By Tawny Tidwell
Earlier this week, I was holed up on high ground in Houston, riding out what meteorologists are calling an unprecedented flooding disaster brought on by Hurricane Harvey. My place has, so far, stayed relatively dry. But I have had to step out to lend a folding ladder to a friend, who drove a circuitous route to borrow it to fix his gutters, and lessen the chances of water cascading into his home. Other friends of mine are stranded on the second floors of their homes, crossing their fingers that waters don’t rise; many more are on their roofs awaiting rescue or already in shelters.
I am an organizer and working group leader with the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a left political group. I came to organizing via reproductive justice work with the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, an abortion fund that serves south and western Texas. In all of my work, I’ve always focused on the needs of the most vulnerable people. And in Houston, they are suffering — largely because of political choices Texan lawmakers have made. While nature is not political, the way natural disasters unfolds is. Houston’s low-income and black and brown communities will bear the brunt of Harvey’s destruction and will suffer the most when rebuilding efforts are underway.
After all, the severity of this storm’s impact was, on some level, the result of political choices. Decades of climate change denial and a refusal to prioritize (or even consider) prairie land conservation by the Harris County Flood Control District have contributed to the over development of the region. Since Tropical Storm Allison devastated Houston in 2001, Harris County has paved over substantial amounts of switch grass prairie, covering what were once absorbent switch grass lands with impermeable concrete. The result of the pro-development policies of the flood control district, combined with government at all levels refusing to address climate change infrastructure updates for the Texas Gulf Coast, is Houston suffering “the most urban flooding of any other area in the country in the past four decades.”
Houston’s affordable housing crisis has left low-income Houstonians with relatively little choice of where to live. Some of the only subsidized housing in the area was built in one of our many 100-year floodplains, designated as high risk zones for flooding by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Residents with little money return again and again to the same buildings, having to choose between potentially losing everything in a flood, or knowingly losing their access to housing subsidies.
Meanwhile, many homeowners in these communities may not know that they need to submit their flood claims to their insurance companies before Sept. 1 — that is, this coming Friday — while many are still without access to phones, computers or other means of communication. On that date, House Bill 1774 becomes a law in Texas. This bill, drafted by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, (R-North Richland Hills) and signed into law recently by Gov. Greg Abbott, will drastically limit homeowners’ ability to combat underpayment and late payment on their flood insurance claims. It also reduces the amount of interest that insurance companies are required to pay on late payments, from 18 to 10 percent and includes penalties for homeowners who do not meet an 80 percent accuracy requirement on their damage estimates. In other words, HB 1774 is one more way that Texas is punishing its vulnerable populations and all those who were affected by these once in a millennia floods: While wealthier people with more resources may have the ability to press their insurance companies and fight their findings, many people will find themselves in the wake of Harvey with nothing. And Texas has just given their insurance companies the edge.
It is beyond question that if Harvey had hit Houston directly, it would have resulted in economy-destroying damage to the Ship Channel and the city itself, because Houston and the Texan Gulf Coast are completely unprepared for the assaults that climate change has wrought and will continue to bring in the coming years. The city and state are also far behind on affordable housing, and Texas continues to pass laws that help big businesses and leave people — especially those with the least means — unable to fend for themselves.
So, as our politicians bumble through the relief effort, and as our president promotes books while we watch our friends beg for disaster assistance, keep in mind that the real crisis is still unfolding, and there’s still much ahead. Look to the real people being affected here in Houston. Demand federal climate legislation, demand your own cities prepare for the challenges ahead, and send us help any way you can.
This article first appeared in The Washington Post. Tawny Tidwell is a working group leader with the Houston Democratic Socialists of America, and a freelance digital marketing strategist.