Six Months After Harvey, Environmental Justice & Climate Change Absent from Houston’s Recovery Plans

StoryFebruary 26, 2018
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This week marks six months since Hurricane Harvey caused historic flooding in Houston, Texas, the most diverse city in the nation and one of its largest. Houston is also home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the country. As federal money for rebuilding trickles in, Houston’s chief “recovery czar” is the former president of Shell Oil, Marvin Odum, whose past experience includes rebuilding Shell’s oil and gas facilities after Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, immigrants and fenceline communities who suffer from pollution along Houston’s industrial corridor are still largely absent from much of the discussion about how the city plans to recover. For more, we host a roundtable discussion with Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice”; Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club; undocumented immigrant activist Cesar Espinosa; and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley in Port Arthur, Texas.

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Video squareStoryNov 24, 2017Will Houston’s Post-Harvey Recovery Exacerbate Inequities or Build a More Just City?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this week marks six months since Hurricane Harvey caused historic flooding in Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the United States and one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Houston is also home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the country.

We’ll spend the rest of the hour looking at the state of environmental justice in Houston since the storm. As federal money for rebuilding trickles in, Houston’s chief “recovery czar” is the president of Shell Oil, Marvin Odum, whose past experience includes rebuilding Shell’s oil and gas facilities after Hurricane Katrina. This is Odum speaking Thursday.

MARVIN ODUM: This recovery is also an opportunity to take an enormous step forward in achieving the vision of ensuring access to an affordable and safe home for every resident. And to that end, we are also coordinating, again—with a look around the room—with private and philanthropic funding sources, particularly now, as the mayor said, to fill the gap before the federal funds get here.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as newly released federal records obtained by the Associated Press show it took nearly four times as long to house people in trailers after Harvey as Hurricane Katrina, and repairs to houses have been much slower than after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Immigrants and fenceline communities who suffer from pollution along Houston’s industrial corridor are still largely absent from much of the discussion about how the city plans to recover.

Well, today we get an update from people working to change that, who first joined us in the weeks following Hurricane Harvey, when we went down to Houston. We host a roundtable discussion with Dr. Robert Bullard, “father of environmental justice”; Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club; undocumented immigrant activist Cesar Espinosa; and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley, who just received his FEMA trailer.

I want to begin with Dr. Robert Bullard, whose house we visited just after he had been evacuated and then come back. Dr. Bullard is a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, on the steering committee of the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience. His books include Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Bullard. Six months after, what is the state of Houston for the different communities, and how disparate has been the response to them in cleanup?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, Houston is a big city, and it has very diverse communities, and there were extreme inequality when it comes to environmental protection and land use and problems related to land and air quality. And Harvey exacerbated and made those inequalities and disparities come alive and be more apparent in terms of the larger community.

And so, what we’ve seen is, is that many communities are bouncing back, have come back, and those with resources are able to get back quicker. And it should be no surprise, or it’s not rocket science, to understand that disasters exacerbate inequality. And so, those communities that struggled before the storm are still struggling after. And so, what we have to do is to ensure that all boats rise and all communities are able to recover in a way that makes them much more resilient and much healthier when resources flow into the city.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Bullard, talking about those resources, the Trump administration initially got a lot of praise for its response to Harvey’s impact, but that hasn’t followed through. I understand the mayor of Houston recently complained that only 1,100 households have been approved by FEMA for assistance, where there were 345,000 households that were affected. Your sense of how the federal response has either exacerbated or ameliorated the inequities that existed in Houston before the storm?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, if you look at the—those families and households that have nest eggs and resources actually started to recover and rebuild shortly as the—you know, after the water receded, and they were able to get back and muck and gut. But for those families and households that are more vulnerable and need assistance from the feds and may not have had insurance or may not have had any private funds of their own to fix up and rebuild, they’re still waiting.

And I think it’s important that we understand that we have a recovery going on, and Houston is very entrepreneurial and prides itself as taking charge, but there’s still that invisible side of Houston that historically have gotten left behind, before there were storms and floods. And so, I think that’s where we have a large segment of our community that is still waiting and suffering. And I think that’s the sad thing about it, that it slipped off the radar, for the most part, and it’s—but that’s no less a priority that has to be dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who said the state expects to receive more than a billion dollars from FEMA for hazard mitigation projects like home buyouts and elevations or to build seawalls. Governor Abbott, speaking in January.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT: Now, we have said from the very beginning that as we rebuild, we wanted to do more than just rebuild like it was before. We wanted to rebuild in a way that would reduce future risk to property and to lives. And that is precisely the definition of what hazard mitigation funds are for.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as officials in Harris County, where Houston is located, planned to ask voters to approve at least $1 billion to help pay for flood control projects. Talk about how this funding is being spent, Dr. Bullard.

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, I think the issue for many of us who have been working with communities for many years in Houston is that there oftentimes is no level of transparency as to what the regular person on the street understand how decisions are being made and how plans are being developed, and, I think, the whole idea of trying to get a sense of: Will money follow need? Will money follow power? And the idea of mitigation, you know, the flood mitigation, it’s very important that we talk about rebuilding and recovering in a way that we don’t reproduce the inequality that existed before.

So, when we talk about an environmental justice standpoint, it has to be fair and equitable, and it’s flooding plus. It’s also not just flooding that—the issues that we are concerned about. It’s also those upsets and restarts, shutdowns of these industries, that created lots of pollution during the storm, but also emitted lots of pollution before the storm. And those are the kinds of things we have to also deal with—the lack of addressing the environmental problems, the Superfund sites that were flooded, the communities that have been flooded routinely in the last three years, before there was Harvey. And so, those are things that I think we have to look at and make sure that resources and plans are put into the system and that there’s a good civic engagement plan and opportunity for people to involve themselves in the decision-making, as opposed to individuals making decisions at the top and then announcing it. That’s what I think we’re talking about when we—our coalition that has come about because of wanting to get more citizen participation and public input into the process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re also joined by Bryan Parras, who’s an organizer for the Sierra Club. And I wanted to ask you about the impact of the—obviously, the petrochemical industry is centered there in Houston—what we know about the spills and the pollution that occurred during the storm and afterwards, and how the monitoring of public health is going on.

BRYAN PARRAS: Well, thank you all. And on the cusp of the Supreme Court decision, I want to express my solidarity with the union workers. I’ve got my union shirt on, a proud member.

And, you know, it’s an excellent point to make, because what we’ve seen in Houston and places of communities that live so close to these facilities, the health impacts aren’t always immediately seen. They take years and years to gestate, sometimes decades. And right now there are a number of entities doing research projects to look at some of these health impacts—UTHealth, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M.

And one thing I will say is that, you know, Houston and the communities and community groups, like t.e.j.a.s. and COCO, and others that are starting in Pasadena and other parts of the city are getting organized, and they are documenting these health impacts. You know, they’re working with researchers.

And we’re probably going to see a big health impact as a result of this. I’ve been to several funerals just in the last two months, you know, way more than usual. And whether those are related or not, directly or indirectly, to the storm, it’s a fact. It’s happening. You know, the stress alone from being in these storms and the unknowing and the risks that you know are being taken at these facilities is just a lot for any person.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan, we were with you in Houston as you took us on a toxic tour during Hurricane Harvey. More than 40 industrial facilities in East Houston shut down and restarted, releasing nearly 2,000 tons of excess emissions in addition to normal operations. Other environmental hazards included chemical plant explosions, flooded Superfund sites. Now, a new Texas A&M study, that included the Manchester area of East Houston, shows these potentially carcinogenic pollutants were distributed across the state by wind and flooding. Researchers said the post-disaster environmental exposures added to ongoing chronic environmental exposures, and also noted, quote, “The tandem growth of disaster frequencies and populations living near industrialized areas has brought greater attention to the potential health effects of environmental contamination associated with joint natural and technological (na-tech) disasters.” And talk about the fact that the head of recovery itself is the head of one of the largest oil companies in the world.

BRYAN PARRAS: I mean, it’s really upsetting to see that, that Odum was appointed as the recovery czar. And, you know, it’s also—

AMY GOODMAN: And who he is?

BRYAN PARRAS: And who he is and his long history, right? It was reported a few weeks ago, too, that he actually profited from homes that were built in the reservoir—direct conflict of interest. And, you know, as my dad says, there was extensive flooding, widespread flooding, on the Westside, but on the Eastside, the communities there are flooded with chemicals every day. And we saw an upsurge of that during the storm, before the storm and after the storm, you know, with these shutdowns and restarts, but also the spills and leaks that weren’t reported, until communities got active and started voicing their opinions, you know, and witnessing these spills.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. That’s Bryan Parras with the Sierra Club and t.e.j.a.s., Dr. Robert Bullard, “father of the environmental justice movement.” When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Hilton Kelley, who’s in Port Arthur, outside [Houston,] Texas, just got a FEMA trailer, and Cesar Espinosa, undocumented himself, represents so many undocumented immigrants in what they’ve experienced since the hurricane six months ago. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Texas Flood,” performed by Fenton Robinson. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s been six months since Hurricane Harvey caused historic flooding in Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the United States. Well, we continue our roundtable discussion on the state of the city and the environmental justice movement in the wake of the storm. Joining us is Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice”; Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club; undocumented immigrant activist Cesar Espinosa; and environmental—the Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley, who just received his FEMA trailer, six months after the storm.

Hilton Kelley, I’d like to go to you. You know, we heard about the budget deal that Congress made. About $90 billion in disaster assistance is supposedly coming to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California to help the residents there adjust to and recover from these disasters. Could you talk about what’s been happening in Texas and the problem with this federal aid, that it’s got to go through the states, it doesn’t necessarily go directly to the localities affected, and how that—what happens in the process of this aid getting to the actual victims?

AMY GOODMAN: Hilton Kelley, that question was for you. And also—

HILTON KELLEY: Yes. You’re referring that question to me?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Hilton Kelley, yes, to you.

HILTON KELLEY: Yes, yes. Well, what’s happening down on the ground here in Port Arthur, Texas, is that we have a lot of folks that have been displaced, a lot of apartment renters, a lot of homeowners. And, of course, FEMA came out, and they assessed the properties, but many of the properties that were assessed were fairly—unfairly assessed. Most people are having to appeal the judgment for what they receive to help do repairs. Many of the residents in our area were given a certain amount of funding to help with those repairs, but it’s not enough. About 80 percent of the folks that received FEMA assistance are appealing that decision in our community, because it’s well below what contractors have bidded for work that needs to be done. And I am included in that band of folks. We have at least 50 percent additional damage that [inaudible] that bill, that FEMA just seemed to—but we are appreciative for what we do get, but yet it’s just not enough to rebuild.

And those folks who are renters, many of the apartment complexes in this area, the bottom half of those apartment complexes, the people that live downstairs are still [inaudible], and people should have a right to return. Many of them were brought to places like Dallas, Louisiana, places around Louisiana, and other north—areas north of Texas. It’s really a mess. Even though a lot of times the media light is not [inaudible] as much anymore, but people are really suffering behind the scenes economically. And many of our elders are just living in squalor, because FEMA did not see that their homes were damaged enough, so that therefore they didn’t give them any money. Many people did not get anything from FEMA.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn to Cesar Espinosa, who is head of FIEL, who represents undocumented immigrants throughout Houston, so hard hit, the double whammy of the hurricane that hit everyone and also the precarious position that you and so many of them are in. Cesar, if you can talk about what’s happened in this six months? I mean, you have a spending bill that included funding for FEMA, but not for DACA and for dealing with the crisis that you are dealing with in Houston.

CESAR ESPINOSA: Thanks for having us. And it’s really important to point out that the undocumented community was dealing with multiple storms at the time. At the time that the actual storm was happening, there was the storm with SB 4, there was the storm with DACA. And actually, soon after, right after the storm passes, Donald Trump announces that they are rescinding the DACA program.

So, we have—you know, one of the stories that I like to highlight is the story of Jesus Contreras, who was a paramedic during Harvey, saving lives, an undocumented immigrant saving Houstonian lives, without asking for immigration status. And he comes home at the end of the week just to find out that his DACA protection is going to be over, even though he gave everything during that week, worked 24 hours almost every day, to make sure that Houstonians were safe.

So, it’s been very perilous in the last couple of months, as we know Congress has been trying to, quote-unquote, “start negotiations” on immigration. But, unfortunately, because of the government deadlock, we haven’t really gone anywhere. So, we are still dealing with multiple. The other thing it’s important to highlight is that we may not know how many undocumented people were affected by Harvey, because a lot of people just did not come forward. So, we still continue to be a population that remains under the radar, that’s going to be—has moved around and has faced many of these woes just by themselves.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cesar, what about this whole issue of if you’re undocumented and you were a victim of the storm or you lost your home? Clearly, FEMA and the federal government will likely not provide aid, but what about local authorities and the local city government? Have they tried to step in to the breach here?

CESAR ESPINOSA: At the beginning, there was a lot of support for the undocumented community. A lot of organizations were coming forward. They were asking for people to go into the shelters without asking for immigration status. The mayor came out and very forcefully said that folks would not be asked for status when going to shelters.

Unfortunately, in the more long-term approach, we have not seen a lot of the aid that has come to the remainder of the community come to the undocumented community. So, there are still disparities there, and that’s created issues, because, like I said, a lot of people were living in precarious conditions because they could not—because of their lack of status, a lot of landlords were taking advantage of them. And it still continues to happen. A lot of these folks are moving out to other apartment complexes or other homes, where, because of their undocumented status, people are taking advantage of them. So, there’s many—we could talk for hours about all the disparities that are happening, not only in Houston, but more in depth to the undocumented community. So we are asking city government to step in. We’re asking the federal government also to step in and help out everybody equitably.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a part of a Houston Chronicle column headlined “After Harvey, Houston Needs Petrochemicals More Than Ever”: quote, “What we don’t need, though, is the hyperbole coming from environmental groups like the Sierra Club last week.

“'For as long as I can remember, my hometown of Houston has been littered with dangerous chemical plants, oil and gas refineries, and hazardous waste facilities,' Bryan Parras, a Sierra Club organizer wrote in a statement.”

He goes on, “’These sites have caused devastation for my family, my friends, and my neighbors for years, polluting our air and water with deadly toxins.’

“Yes, he really did say devastation,” the op-ed says.

And it goes on to conclude, “In fact, these plants are critical to rebuilding after true devastation.”

That was the Houston Chronicle’s business columnist. It was the day we broadcast the toxic tour, Bryan, that we did with you—


AMY GOODMAN: —that Houston Chronicle went on the attack against you. So, talk about this. The response of this business columnist was “We need plastics. And don’t engage in hyperbole, Bryan.”

BRYAN PARRAS: Well, you know, it has been devastating, and I think thousands, tens of thousands of people would agree. And to [Chris] Tomlinson, you know, I would ask him to get up and pick up all the plastics that are now littered across the bayous, that have just recently been reported in Houston.

What we don’t need is language that dismisses the real dangers, the causes that have exacerbated these storms and made them more frequent. What we don’t need is hyperbole on the other side, you know, saying that everything is fine. Everything is not fine.

And, you know, people are getting organized. I don’t think it’s a simple answer. You know, I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. But I will say that folks in Houston are getting organized. They’re working with unions. They’re working with undocumented populations. They’re working with a whole range of communities that have not spoken, you know, or had the ability to communicate and work together. That’s happening right now. And we’re doing that in a way that hopefully will get us off of our dependence on these fossil fuel products. And there’s an explosion of facilities that are being proposed right now on the coast, you know, putting even more communities at risk—LNG facilities, pipelines and plastics.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, well, I’d like to go back to Dr. Robert Bullard. Texas is a well-known conservative state. I’m wondering, your long history dealing with environmental issues there: Do you get a sense that the residents of Texas, after this series of continuing, more ferocious storms, have had any kind of change of perspective or viewpoint on the issue of climate change?

ROBERT BULLARD: Well, I think when you talk with individuals on the ground that are on the front line of flooding and other environmental problems, you start to get a sense that many people have begun to see something that—something that needs to change. Even if “climate change” may be a bad word in some of their vocabulary, they are saying that there’s more support for moving toward a cleaner energy infrastructure and renewables. They are also talking about trying to build in a way that will become much more sustainable. And so, you get mixed messages, and depending on where you talk to. In our major metropolitan areas, you’ll find much more acceptance of dealing with issues around climate and issues around sustainability and issues around building community resilience. And so, I do think that you’ll get more and more positive reactions from people in our major cities, as opposed to some of the rural areas, where they may still hold on to this idea that climate change is a hoax.

AMY GOODMAN: Cesar Espinosa, your most critical need now, that you would say, as we wrap up?

CESAR ESPINOSA: I think it’s important that we—our community gets a lot more help. We are being overlooked, continue to be overlooked. And in a city that prides themselves on being a welcoming city to all people, I think we should also take into account the undocumented people. So, it’s—you know, one of the messages that we also want to send out to the federal government is that, once again, immigrants proved that we are here not only to build up the city prior to the storm, but during the storm and after the storm. There’s a massive influx of workers coming in and making Houston and rebuilding Houston and putting back into Houston so much of what has been given to them. So, contributions are endless, and we hope that we no longer are overlooked in this process of recovery.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Parras? Ten seconds.

BRYAN PARRAS: Immigrants make Houston stronger. Unions make Houston stronger. People like Dr. Bullard, Hilton Kelley, Juan Parras, Patricia Gonzales, so many folks make Houston stronger, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank so much for you all giving us this six-month review, Bryan Parras, organizer with Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, co-founder of, board member of t.e.j.a.s., Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services; Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL, a Houston-based nonprofit that helps undocumented members of the city’s Latino community; Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, known as the “father of environmental justice”; and thanks so much to Hilton Kelley, environmental justice activist.

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