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Special Report: How Decentralized Mutual Aid Networks Are Helping Houston Recover from Harvey

StorySeptember 12, 2017
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We end today’s show in Houston, Texas, two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused historic flooding and left residents to coordinate with each other to rescue thousands of people who were left stranded when officials were overwhelmed. Now that volunteer spirit of mutual aid has continued in the storm’s aftermath. We air a report from Renée Feltz on how many Houstonians have formed decentralized networks to clean out flooded homes, feed thousands who lost everything, and offer much-needed counseling.

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StoryMar 20, 2018Voices from Houston After Harvey: Immigrant Homeowners Say Little to No Help Coming from FEMA
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show in Houston, Texas, two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused historic flooding and left residents to coordinate with each other to rescue thousands of people who were left stranded when officials were overwhelmed. Now that volunteer spirit of mutual aid has continued in the storm’s aftermath.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz joins us now with a report from her home town of Houston on how—some of the many Houstonians who formed decentralized networks to clean out flooded homes, feed thousands who lost everything, and offer much-needed counseling.

Welcome back, Renée. Why don’t you set up this piece for us?

RENÉE FELTZ: Thanks, Amy. It’s great to be back in New York. Like many people who live in Houston, in the Gulf Coast, I feel like I’m going through a bit of PTSD. I did have a good time. It was good to see people down there. But it’s a long-term recovery situation. And part of what I was happy to see and excited about was the fact that people that helped each other, neighbor to neighbor, are now helping each other in the long-term relief. And so, we spoke with a woman named Mary McGaha, and she’s going to introduce us, in this video, to her home that was destroyed. And then we’ll meet some of the volunteers that are helping to clean it out. We’ll also meet people helping to serve meals and to do counseling.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Renée Feltz’s piece, just back from Houston.

MARY McGAHA: When I walked in the doorway, we see lots of muddy water, furniture tipped over. Everything was very wet.

RENÉE FELTZ: could you tell how high the water got?

MARY McGAHA: It got about four feet. I had a contractor came, worked there for a while. Then I couldn’t afford to pay him, because I hadn’t—I ran out of money. Then I got the volunteer through my niece. She had some people—I don’t know how she found the volunteers, but she’s bringing them to me. So they came over and started helping me.

JAMES CLARK: Hi. My name is James. It’s a lot of work gutting the houses, taking out all the drywall, all the insulation, all the furniture and belongings—basically, everything that’s, you know, below four feet on the house, and then cleaning it out, doing stuff to remediate the mold, so washing the studs down and the floors down with bleach and everything. And this is at least the third day that groups of volunteers have been out at this house.

RENÉE FELTZ: That noise we hear sounds like a vacuum. Looks like the bottom part of the walls is ripped out on the drywall in the living room where you walk in.

MARY McGAHA: This is my kitchen. And this is my microwave. And I had a cooking top, and I had a built-in oven over here. Actually, this is my sink.

RENÉE FELTZ: There’s no sink here now.

MARY McGAHA: There’s not? I thought I saw a sink there. No, I’m just kidding.

RENÉE FELTZ: Just pipes. I see pipes only.

MARY McGAHA: It’s just pipes only. Right now, you’re in my master bedroom. And right over to my right here is my bed. They had to tear everything out here. So this was my comfort zone right here. Right now, it doesn’t look much like a comfort zone, but it will be. I figure, when you’re going through something like this, you just don’t realize it ’til you go through it.

RENÉE FELTZ: I’m so sorry.

MARY McGAHA: I didn’t cry 'til yesterday, through all the ordeal. And it's just hard to talk about. Like I said, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I can’t explain how you would feel, but I know how I feel: devastated, to know that everything that you worked for all your life is gone.

JAMES CLARK: You know, I think the effort in Houston is going to be a long-term effort. It’s not something that you’re going to just clean up in the next couple days. And I think one of the biggest challenges is sort of keeping it on people’s radar. You know, I think it’s important to question like why the state is so eager to be outsourcing these functions. And I don’t think it’s an issue of wanting the state to like reassert its control over relief efforts, but to sort of question the legitimacy of that entire approach to begin with and why—you know, why we’re not better off in many aspects of our lives sort of self-organizing and decentralizing these tasks and, you know, organizing around concepts like mutual aid and solidarity and sort of basic human dignity and decency.

RENÉE FELTZ: We’ve just came from visiting with a woman whose house was being gutted by volunteers. The house had no stove, no appliances, no cabinets to put any food in. You can see how hard it would be hard to prepare a meal there. We heard about the Midtown Kitchen Collective, and we’ve come to see how they’re preparing prepared meals to share with people like we just met.

MATTHEW WETTERGREEN: My name is Matthew Wettergreen. And we’re here at the Midtown Kitchen Collective, and we’re running a site called IHaveFoodINeedFood.com. So we built this site that’s just two forms, two Google forms, that ask you to describe the food that you have, whether it was prepared in a commercial kitchen, the quantity, when it’s ready, and then another set that’s the need side for people to describe what type of food they need, how much they need, where it’s going to—first responders, evacuees, things like that. So, we’ve either arranged or picked up or cooked ourselves over 200,000 meals in the last week.

JONATHAN BEITLER: I’m Jonathan Beitler.

RENÉE FELTZ: We’re going to walk over to a station here, where it looks like they’re preparing…

JONATHAN BEITLER: Sandwiches, yeah. We have been preparing sandwiches for the past week. We’ve had hundreds of people making literally thousands of sandwiches.

RENÉE FELTZ: Now we’re in a bustling kitchen.

JONATHAN BEITLER: Yeah, we’re using the commercial kitchen space here at SEARCH. We’ve had dozens and dozens and dozens of chefs come in, donate their time, using product that’s also been donated, and to create hot meals that we are giving out to people all over the city and including outlying areas like Beaumont and Port Arthur. You know, it’s one thing to give them sandwiches, and that’s very much a necessity when you’re talking about dealing with a lot of people. But the ability to provide neighborhoods and communities and shelters with hot food that they can sit down and sit around the table and talk to each other over a hot dinner, which many of the people that have been affected by the hurricane haven’t been able to do in weeks now, has been—has been incredible.

We’re working really hard to make sure that we’re cataloging what we’ve done and making it available for other communities. Other people should have this system and be able to have it set up in place prior to a disaster happening, so that once the disaster does happen, it can be activated immediately, because it’s an innovative approach, utilizing technology, utilizing social media, and really everybody coming together to service a need that’s not been fulfilled by entities like the Red Cross or FEMA in immediate disaster response.

RENÉE FELTZ: And now we’ve made it into the Fifth Ward, where we’re stopping to speak with…

JULIA WALKER: Julia Walker. I have an organization called World on My Shoulders. We’ve been here mostly distributing goods. We’ve engaged with the public a little bit and tried to figure out how best to serve their needs. We’ve got another partner out and—with Black Women’s Defense League. They’ve been demoing houses the last few days, but all of those houses are places where I went to before and found out, by saying, you know, “You need water, you need this,” and then they’re like, “Oh, actually, there’s another layer: Our house if full of mold.”

As more crews have gotten out and started distributing goods and started showing up to demolition houses and doing other things like that, I felt like I could do less of that and more of my unique skill set. And so, I’ve been directly peer-to-peer counseling every single day. I’m trying my best to make sure that we work on actual total care, and I think that a large portion of that is dealing with the trauma and dealing with the multilayered trauma, because these are people who were already in trauma zones and were already living fully in crisis mode, and now have lost all of their assets on top of it. People are still being ignored actively. Because they’ve been passed by by someone, because someone has handed them a thing, they’ve decided that all their problems are fixed. And that’s not possible under late capitalism. It’s not possible to just say that because we fed people today, that they will be OK tomorrow. It’s giving them the tools, fixing the immediate needs, giving the tools, and then, long term, staying with them, so that they can help build and then be the example for the next.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz and to Tish Stringer for that report from Houston, Texas, and to Austin Airwaves always.

That does it for our show. Juan, tonight, you’re going to be in Washington, D.C..

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I’ll be there soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan is continuing his book tour with his new book, Reclaiming Gotham. He’ll be at Busboys and Poets at 5th and K in Washington, D.C., speaking with?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Speaking with Joe Davidson, the columnist at The Washington Post.

AMY GOODMAN: And then moving on Thursday to Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, at 7 p.m. On Friday, Juan will be speaking in Austin, Texas, at 5:30 at the Workers Defense Project. And in the weeks to come, he’s headed to Newark, New Jersey; Kansas City, Missouri; College Park, Maryland; and beyond. You can check our website at democracynow.org.

I’ll also be traveling through Canada in the weeks to come. Check democracynow.org, our speaking events.

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Up Next

Voices from Houston After Harvey: Immigrant Homeowners Say Little to No Help Coming from FEMA

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