With rain still falling on southeast Texas, I read Rick Jervis’ profoundly moving August 27 story in USA Today. In it, Jervis explains how the impacts of Hurricane Harvey have been compounded for many poor and working-class communities by a more mundane disaster: it’s the end of the month.
The elderly, the ill, the disabled, the poor and working class, and others who rely on public resources often do not have sufficient resources to flee when major disasters strike. The end of the month means everything’s already stretched to its breaking point: no gas money, a disconnected cellphone, meager supplies of food and water, and few options.
Jervis’ story captures the plight of those in Rockport, TX where the category 4 storm came ashore:
[Barry Skipper] lacked the money to leave so he and his wife hunkered down in their apartment, covering themselves with a mattress in the shower as Harvey mauled their roof… “We just didn’t have the funds,” said Skipper, 68, who is retired and on disability.
Lois Riley, 61, said she watched with growing angst as Harvey intensified. She would have liked to have heeded the urging of local officials to leave Rockport but also lacked the money or place to go. “I’m on a fixed income and this is the end of the month,” she said. When she called 211 to inquire about shelters, she was told repeatedly to call back, Riley said. So she and a friend sheltered in her two-bedroom home.
Throughout Texas, social vulnerabilities structured by race, class, gender, age, disability status, and immigration status magnify the dangers created by the storm. As Julián Aguilar wrote in the Texas Tribune, undocumented immigrants near Brownsville may have chosen to shelter in place because the Border Patrol planned to keep roadside immigration checkpoints open until highways closed.
As Tanvi Misra wrote in The Atlantic, poor communities in Houston, especially poor communities of color, are more vulnerable to flooding because of segregated housing development and climate redlining.
For example, low-income families in the Greenspoint District faced catastrophic flooding in April 2016. But housing complexes like the Arbor Court Apartments, in the center of the floodway, were rebuilt. According to Rebecca Elliott of the Houston Chronicle, HUD continued to provide housing subsidies for low-income families to live there.
After the 2016 flood, Elliott wrote, “Displaced low-income families are faced with a crippling choice: return to an apartment likely to flood again or forgo their housing subsidy.” Sixteen months later, in the early morning hours of August 27, 2017, dozens of children from the apartment building had to be dressed in life jackets and carried to armored vehicles to escape rising floodwaters.
Everyone in Hurricane Harvey’s path is undoubtably at risk during what the National Weather Service is calling an “unprecedented” storm event. But comparing maps of social vulnerability to maps of unfolding flood events reveals troubling patterns. It also suggests that the suffering yet to come will be deeply shaped by economic and racial injustice.
The Brazos River is not expected to crest (at an historic 59 feet) until Tuesday, August 29. The rain will continue at least until Wednesday. As I write, Fort Bend and Brazoria are flooding. What continues to give me hope are the hundreds of stories circulating about the courage and generosity of the people of Texas, who have done everything in their power to help one other.
I’m reminded of Mr. Rogers’ famous advice to children who have seen scary things: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in A Paradise Built in Hell, “Civil society triumphs and existing institutions often fail during disaster. … In disaster we need an open society based on trust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism, and solidarity. In fact, we need it all the time, only most urgently in disaster.”
But don’t believe it when people argue that “flood waters do not discriminate,” as Todd Starnes of Fox News wrote early on August 28, while the water was still rising. As I wrote of my own neighborhood’s relatively fortunate experience during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011,
Poor and working-class communities aren’t responsible for the changing climate, but we are being asked to pay the price, with our money and our lives, when the waters rise.
If you want to help, please consider donating to Circle of Health International’s “Rainy Day Fund.” Specify “Hurricane Harvey” in the “Which fund?” drop-down menu.