Harvey Reflections: Community Organizing, Recovery and Frustration


With known and unknown environmental risks, an organizer on the east side of Houston reflects on a frustrating reality even after the rain.

Houston ship channel

With known and unknown environmental risks, an organizer on the east side of Houston reflects on a frustrating reality even after the rain.

Yvette Arellano is a research and policy liaison for Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. Her work involves both research and community organizing. Recently, in collaboration with the Union of Concerned Scientists, she helped jointly publish “Air Toxics and Health in the Houston Community of Manchester” and “Double Jeopardy in Houston: Acute and Chronic Chemical Exposures Pose Disproportionate Risks for Marginalized Communities." The environmental hazards associated with living near the Port of Houston were made even more visible during and after Harvey but Arellano lives that experience every day in her personal life and work. Harvey was no different.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

You definitely know the risks of a hurricane in Houston and in particular along the Houston Ship Channel, how did you experience Harvey? Were you nervous?

We pretty much knew we were going to be hit with something massive. At the office, we were talking about the surge report [and] the water quality studies to each other to see how we as an organization needed to move forward.

We were waiting to see if anybody was going to talk about toxic water. We contacted the EPA; do you guys have any information? It became a lot of waiting; is it necessary, do we put it out? I myself started prepping. Whenever a natural disaster is forecasted, because of all the information we run through at the office, there's no room for mistakes.

I was trying to maintain some calm within myself. But we know that every single storm would get stronger. We didn’t know how big. We assumed we would take in water here at my house. We assumed our neighborhood would not even really be there. But we didn’t know how much. Our biggest fear was a surge. There was a forecast that a 23 foot surge could come, then 25, that number would drop sometimes to 19.

So we drafted a notice on toxic water, right before the storm hit. There was a lot of internal conversation about whether or not we should because grassroots [groups] can be seen as alarmist.

We put information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and emergency numbers. I went home thinking, Okay we have this out, will anybody listen? In the back of my mind, I was thinking no.

When the storm hits, you're with your parents, getting ice and trying to prepare the house. What was happening in your neighborhood?

I went into the backyard and the water had gathered, I didn’t even know the backyard was bowled in, but the water had gathered and it started looking like it was going to come into the house. So I freaked out. I grabbed a shovel and I start digging, just a small trench to release the water because the water is not stopping. It released the water from the backyard which allowed the water to gather in the front.

Our neighbor was starting to inflate this massive sort of, it wasn’t a boat, it wasn’t a mattress but it was a floatable object. And the kids from across the street, they're playing in the water. And I'm thinking to myself, this is exactly what we warned against. They're putting floaties on the kids. No boots, nothing, just sandals and flip flops and they're walking down through the water.

The water was high but it wasn’t to the point where people were scared.

While the rain was going hard, I called Juan [Parras, executive director of T.e.j.a.s.]. We decide to go ahead and call our community partners. I call and check in. The water is up there but it's not anything they haven’t seen.

So you're checking in with the communities. What are you telling them?

A day after the heaviest rains, I call our community partners again and people are scared. I tell my community partners, you’re near this Superfund, or this dredge site, let's collect water. Cover your hands with plastic bags and use a bottle of water, whatever you have.

I asked them, has the Red Cross come, have you seen any local or state assistance? We all said no. I didn’t hear one of our community members complain. All of these images of people riding around in boats, I was talking to Reverend James Caldwell over in the Fifth Ward and I said,'"Have you seen anybody?' And he says, 'No.' And he's laughing, he's trying to keep spirits up. He tells me they’ve been told if they need assistance to fly flags on their front porch.

[I ask] What about all those images with folks with boats? He says, 'You see those neighborhoods with two- three-story houses?' We were joking, we don’t have boats, we don’t kayak or canoe, that's not something we do in our pastime.

What were some of the biggest immediate concerns?

The Superfunds were their biggest concern. Over in Pasadena, I called [our community partner], I said, 'I need to let you know something, there is a storage tank that’s having an issue.' And he tells me they’ve been smelling these smells in the air.

On one side you have Fifth Ward concerned about their Superfund sites and on the other side, you have people talking about odors. And I'm still at home. And Juan is having to deal with his house. And we’re just checking in and calling. At this point it's all we can do.

So what were the next steps? A big struggle was just getting good data, right?

We decided to start collecting water, there was no question. Water had been collected in Manchester because Texas A&M did a study. They were going to move on a Superfund project with us prior to the storm and so we said, okay, just start collecting.

We try to figure out how to store them because they need to be kept cold. You don’t want those waters in your cooler. So people put them in bowls with ice and were trying to do the best they could.

We were taking pictures. Asking neighbors for pictures, taking video footage of water being flushed from Valero.

After the storm receded, Texas A&M came out and started doing water testing in Manchester and they were going to go through the Ship Channel region so they visited with the community partners. The first thing that happened was they were confronted with security at Valero, so they left.

He said I'll come back. And he did. They did a barbecue and we gave away clothes and were trying to help people with toiletries and cleaning products. And they collected the water samples and we handed them over.

They came back and started testing the water at the Superfund sites.

So you've got some data collection, what about the office and what was happening in the neighborhoods?

We were all mopping all this water up talking about what do we do, what's the next move? We had a call, we were trying to see where people were. We had to devise something quick that would get people's attention that these are toxic waters. People were already starting to pick things out of the water and we were trying to protect them from things they didn’t know or assume was that toxic.

We made buckets of supplies: goggles, gloves. Lowe's had no face masks, no gloves, three fewer buckets than we needed. They were running dry. We did three runs that evening. We talked amongst the group and one said she had connections to a warehouse. We got in touch with them. They helped us get the massive quantities we needed. We had folks from Louisiana come over and there were reporters getting the story and we said, 'Help build buckets.'

We were also at the office gathering all these emissions reports, we need to know what's out there. We wanted to get all this information down and have the community members come in. If you have a plant in your neighborhood, you don’t know what's in it. So we started mapping. Reporters were hitting up all of our community members, so we're just throwing out packets of information so that when they get asked, when they start telling these narratives, 'I smelled these smells,' well where do they come from? Here's the information.

We had people coming into our offices when we had all these supplies. They were undocumented and speaking Spanish, we were trying to create care packages, we just gave up on that because too many people were stopping by and when you have a line of people with children who aren’t getting assistance, just give it away, just give it all away. Community members were coming in with swollen limbs, infections, who were going to get a skin test. These are our folks, folks we organize with, community leaders, who are going through this.

Five, six different issues would come at us and how do you say I can't work on that?

You've been in communication with the Environmental Protection Agency and you said that's been pretty frustrating. What is the role you're playing now?

Trying to fight against major news networks that are saying that there are no toxic waters. That’s been super difficult.

It's an uphill battle with consistently trying to assess. We're a small organization, the environmental justice coalition has helped a lot to broaden how much information we can gather quickly. That’s just community building, that’s all there is. The buckets were devised within the coalition.

Now we’re moving onto direct utility relief because our folks are still having to pay bills. People are being pushed out of their homes. We thought going into their homes and helping them rip out sheetrock would be best but folks are holding on. We've gone into seniors' homes who have mold just growing up the walls and they won't leave because that's home, they're afraid of looters.

FEMA has rejected applications because people don’t know how to do the process. I'm not a specialist. We're trying to get together a workshop so they can move forward. But in the meantime they're wracking up all these bills. And so as they are trying to put their homes and lives together. They're wracking up debt. Folks are rushing to Lowe's and Home Depot buying up equipment and materials on credit. We’re slowly seeing that entire hole being created out of Harvey.

You mentioned watching children playing in the floodwater. That must have been so hard to see. Is that part of the struggle to get information out?

During the Tax Day flood I said the same thing to the same mom, Don’t let those kids in the water. She kind of looked at me and said, 'Eh, they’ll be fine, they're good.' How do I as, not a parent, as a neighbor approach that? I talked to my parents about the work and why I was so worried about that and it makes you want to cry. When I was talking to [our community partners in Pasadena], they had more success with that, mainly because of the strong smells.

Were there any lessons you learned?

I would say to gather together with community members. We were already feeling it, we were getting nervous but we didn’t draw up a meeting to talk to our community before the storm came. We should have tried to push that notice about toxic waters as much as possible. Tapping into research networks before something that big and getting in line; what do we need to know, getting recommendations from them.

When we went out to the communities, even though folks' homes were devastated and we were worried and anxious and stressed, all they could say is, we’re glad to be alive. And they weren’t complaining. Nobody was upset or angry or frustrated and that was something, it blew my mind and to this day it just does not make sense because I have this resentment and anger and I feel like a lot of people, especially younger people, have this anger and resentment towards entities and folks that could’ve done more. Older folks, they grounded us.

Did Harvey change how you felt about Houston?

No, before the storm I looked at a Houston that didn’t care about its vulnerable communities and today, all of that just simply reinforces every belief I had about this city running on oil and gas. This whole narrative about how it doesn’t matter about your politics, color, creed, race, It's false. It was wrong. It was a lie and it was the worst lie perpetrated throughout Harvey and post Harvey and now, because it does matter. Our poorest communities, our communities of color were completely left out. So no. The only thing it did was reinforce what was already there. If anything it taught me it’s the community work, working with each other and creating bonds and capacity building, that's the most important thing to take away. We rely on each other.

Leah Binkovitz


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