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Will Houston’s Post-Harvey Recovery Exacerbate Inequities or Build a More Just City?

StoryNovember 24, 2017
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Hurricane Maria shattered all past U.S. rainfall records and forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the Houston area. The storm also caused massive environmental and public health impacts. Houston, known as the “Petro Metro, is home to the country’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. As the floodwater receded over Labor Day weekend, we spoke with Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the founder of the environmental justice movement, about who stands to profit from the relief effort, and who may not.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are just back from COP23, the U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany, where the Trump administration tried to derail the conference by pushing coal, nuclear and gas as solutions to climate change. Well, on this Democracy Now! special, we’re looking at the ways climate change is already affecting the United States.

We turn now to Houston, which was devastated by massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey. The storm shattered all past U.S. rainfall records, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the fourth-largest city in the United States. Some call it the “Petro Metro,” Houston, because it’s home to the country’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. The storm also caused massive environmental and public health impacts. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, more than a million pounds of air pollution have been released into the air as petrochemical plants were forced to shut down by the storm.

Well, over Labor Day weekend, just as the floodwaters were receding, Democracy Now! traveled to Houston, where we spoke with Professor Robert Bullard, among others. Dr. Bullard is a professor at Texas Southern University, a historically black college and university. He’s considered the father of environmental justice. We spoke with Professor Bullard at his home, which he had just returned to after evacuating. I began by asking him about his experiences of the flood.

ROBERT BULLARD: I had been monitoring the storm. I had been watching TV and getting very little sleep. And then we were informed that we had to—we had a mandatory evacuation. And I heeded that call, and I tried to move as much of my belongings from downstairs upstairs. And, actually, I used muscles that I hadn’t used before, in that process. And so, I evacuated on Tuesday and was able to call a friend and was able to take my, you know, little bag over and stay until this morning. I came back this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in fact, your home didn’t flood.

ROBERT BULLARD: No, no, we didn’t flood. The water came up to on the streets around, surrounding streets, and some water came on the street, came up to the curb. But it did not flood. And it was, you know, kind of a challenge getting out of the subdivision to get over to my friend’s house, but I was able to maneuver and avoid the water and drive my car, you know, in a way that I was not driving into water. But it was a challenge, but nothing like what other people have experienced.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written so much about and been so deeply involved in issues of environmental racism, environmental justice. Do you see the issue of environmental racism—and I’m going to ask you to define it first—playing out here in Houston around this storm?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, I think when we look at the color of vulnerability and we look at which communities are actually at greatest risk from disasters and floods like this, historically, it’s been low-income communities and communities of color, communities that live in low-lying areas that are areas that are very prone to flooding. And it’s very difficult to get insurance, not just flood insurance, but regular insurance, because of redlining. So, what Harvey has done is to expose those inequalities that existed before the storm.

And, you know, disasters like this widen and exacerbate inequality. And so, the communities that are most at risk from not having, you know, the kinds of infrastructure in those areas, in terms of flood protection, in terms of trying to get out, in terms of transportation, etc., I mean, it played out, you know, up close and personal. And I think as we start to see some of the demographics in terms of communities that will take longer to return, will take longer to get their houses back in order, longer to get their communities and infrastructure back in order, this is not rocket science. And those communities that—and individuals, households, that don’t have that cushion to ward off that kind of disruption, it’s always much more difficult for them to return. And I don’t see this any different in Houston. And what we have to do is guard against building and rebuilding on that inequity.

AMY GOODMAN: We just did a toxic tour of Houston. We were over in Baytown, next to the ExxonMobil refinery. I think it’s something like the second-largest refinery in the country. Right by it, people flooded out. And you’ve got two—many different aspects of this crisis, but one is the contract workers who work at ExxonMobil. They just lose their jobs when the refinery shuts down. And they also get flooded. And the question is: Who will get help, and who won’t? But that issue—for example, while the Republican Texas congressional delegation largely voted against vast help for the Northeast during Superstorm Sandy, clearly, Texas will get billions of dollars for FEMA and to rebuild overall. How do—how is it determined who gets support and who doesn’t?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, you know, the way it works is, those individuals in those communities, those families and households that have the resources and the wherewithal to maneuver through this maze of bureaucracies, of filing information online and getting access to the different organizations that can assist and support, getting, you know, the FEMA grants and the SBA loans and all those things—it’s not rocket science, but it’s not easy to do that. And if you have individuals who are used to getting online and getting access to information and processing that, they have a head start. You know, there are lots of households right now that are actually hiring contractors, that have already gutted their houses and that have already signed individuals on to fix up and remodel and bring their houses back to life. And it’s not any mystery as to which communities that will somehow be the last to do that. And these are the same communities that didn’t have access to loans, in terms of neighborhood loans, because of redlining.

And what we have to guard against is this rebuilding redlining that somehow allows more affluent communities to access the system, get their communities back in order, and those who are left behind, somehow, those areas will be the last to come back. So it has to be an equitable recovery, equitable development, and to make sure that those families that somehow may—you know, who’s to say that one community should be built or rebuilt, not be rebuilt? And those are policy decisions. And if money is not invested in those areas, and if infrastructure is not invested in those areas—and many of the areas in many of the communities in Houston do not have the infrastructure to protect them from man-made disasters in terms of the flooding, the lack of infrastructure in terms of the protection. You know, a lot of our neighborhoods just have open drainage ditches, gulleys and just very minimum kinds of protection, and so it floods, you know, routinely. And so, we’re talking about this biblical flood. And so, you can see how not only will they get washed out in terms of their homes, they’ll get washed out in terms of their income.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the 30th anniversary of the publication of your book Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust. Talk about Invisible Houston.

ROBERT BULLARD: Invisible Houston, that I wrote 30 years ago, there’s a huge population that is still invisible. Houston’s demographics, you know, a lot of people like to say we are one of the most diverse, ethnically and racially, cities in the country. We’re the fourth-largest city in the country. We are racially and ethnically diverse. But when it comes to economics and when it comes to power and decision-making, it stops.

And so, when we talk about this whole question of how invisible—how can we make invisible communities visible, those communities that have been inundated—before the storm—by pollution, environmental degradation, living on the fenceline with very dangerous kinds of hostilities? And when a storm like this happens, it exposes those vulnerabilities. I mean, you have all this pollution, you know, all of this oil and chemical plants and that kind of pollution that’s now exposed in the water. And when the floodwater recedes, it’s going to leave residue. It’s going to leave all kinds of stuff on the school grounds, on the playgrounds and on people’s yards. And so, how are we—how are we going to deal with that, those sediments that’s left? And we need testing done. We have to make sure it is safe, all the mold. We learned from Katrina that people want to get back in their homes, and that, in some cases, they are rushing to get back without the proper protection. And with the mold in those homes and people getting sick, we have to make sure that we provide equal protection and equal access to resources to make sure that we do it right.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you do that?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, it means that we have to have strong community-based organizations on the ground with the capacity to assist and support families and households that can get things right, that can pressure and apply the points of saying, “Well, we need to make sure that just because you don’t have a car, just because you don’t have a big bank account doesn’t mean that you should not be safe, that your community should not come back and that you should not have the same level of protection and the same level of importance as if you were a middle-class white neighborhood.” That is—that’s what we have to ensure.

Houston is very segregated along racial and economic lines. And this flood has really shown that. If you look at ZIP codes, you can map where that vulnerability is. You can also map how resources have been allocated and distributed over the last 50 years. And so, what we have to do is we have to map the resources that come to this region, come to this area. And we can show, and we can actually fight for, to make sure that the resources that flow do not somehow flow in a way that somehow leaves those invisible communities—and, in this case, I wrote Invisible Houston in '87. Invisible Houston, when I wrote it then, was black Houston. But we're talking about a very diverse Houston today. And the Latino population is almost 50 percent. So, when you talk about the invisibility and you talk about where those—where the population lives, you talk about not only a disaster in terms of the flooding, you talk about a disaster in terms of the environment, the pollution, the health threats, the potential for the kinds of impacts that we will see, you know, years to come. And the most vulnerable in our society is children, and we have to make sure that we protect our children, our vulnerable population.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Professor Robert Bullard, professor at Texas Southern University, author of, among other books, Invisible Houston. It’s the 50th anniversary of that publication. He’s considered the father of environmental justice movement. To see all of our coverage of the hurricanes that hit Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, the Caribbean, the wildfires of Northern California, as well as our week special from Bonn, Germany, the U.N. climate summit, go to

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