Empire Files: After Hurricane Harvey, Abandoned Community Takes Charge
After a flurry of media attention, the devastation in Houston, Texas from Hurricane Harvey faded from public view. But after unprecedented floods and widespread destruction, the story is far from over. In Part 1 of her investigation, Abby Martin travels to Houston one month later. Watch more on teleSUR
DONALD TRUMP: We love you. You are special. We’re here to take care. It’s going well and I want to thank you for coming out. Thank you, everybody, what a crowd, what a turnout. I will tell you this is historic, it’s epic, what happened but you know what it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything.
ABBY MARTIN: Trump famously bragged about his crowd size while touring disaster struck Houston and gave himself an A plus for the government’s response to Hurricane Harvey.
But when I was in Houston one month after the historic storm, I saw entire neighborhoods where people were living in gutted-out, moldy homes. Residents who I spoke to told me that they were denied all aid despite Congress authorizing 15 billion dollars for Harvey victims.
So how is the void filled when these relief institutions are clearly failing millions of Texans? With volunteers, thousands of them who spontaneously came to help. To learn more, I sat down with Scott Crow, anarchist co-founder of the Common Ground Collective.
Let’s talk about Hurricane Harvey. We’re in Houston right now, what are the some of the actions that decentralized groups have done with disaster relief here in the aftermath of the hurricane?
SCOTT CROW: Well, basically rebuilding civil society from the search and rescue in the immediate aftermath, even getting ready before that and then moving to the rebuilding phases. So, you had a disaster response and then you moved to the rebuilding.
People have been at all levels. They’ve been running clinics, they’ve been doing food distribution. The basic things to help people get a leg back up again. Then additionally one of the things I’ve been doing is they’ve been using the solidarity networks that have been built around the country after Hurricane Katrina, so a lot of supplies and people and resources have been coming in to help those who have been kind of forgotten about in the larger equation.
ABBY MARTIN: People who may be hearing this may be confused about how it actually works to have decentralized efforts actually coordinating and distributing things. I mean, just talk more specifically about how it actually works on the ground.
SCOTT CROW: Well, there’s two models: there’s the Red Cross giant corporate, nonprofit model, which the Red Cross specifically actually acts as an arm of the United States government. A lot of times it has to do with immediate aid and then it’s followed by getting businesses back up and running. So, their triage is actually to get business back up and running again, that’s the main thing. That’s one model. Then the other one is the decentralized model, which actually what people do instead of relying on them for authority or governments on authority to do that, they actually go to the communities and start to ask them. What is it that you need? Or they can see what the need is on the ground. Because of social media, they can see where efforts are needed and they just go and begin to distribute relief or to provide medical attention or food security, whatever is needed at that time.
Centralized efforts are not there to bolster the corporate model or the state model, they’re actually there to build autonomy and resilience for those people who are affected by it in those communities. Whether it’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood or it’s whole communities so they can build their power.
It’s a different mindset actually that comes to it, where it’s not just you come in and you say, “I am greater than you and I’m going to save you,” it’s, “Oh, my gosh, I see this is happening, we want to help you and we have these resources. Let’s work together to build your life.” That’s a totally different mindset than somebody says, “We have all these resources, you’re going to do exactly what we say.”
ABBY MARTIN: To see how this works, I met with one group who came from out of state. Natalie and Michael have been driving around Houston in this van doing direct action in the hardest hit communities. I met them in a Lakewood parking lot and spent the day with them distributing supplies they collected.
So, Natalie, how did you and Michael come together and form this autonomous group?
NATALIE: Well, Michael and I have been friends on just Facebook. We found each other just through different groups that we had in common. My friends and family I just see them on Facebook, as this thing is unfolding, showing us videos and just talking about what they’re experiencing. Flooding and just everything, they’re just losing everything right in front of us.
And so a girlfriend of mine that’s also from here but we were messaging, we were, yeah, we need to do this. Let’s get together, let’s start a group, let’s do a fundraiser, let’s try to organize supplies and everything just kind of fell into place after that.
MICHAEL: So, people have been actually donating to just different various small grassroots organizations and groups and people have been donating and I’m talking about thousands of dollars. I remember one day we woke up and we were coming here, hauling ass, we have an RV that is inverted because it’s so heavy and packed with shit that people have already donated because, what we call scribe, write on the windows what we’re doing.
People are walking up to the car, here’s $50, $5, a $100 and we’re just, oh my God. People really did come out for this. And I’m not going to bash, I’m not to sit here and bash the service sector, so-called service sector. I’m just going to say the people were called upon this time and the people responded. And the people are not getting paid to.
ABBY MARTIN: I asked Natalie what we were on our way to do.
NATALIE: We picked up just some basic stuff, we’re going to go out there and see if people need water, socks, just some basic things and also find out who might need what and what other needs that they might have.
We don’t want to just see this city be rebuilt. We don’t want to see things just go back to square one, we want to see the people who were in need even before this devastation that they also get help. It’s not okay that we have a lot of empty homes and people living on the street.
MICHAEL: Nobody’s coming out to tell them. I’m walking up to random people who are outside of their homes, I’m, “Has anybody told you when you guys are going to have regular trash pickup? When are you going to have regular trash pickup? Have they told you when you’re going to have people come in for your walls,” these are apartment complexes. And they say, “We haven’t been told anything,” and this is a week after the floods receded and stuff like that.
When we talk to the families, they don’t know what’s going on so they don’t even know what to do with themselves. And they’re huddled in their homes and they have no power and they’re in need of mattresses, these are some of the things I’ve heard, mattresses, diapers, which we’ve been giving out a lot of this stuff.
ABBY MARTIN: So, what happens if you lose your home? You’re living in this neighborhood, you lose your home, you’re probably, if you’re living here maybe undocumented, or an immigrant, or a minority community, what assistance did they have? What steps can you take to get any sort of-
NATALIE: I don’t think anybody is sure other than trying to link up with an individual or a group that’s established themselves through this whole thing because the majority of the people that are out here are just people.
ABBY MARTIN: On the outskirts of Houston I visited the Altruist Relief Kitchen, another traveling group that provides basic necessities to people in emergency situations.
Lucid, tell us about the community, how you guys got together and why you’re here in Houston?
LUCID: So, Altruist Relief Kitchen is a grassroots field kitchen providing emergency free hot meals to people affected by the hurricane. So, we’re kind of responding to this environmental chaos that’s being put forth by these terrible policies and we’re cleaning up some of the symptoms on the side.
ABBY MARTIN: How does it work? How do different people come together and actually distribute food en masse like this?
LUCID: Well, we’re actually from all over the country. Each one of us is probably from a different state and we just come together. We’ve been traveling around for a few years some of us.
I was in Syrian refugee camps just earlier this year with my girlfriend and we responded to Standing Rock. We were responding to other floods last year, so wherever there seems to be a need for activism, for awareness, for just grassroots serving of meals, we just try to show up.
ABBY MARTIN: How long have you guys been here, how long are you planning to stay here?
LUCID: So, we’ve been bouncing around. We’ve been set up in this new location for about a week but we’ve been feeding here for about three weeks in Houston. But we’re planning to stay as long as the resources and the need is here so it could be months while people are rebuilding their communities because a lot of the people here don’t have the financial resources to rebuild quickly and so by alleviating that financial burden of meals, we’re able to kind of reduce that stress for them.
ABBY MARTIN: Millions of Americans would look at you guys and say you’re crazy. People should just work harder to feed themselves. Food is not a human right, health is not a human right. What’s your response to those people?
LUCID: Oh, man. Well, the way that this society has been set up it’s like a global civilization that’s parasitizing the poorest people and the ecosystem to create this monstrosity, this death machine. And the people that fall through the cracks, the people that are either born into poverty or that don’t have the way of getting proper documentation, they’re holding this thing up through essentially slavery and they’re the ones that are neglected in the social programs that this global civilization is putting out anyway.
So, it’s easy to forget about the people born into abject poverty because you can stay on the highways and avoid them but the majority of this planet is the people that are born into slavery that are maintaining the illusion of stability within civilization and so we’re addressing that need by going directly to the poorest places.
ABBY MARTIN: And still you’ve dedicated your life, so many of you guys have dedicated your life to doing this. Why? Why are you doing this when you could be traveling around world, going on vacation, why do this, Lucid?
LUCID: Well, there’s one aspect here where we’re providing free hot meals for people, we’re trying to alleviate that financial burden. But there’s this other aspect where we are showing, we’re creating this demonstration of how to be beneficial.
We are motivating people to want to be beneficial and to want to engage in this global civilization and create positive change. But then we’re trying to provide some sort of a concrete mechanism for them to go about that. It’s more than just providing meals temporarily in this place, we’re trying to show that it’s possible for individual people with very little resources to engage in such a way that you really can create lasting change.
ABBY MARTIN: I also spoke to Niecee of the Dallas-based Black Women’s Defense League, an organization that assists underserved communities of color, particularly Black and trans women. I first asked Niecee what barriers she’s encountered that prevents people from getting aid.
NIECEE: There are people who have child sex trafficking cases or things like that because they were sex trafficked and that same person would be ineligible to stay in some of the Red Cross or FEMA shelters that exist. So, we try to provide resources past that and try to move into areas where people aren’t looking and make sure that everybody is okay and we work with Black women specifically, with families of people and provide resources without really all the paperwork.
I think that when you provide direct aid, people ask all the time, “Well, how do I know that my funding or my donation is going to go to the right person if I don’t give it to this massive organization?” And the quickest way for you to get it to the right person is for you to hand it to them.
ABBY MARTIN: Talk about the progress, the decentralized effort and different initiatives that you’ve taken already around the city working with these people?
NIECEE: So, something that we’re working on here recently has been a work program. There’s a lot of houses that need gutting, there’s a lot of people who need triaging, which is basically we’re going through communities assessing needs, putting it into a graph form so that as we do get additional help coming through that we have a clear pathway to get that help to the people who are needing it.
So, we’ve been offering opportunities for folks who are looking for jobs, looking for work. People whose workplaces were flooded or they’re in some situation otherwise. We go around all the time and people ask, “Who are you with? What’s you’re org?” And I’m just, “Black Women’s Defense League, I guess,” but it just seems very odd that someone would go out of their way to do something for someone without being signed off by some capitalist institution.
We’re also just going and finding people who don’t, elderly people who wouldn’t be able to fix their homes otherwise, making sure that they have crews come in. We’ve been doing a revolutionary rebuild of Houston but we have people come out over the weekend: medics, counselors, construction worker people, people that distribute goods and food.
That’s another project that we’re working on, which is kind of building propaganda campaigns, letting people know and get knowledge about their home values. Letting them know not to sell and working to make sure that we’re able to assist them with the needs that they have that might lead them to sell.
We’re already starting to see the “We Buy Ugly Homes” signs popping up. We’ll buy your house really quick, three day process. Has a nice little friendly 1-800 number on it. But that’s how gentrification occurs. These companies buy up houses, house after house after house on a block and all of a sudden two years later you have a Starbucks there.
This happened during Katrina during Louisiana and so we’re aware of it and we’re working to eliminate that as well. The City Center looks nice. They’ve cleaned up all of the big banks and all of these different areas downtown.
But when you go off of Homestead, there’s apartments where people are still paying rent every day and their apartments look like shanty towns. There’s nothing. They’re still breathing in mold and all types of other different things. It’s just not over with and we have to make sure that we continue to shine that light in those areas that they want to be heard.
ABBY MARTIN: Niecee, why do you want to do this. Why have these institutions failed so miserably and the government? I mean this is insane.
NIECEE: I think that trauma that happens within capitalist societies is a little different. It’s because you are always constantly expected to provide for self. And in a moment where no one can provide for self, that’s when we start to get into more communistic-ways of living but it’s also a lot easier to kind of exist in that way.I’m doing this because I know that we have to. I know that there will be no other help coming. It’s not because I think I’m a superhero or that I’ve got some type of calling or whatever. It’s literally because there’s nobody else coming.
ABBY MARTIN: And you have said that disasters reveal the failure of capitalism and governments more than anything else. Talk about why?
SCOTT CROW: Well, because if there’s anything else that happens, it’s a localized issue or an issue around immigration or poverty or things, these are scalable to degrees. But an immediate disaster, whether it’s ecological, economic, political or war, I consider all of those disasters, they begin to show that there’s nothing, there’s nobody there for you. When a disaster bears down on you and you lose everything and you see there’s no help coming from anybody, except your neighbors, that’s why it reveals more than that.
After the disaster passes, you still begin to see in the days and the weeks and the months how there still is no support for the people that they’re supposedly are there to protect and serve.
But there’s been a watershed change. I mean in the 12 years since Katrina, the decentralized disaster relief in Katrina, and then talk about with Harvey and Irma, is that more people are willing to do it now. That was the amazing thing.
Disasters not only reveal the failures of capitalism but they also show openings that people have where people begin to put their politics and their differences aside. Racism and all the social ills that keep us separated from each other, they put those aside to say, “Oh, you’re somebody who needs water. You’re somebody who needs help with your house. I’ll help you do that because we are both in this together.” And that’s a pretty amazing thing.
ABBY MARTIN: Scott, 12 years ago you co-founded a group called Common Ground Collective in New Orleans to offer decentralized relief for Katrina victims. How do you think that a decentralized response here in Houston compares to that following Katrina?
SCOTT CROW: What we added in that liberatory analysis was two things: We said that we would help to build infrastructure that had never existed in communities before and to rebuild infrastructure that had fallen down in a long, slow disaster of capitalism on those communities. Healthcare, food security, education. Schools were crumbling in the Gulf Coast way before Hurricane Katrina ever came ashore.
We added that and then we said we would not work with the government except unless it was mutually beneficial to us in any form. So we wanted them to leave us alone basically. We began to build clinics and I had forgotten at Common Ground, we have 36,000 people come through between 2005 and 2009 and I forgot that they all went back to their communities. All these people who had worked in solidarity networks went back to their communities and began to organize in those communities.
When the next disaster happened, they were there to respond. So Occupy, you saw this decentralized effort called Occupy, and then Hurricane Sandy comes ashore on the eastern coast and those people began to mobilize. All of this stuff is being built on the same liberatory foundations. And then it just started to happen more and more. So by the time you get to Harvey, now people have developed these ideas around decentralized grassroots relief with liberatory elements to it.
ABBY MARTIN: The countless volunteers from out of city worked with Houston’s community leaders who had created their own spontaneous response to Hurricane Harvey. To hear from them, I visited the Shape Center, a hub of grassroots organizing in Houston. They held a town hall organized by P.K. McCary to share their experiences after the storm.
JOSEPH: I saw so many leaders come together at this time. Miss P.K., I mean she called me and she said, “Joseph, do your people need food?” I said, “Yes, ma’am, they do.” And she said, “Well, I’ll have somebody to call you and they’ll be on the way.” I’ll tell you, within the hour we had people with food who had no food. My social media was just full. People were saying, Joseph, we have people at such-and-such, XYZ address, we have senior citizens, a grandmother with four kids and they have four feet of water in their house and no one is here at all.
SECUNDA: During this time on social media it was like this chaos recovery system. And I don’t say that in a bad way, I mean that in the most positive manner. I’m not talking about government, I’m talking about people. Folks were posting maybe it would be five numbers. Call this number, this is the Naval Guard, whoever, name a group, name a bureaucracy and they’ll save you. But folks who were calling the numbers, no one could get through. We set up a Google number for folks who needed, if they had something they needed, we gave that number out. We called it BLMHCX Harvey hotline.
We set up a link for volunteers, a link for sort of assessments for folks who were in trouble.
DONNA: What we’ve done is created a call center and this call center, what we would do, people will call in, whatever their needs are, we try to do our best to address those needs. We’re always needing volunteers because we felt that there were going to be people out there after the initial, there were still going to be people out here that people may not know about, can’t get to, but if they call that number, we can direct them.
We try to have different people across the city. We just finished sending some trucks to Dickinson, which most people don’t realize, they were just totally underwater. So, there’s just so many other areas that people aren’t aware, that people are still struggling. So, with this call center, that allows them to call in and to continue to do the work.
AKUA: Many of the residents, they had to take the debris out on their own. So another lady described to me that, “Look, they’re elderly people here who are incapable of doing this.” Then I talked with able-bodied men who were angry, stating that the owner is going to get money for this, insurance money, FEMA money, something and they expect us to volunteer and help all these people, it’s just not right.
To speak to the spirit of community, I saw a lot of small churches and organizations out there saying we’re just not going to let people starve, we’re just not going to let people go without. There were a number of groups but then there were other people who were very angry saying a lot of the management in various complexes, they don’t want these people on their property at all.
So a lady, she took me to the back and showed me how these people came from Oklahoma, I believe, to donate clothes and how, according to her, the property manager just threw them all in the dumpster. I was just horrified of that so the people were just out there digging the clothes out of the dumpster and she’s, “Why couldn’t this been better coordinated? Why won’t they let us have the things that the people want us to have?” Maybe it’s because he’s evicted them and he wants them to go, I don’t know.
I believe that we as human beings, we can do better. I don’t really care what the city doesn’t do or the government, not anymore. I think that we have the capability of having our own plan in our communities because everything is local anyway.
P.K. MCCARY: I’ll just say this. I think we’re asking sometimes the wrong question. Why isn’t the government doing what it needs to do? I’m going, when has the government done what it was supposed to do except for when people do it? They’re the ones that make it happen.
You don’t request that the government do XYZ, you demand it. There’s no vacation for us and there’s no 401(k) at the end of our giving, but I cannot continue buying into the system of Democrats versus Republicans for instance. And building communities that are having the forces of those developers or those people with greed who don’t recognize humanity pushing at it, it’s tiring and it’s toxic.
So, I don’t have all the answers, but I know from day one from Harvey, before Harvey started and while Harvey was doing, there were people we were working.
ABBY MARTIN: Another problem, and you’ll see this everywhere among the coast, right? Oil industries, gas towns, it’s harder to radicalize communities who are involved in the industry.
JERRY: I think a lot of people who are may be consciously aware of the negative impasse at their corporation or their job their livelihood has on the planet and on social structures, I think those who are aware of that really do want to create some type of change or be a part of that productiveness, to progress the country forward.
When you have your livelihood based upon that, for some people that’s a real struggle. It gets back to an economic justice issue to where we need to create a system where people can live on the earth without making such a harmful impact on the earth.
We need to be bold and say, the system that we have doesn’t work, we need to get rid of it, we need to create a decentralized structure and really allow the people who are skillful people in these areas of environmental justice, economic justice, war and militarism, to be at the forefront to say, hey, this is how we want to reimagine our way of being and let’s create it together.