and rising.
My wife was crying, and my daughter and my kids were calling 911 every hour, and to stay in the front floor two or three hours waiting for somebody to pick up the phone, but nobody did. And we got lucky, they said, “We are around the corner, where you are?” I said, “This place.” They were lying, because they never show up.
ABBY MARTIN: Wayland, tell us about the day of Harvey, because your neighbor was just telling us that it didn’t take days, it took hours.
WAYLAND: It took hours. Man, I woke up three, four in the morning, splashing my hand in the water. My dad get us up, we wake up, come outside. For the water to be in our house — if ya’ll can look at the area — for it to be on the floor in the street, it’s already to your stomach.
ABBY MARTIN: Oh, my God.
WAYLAND: You know what I’m saying? And that’s at three, four in the morning. That’s crazy, because you would think the government and the state or whatever would have preemptive thinking to know, “Well, this is going to be bad. Let’s mandatory evacuate now while we can”, or something like automatic, but they don’t. Even when the water stop raining hard, it was still coming up. And these was the times when they opened the flood gates.
ABBY MARTIN: I heard that they flooded — on purpose — some levees. I mean did they warn you that that was going to happen?
JOSHUA: No, ma’am. Not at all. Like I say, we watched the news through the whole process, even as it was flooding our side and raining. We was still watching the news, just trying to see what’s going on. What’s the next step, what to do? At no time was they saying, “Evacuate.” At no time was they saying, “We gonna open levees. You might have to evacuate.” It wasn’t anything of the sort. It was just, “Help yourself.”
At that moment, we was in the midst of, I’m trying to tell my people to leave, and they trying to see what the news have to say. Because they supposed to know it all or tell it all. So I got them out, and in the midst of us talking, it was maybe five or 10 minutes had passed. The water have risen from a feet or two, so it was waist-level already.
When I got them on the boat, my girlfriend — she’s like 5’5″, something like that — it was pretty much all the way … Yes. It was there already.
ABBY MARTIN: So, once they flooded that, it-
JOSHUA: Once the levees or whatever they opened opened, it was a instant thing. The whole neighborhood just …
WAYLAND: They do this to prevent certain areas from getting-
ABBY MARTIN: Certain areas?
WAYLAND: Certain areas. Because this is the lower-income area, so when anything happens, first places they open the gates is for these areas, closest to the bayous, which all these low-income areas ride the bayou. You hear me? They know this, they just don’t think the people know.
ABEL FABIAN: I was scared that the house getting fire, because I don’t know why the power company never cut the power off from the neighborhood.
ABBY MARTIN: So one of the huge fears that residents had, aside from the flooding, were electrical fires just like the house behind me. This is one of several houses that was actually burned down because of the failure of the power company to shut off the electricity during the flood.
ABEL FABIAN: Fortunately, my brother-in-law were coming from Louisiana and he brought his boat here.
ABBY MARTIN: So your brother, coming from Louisiana, came quicker than local authorities came to help you.
ABEL FABIAN: The local authorities never show up. Unfortunately. And he did. He take us out of here. My brother-in-law did get the boat to another people, and we walk with the water up to the chest to another main road, which is called Wayside. It’s about probably five miles from here.
So, we walk on that with the water up to the chest. It was bad, because it was raining, water was cold, and infected, and smelly, and it was horrible.
This is a street sign and the water was up to the half of the top one that says Lake Forest. Right on top, right there in the middle.
WAYLAND: When we was all moving, helping each other get out of here — because people that had been here last time — we knew. Last time we stayed on the roof for three days. So, this time, just got our neighbors, got the babies, the kids … Because they all unexpecting, not knowing what’s going on. They sitting in the cars and sitting on top of the house waiting for ambulance or waiting, and they not gonna come.
We didn’t see any officials till three days later after the initial day Harvey struck. At this time, we all up there in our parking lots, and they passing by with vests on and everything, not one citizen in there. We got old people sitting up there that’s really need they machines and stuff like that. They need to get out of here. We like, “Come get the old people.” “We coming back.” And they didn’t.
ABEL FABIAN: While I was walking with my family on the main road back there with the water up to my chest, I saw a few rescuers from I think it was Salvation Army or something. There were seven people in each boat drinking coffee, and I thought they was gonna come and rescue, tell us, “Hey, jump in.” No, they say, “Keep on going. You’re almost there.” Almost where?
And I know the area, because I live here. I say, “To where? Almost there to where?” Because it’s nothing back there. And they just tell us, “Keep walking.” And they were drinking hot coffee in the boats, like if they were fishing or hunting or something.
ABBY MARTIN: And this is prone to flooding, right?
WAYLAND: This is a known flooding area, and this is something that it’s so crazy how, when everything happened, you seen no police, no ambulance, and there’s a police station right there and a fire station right there. It’s just unheard of to not get help when it’s going down. It’s crazy.
ABEL FABIAN: We take some people to the fire department place right on [inaudible 00:10:31], and I was amazed. My jaw almost dropped to the floor, because they tell us, “No, no, no, no, no. We can’t take these people here.” Then we ask, “Hey, can we use one of your boats here?” “Well, no, they don’t have gas. We don’t have gas for the boats. You can have them. You can use them. We can go and get you family.”
ABBY MARTIN: While the corporate media followed around government rescue teams, the reality of total neglect for entire neighborhoods was invisible. When these abandoned communities did receive media coverage, it was of so-called looting. Yet I found a different story – one of heroism, selflessness, and community.
JOSHUA: I went out and I found a guy I know from the neighborhood. I do hunting and fishing. So, he was rescuing different people from the community in one of his own personal boats. I witness him doing it, I spotted him, and he recognized me and he came back up the road to rescue my people.
When I got them out, I locked the house up, got everything secured, and I stayed around because I’m a little taller. I helped some of my neighbors across the street. I don’t know if you can see the walker in the fronts, or … Some of them, they older. They can’t walk, they can’t swim, they had different surgeries and things. So I just stayed back helping with them and different people with kids. People that were shorter than I couldn’t walk out on their own.
Pretty much, that’s the story. We really didn’t have a lot of rescue efforts from the police officers. I’m not trying to bad mouth or put a ‘x’ on anyone, but our community helped our community.
ABBY MARTIN: Right.
JOSHUA: Everyone that had a raft, a lifeboat, jacket, anything they can float, they brought it out and helped and assist with other people’s rescues. And that’s pretty much 90% of my neighborhood got rescued by my neighborhood.
WAYLAND: In the flood, I see it amazing for my people from my next door neighbor, brother Martinez next door, he had a boat. Everybody from all the way around this circle, they was this place stuck on their roof. That man came back, took ’em from here to where the street started going down. And that’s the farthest they can take people.
I was walking people through a path through backyards to meet them up over there to go get up there to the front and to shelter to get everybody out the water.
ABBY MARTIN: Since surviving the flood, they told me how their lives have changed.
JOSHUA: Far as this go, this is pretty much everything we used to own. What we called our home, everything is out here, now, on the pile. Everything we worked for for a lifetime was destroyed in a matter of hours.
As we step into the home — watch your step, Ms. Abby — this where all the floors have been stripped. It was hardwood flooring. It all had to be stripped.
This is the first room that the water rushed in. I guess the water pressure was so much in this room it shifted the whole wall. What can you actually take in a time like this?
I can’t imagine a person going through a fire, or something like that, because it’s like, you want everything in your home, but you have to grab what you can grab and go. All appliances, all clothing, all…everything is just gone, it’s just trashed. We can only grab important documents, maybe jewelry, and important things like that.
ABBY MARTIN: Or family photos …
JOSHUA: Family photos, everything is gone. Like I say, I just lost my father two years ago and all that is gone. I lost all that. Everything is completely stripped and broke down. You can’t stay in here right now.
ABBY MARTIN: No, you can’t.
JOSHUA: This is what we have left of a restroom. We still have power, because you still have to pay the bills. They still coming. So we still have to pay those. Can you get ready like this for work in the morning? Or to do anything just to get back to society and life? You can’t live like this.
ABBY MARTIN: No, you can’t.
JOSHUA: And we not getting any help.
VENUS: When I returned home, I was scared. I cried. I cried, because everything that we had is gone. We had to start all over from scratch, and that’s memories from when my kids were babies. Everything is gone.
A lot of people don’t want to face that, but sooner or later, they gonna have to come and face reality. And this is our reality.
ABEL FABIAN: I have four cars under the water and I say, “What I gonna do? I lost everything.” Even my underwears. Everything. You name it, it’s gone. I’m struggling right now just to get our cars to go to work. I don’t have a job right now for those reasons. I lost my job.
ABBY MARTIN: While FEMA was nowhere to be found during the days of flooding, one month later, help from the agency is just as illusive.
WAYLAND: What they doing is not helping right now. People still waiting on FEMA. Can’t get to work, you losing your job, you losing your house, and it’s crazy, because I been hearing how people in the richer areas already getting checks from FEMA. And over here, we still pending. Still waiting.
VENUS: I applied for FEMA. I’m still pending, but what can $400 do? $400 can’t move me in a house. I have to pay for a room because I didn’t get lodging with FEMA. So I have to pay for my room and board.
JOSHUA: I heard about them offering different rooms. $500, $400. We didn’t receive any of that. Even far as the Red Cross, the $400 they was giving to help people get back together, I can show you on my phone where I didn’t even qualify. I’m like, “If you don’t qualify after losing everything you own, what do it take to qualify?”
ABBY MARTIN: You’re not qualified?
JOSHUA: Not qualified. Yes, ma’am. I don’t even … They say you can go and appeal it or something. As you can see, it’s really nowhere that say to appeal. Nowhere-
ABBY MARTIN: Why? Why were you not qualified? It doesn’t say.
JOSHUA: It don’t even give you an appeal option, and it don’t even say why I’m not qualified.
ABEL FABIAN: Red Cross offer $400 for help, and guess what? This morning, they send an e-mail that I don’t qualify for that help.
ABBY MARTIN: Why?
ABEL FABIAN: They don’t tell you why. They just say, “You don’t qualify.” I wonder what I have to be in order to be qualifying for that help. FEMA saying they’re helping, help … I don’t know who they help, but they’re not helping this community, here. None of us have nothing from FEMA. It’s sad. It’s sad that they prefer to send $10 million to some other countries for war or whatever, but not even a penny over here. I call FEMA and they say, “Well, we assign a supervisor.” But I haven’t heard from the supervisors. That was two weeks ago.
WAYLAND: We gotta do something, because what ya’ll gonna say … We know it’s gonna happen again. Do you see ditches over here? Do ya’ll see ditches? Ain’t no ditches. One ditch down one street. Come on, man.
Do they do the richer neighborhoods like this? No, they got ditches on every street. They got retention ponds for any house that’s bigger than … Come on, man. It’s something that can be done. It’s just not being done because I guess they don’t see them exerting the money to this low-income area or something.
ABBY MARTIN: Why do you think that no one’s come here? Especially after Veronica wrote Channel 13 and all these people. Why do you think that they haven’t come?
JOSHUA: Because I really think the area or the neighborhood is really frowned on. I don’t know if it’s stereotype or whatever about the situations that’s going on, because I know I heard a lot about the looting and things like that.
You see my home, you see where I’m at. The water was 20 feet or better at every canal, bayoued up to get out of here. There was no way for us to even get out of here. We barely got out of here with our life. We didn’t have time to try to take anything from nobody else. We barely was able to grab the items that we wanted for ourself, and even those people that were stealing for whatever reason they was, they probably was just trying to help they family.
ABBY MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.
But, like during the hurricane, the community has stood up in place of government failure. Wayland, Venus and Fabian have been staffing a table every day to distribute supplies and donations, and they’re going door to door to inform people of tenants’ rights and help with cleanup efforts.
WAYLAND: Now, me and my group, we been out here every day helping houses, helping people. Every day we out here, we got families and small little churches come and giving food every day, or water every day. And out of these … What, it been a month, now? I seen the army come twice. They come through and they come give you a couple bottles of water or come give you one pack of MREs and one case of water. Man, people been coming giving us … I got a garage of water from all the love from people coming every day to make sure we got what we need. And if they can do it, you can’t tell me ya’ll can’t do it.
The most beautiful part about it is how the community came together to save ourselves. That’s what I call the little neighborhood movement we doing. It’s so we save ourselves. That’s what we been trying to do, save everybody that can need help. Anybody they can’t do it on their own right now, we trying to help.
VENUS: I came back to my neighborhood to volunteer alongside my brother, Edwardo, and Waylo, so that we can at least try to get something going on in the community, and that’s what we’re doing.
ABBY MARTIN: You mentioned that this Bobcat, right here, this is a volunteer?
ABEL FABIAN: Volunteer people are amazing. They are being helping me tear down the walls, to clean the house. The world see this country as one of the first-class country that take care of some other countries first, but look how we are right now. It’s worse than we are in a war. I don’t see one police car around, I don’t see no fire departments, I don’t see FEMA. I don’t see none of them.
It’s sad, because if we don’t have these volunteer with good heart, we probably don’t have nothing to eat. Because they bring to us every day water, sandwiches, whatever they can. But all this is from volunteers, not from the government.
ABBY MARTIN: While these stories of resilience and self-organizing were inspiring, Lake Wood and many other neighborhoods are still in dire need of help.
VENUS: 77078 is the zip code that need it, because it didn’t go to this house and miss this house, and go to this house and miss this house. Every house in this community was hit and hurt. Everybody, literally. The whole neighborhood is just gone.
ABEL FABIAN: This is 77078 zip code. Put attention. 77078.
WAYLAND: I know it’s a lot of stuff going on, but we one of the most advanced nations on this planet. Can’t tell me we can’t do something to take care of our people in a more, faster manner. I just want us as Americans, us as Houstans, people from right here from this 77078 area code, to be aware of what they doing to us. They want us to … Our value of life is not as valuable as we think. That’s what I see.
ABBY MARTIN: And as my investigation found, the failure to address the urgent needs of my friends in Lake Wood by a local, state, and federal government puppeted by big oil has much bigger implications of certain disaster in the near future in countless similar cities across the country.