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Staring Harvey Down

A tribute to the people of Houston

I watched from afar as my city drowned. Not like the way we have all become spectators to disaster of all kinds with the advent of nonstop news. I watched as people were air lifted out of communities that I frequent. I saw schools, businesses and homes of friends and family threatened by rising waters. Some did not survive. I am from Houston. I rep my hometown hard – so hard that it is difficult to know me for very long and not know that I am from Houston, Texas, the Space City, Htown. I wear it like a badge of honor. When I introduce myself, in a tongue and cheek Texas way, I tell people I am from Houston, home of Barbara Jordan and Beyonce’. People laugh but I really mean it. These women simultaneously capture the differences (politicians and entertainers, serious and lighthearted, queer and hetero, grassroots and spectacle) and the commonalities (forthright, hardworking, innovative, urban Southerners, world changers) that constitute what it means to be from Houston. As the water rose, and now as it recedes, we realized that we will need to harness these characteristics to recover.

When the storm moved closer to the Texas coast, my large interconnected family wove a web of discussions about storm preparations. On text messages and FB threads two words — pray and prepare — became the family motto. We are lucky — not because we share resources with each other, but because enough of us have access to resources to help those who do not. Elders on fixed incomes, single mothers with children, and people who work every day to just make ends meat needed to stock up on water, gas and supplies. Harvey reached land at the end of the month and the weekend before school started, so any extra money had already been spent on school supplies, uniforms and fresh haircuts. This is what James Baldwin meant when he said “how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”[1] When families have rightly planned for one of the biggest expenses of the year, unforeseen circumstances make living more precarious. Natural disasters are just one of the many ways that life will push family finances and creativity to the limit.

Politically, Houston is a blue city that was already drowning in a red state. Texas came closer to electing a Democrat in 2016 than it has since the heyday of their native son, Lyndon Johnson, who admitted that by signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he was ceding the south to racial conservatives for the foreseeable future. It’s significant and youthful Latinx population and racially diverse cities are moving the state towards blue with every election. Houston is also unique because it has elected blacks, women, and same-gender loving people to its top leadership position. The current Mayor, Sylvester Turner, is the second African American man elected mayor of the city. He was preceded by a twice elected married lesbian with two black children. This is not Ted Cruz’s Texas. This is Houston. The state legislature registered its dislike of their sanctuary city status by passing SB4, which gave law enforcement agents the right to demand papers from suspected undocumented immigrants, and required city leaders to report undocumented immigrants and cooperate with increasing ICE raids. Enforcement of the bill was set to begin just as the storm hit. It was believed that undocumented immigrants were too afraid to seek help. The people tasked with rescuing stranded residents could also ask to see documents of the people being rescued. In addition to lost homes and possessions, unexpected deportations were a very real threat. Mayor Turner, in a nationally televised press conference, assured all residents that no one being rescued would be reported to ICE agents. Further, he would personally represent anyone threatened with deportation due to Harvey.

From my apartment in Philadelphia, I called family, watched storm news, and read a lot of posts about what people in Houston should’ve done to prepare for the storm and mitigate its impact. It was upsetting. I love Houston with all of its urban sprawl and part-time cowboys. I know the heart of the people. I wasn’t surprised that people were using their own boats and supplies to rescue people they had never met before. I’ve seen them do this kind of thing time and time again. These are the same people who invited tens of thousands of displaced New Orleans residents to Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many of them continue to make Houston their home.

My own family fared well, with minimal damage, in comparison to other Houstonians. Throughout the storm, I checked in with my sister. She went to work at a local hospital pharmacy on Saturday and came home on Wednesday. She worked long days despite seeing videos of water creeping up to her own front door with multiple generations of her family taking refuge in her home. As soon as the water went down, another sister heard that our family church was opening as a shelter and that they needed nurses. She got dressed and went off to assist, taking two young cousins with her. As we continue to learn about distant relatives and friends who have been hit hard we do what we can to help. We pull together — giving money, clothes and hugs to those in need. Everyone who could went back to work and many children have returned to school despite the journey back and forth being made ever more complicated by standing waters and damaged roads. Mountains of trash line roads where grass used to be. A lifetime of memories and hard work lie molding in the hot sun. For many, time will now be divided by before and after Harvey. The nation has turned its focus to Irma and the damage in Florida, but it will be years before Houston can remediate the destruction it faced. There will be a new normal. Houston will get there.

Melanye Price is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Rutgers University. Her most recent book is The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race (NYU Press)

Footnotes

[1] James Baldwin.1961. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. Dial Press.

 

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Melanye Price

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