Houston, a low-lying city built over a swamp, is home to some of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. It’s increasingly prone to stronger hurricanes and floods. The Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, has been fighting since 2017 for equitable recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which inundated the city with record-breaking levels of rain. 

The coalition, made up of a variety of community-based organizations, advocates for stronger policy solutions at the state and local levels around housing and disaster preparation and recovery, and it helps residents of hard-hit Houston neighborhoods access government and philanthropic aid after disasters. Executive director Chrishelle Palay talked with Southerly about the disaster-to-disaster cycle, the importance of community organizing, and the effects of the state of Texas’ General Land Office decisions to distribute federal aid in a way that disadvantaged low-income communities of color in Houston. These answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Being proactive instead of reactive

There are opportunities to provide what I call “pre-covery” to our most vulnerable community members and be on the proactive side as opposed to reactive. 

There are thousands of community members who have applied for assistance after a storm for repairs. And so we already know who the most vulnerable people are already before the disaster hits. There are opportunities we’re not taking advantage of. How about we build a database to prioritize where those folks are before a storm hits? So we are actually doing intentional outreach to get those community members tarps, or find out if they have insurance ahead of time. 

I think what underpins all of this are the systemic issues and the ways in which we still have not figured out at the federal and local level to coordinate and deliver programs efficiently. We are doing advocacy work on a national level, working with other groups to push for a centralized agency that’s specifically focused on disaster recovery. Because right now, the way that it works, you have different offices and agencies that have pieces of disaster recovery– HUD, FEMA, the SBA.

All these people just fall through the gaps. So grassroots organizations, community leaders, folks that have a good heart—they’re trying to do their best to help recover from disaster. It falls on community groups to try and provide that assistance to the most vulnerable. 

Navigating the disaster cycle

Some of the same folks have been trying to recover from disaster to disaster. We have households that still need repairs from Hurricane Ike [in 2008]. One of the requirements to qualify for programs was to have a clear deed and title to your property. Well, when you have homes that are passed on generations, that may not be so clear. You have folks who are behind on property taxes, and one of the requirements is that you have to be on a property tax payment plan. But oftentimes, the payment plan is still beyond what many of our elder elderly residents can afford on their Social Security. So therefore, they can’t get caught up, they don’t qualify. And so storm after storm after storm, you know, they just try to put a tarp on–I see sometimes billboards on roofs just try to mitigate as much damage as possible.

How the Texas’ discriminatory aid distribution impacted Houston

It definitely was a slap in the face and on one hand, but it was also from these committee members, just like, you know, nobody expected anything different. This is the way that we’ve been treated  for generations at this point in time. And so when the HUD announcement came out, basically saying that the funds had not been administered in an equitable way, it was a sense of validation, saying, okay, you see us. You see that this is an issue that’s been going on 

Even Hurricane Ike, this is basically what happened with the initial recovery funds. They were allocated in areas that weren’t even affected. We’re seeing the state government use the same playbook over and over again– now it’s mitigation dollars. 

Reaching people during the pandemic

Last year, we had a hurricane preparedness education series where we partnered with Lone Star Legal Aid and others to deliver various webinars. Because of course, you know, we were in the middle of a pandemic. And we were very intentional about having a text campaign, where we would text out resources to the folks who were at risk of being evicted because of COVID or had already been evicted. And so we built up that database of folks that we knew were most vulnerable. So we continue to have texting campaigns with them back and forth and sending them information. 

Because of climate change, we are seeing storms happen time and time again. We never really know what to expect—all we can do is expect the worst and hope for the best. We have to have organizations with boots on the ground. Various communities have different capacities. One of your first steps should be to reach out to your city council member to see what resources are available. Or in Houston, check with your super neighborhood leaders.  

Some people may not know to contact those folks, and there’s also an issue of trust. That’s where the grassroots organizations come in, the ones that are knocking door to door and saying, “Make sure you have enough water and batteries.”