What We Do
All of West Street’s programs are oriented towards achieving a “just recovery” for Northeast Houston. A just recovery requires more than building back the systems and infrastructure that existed before. Rather than being deviations from the norm, disasters are amplifications and exposures of prior failures in the United States housing, government aid and social support, and economic systems. Disaster is year-round and historical, and recovery to an unjust status quo is no recovery at all.
Climate change is making extreme weather events increasingly frequent and unpredictable. Now more than ever, it is critical that disaster recovery is leveraged towards liberation. To break out of present structural failures that contribute to a perpetual disaster for communities like Northeast Houston, we aim to provide material support in the present in addition to working alongside residents towards long-term systems change.
WSR provides disaster recovery support to households who are excluded from most government and nonprofit assistance programs due to wealth, race, language, and/or technology barriers. As a group we responded to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019, and most recently Winter Storm Uri in 2021: distributed food, water, and cash assistance to meet immediate needs, and helped households apply to aid programs.
During our early days in the aftermath of Harvey, we began directly repairing damaged homes when we realized the government aid so many flooded residents were waiting for might never come. In the years after Hurricane Harvey, WSR repaired 22 homes in their entirety and completed 68 repairs of limited scope. Since the Texas Winter Storm WSR has restored water access to over 100 families. Since 2017, WSR’s home repair program has touched over 200 families in Northeast Houston.
Our home repair program is not limited to disaster-specific response, because for many households that we work with disasters overlap with each other into a never-ending recovery process. Four years out from Harvey, we still encounter families who have been living with damage they cannot afford to repair. Nine months after Uri, we intake dozens of households monthly who still have busted pipes or moldy sheetrock.
WSR uses our engagement with the network of recovery programs/funders throughout Houston to push back on unjust norms within the recovery apparatus. Bureaucratic structures of corporate charities and governmental organizations often create an inflexible, inefficient, and ill-informed approach to recovery. To improve relief programming, we relay the stories, needs, and desires of the communities we work with to these organizations.
Through the recovery process WSR has circulated skills and money within the neighborhood by training community members to complete home repairs and contracting local, BIPOC owned firms to do more than $1 million of work. We believe that this roots the economic impact of our work in the community and will improve resilience in the future. WSR has used home repair to build a base of community organizers and advocates and have shown that a high trust, low barrier disaster recovery is possible.
Preparing for Disaster
WSR works towards increasing resilience and preparedness in communities on the frontline of the climate crisis. To support material preparedness we have distributed emergency supplies to the community. We distributed 90 go-bags with essential supplies for households in case of power outage or evacuation. We have also set up 9 generators in houses with vulnerable family members, especially those with medical needs.
WSR has also experimented with flood resilient design to greatly reduce initial damage and speed up recovery time after a home has been flooded. Standard residential home design and materials are poorly adapted to Houston’s humid, flood-prone environment. For example, drywall and traditional insulation rapidly spread moisture and mold easily. In response we have successfully tested out low-cost, sustainable materials and strategies including metal kitchen cabinets, “muck-ready walls”, and no drywall external insulation.
While we believe real material aid and large-scale investment is an indispensable part of a just recovery for historically marginalized neighborhoods like Northeast Houston, we are also wary of establishing a relationship of dependency or charity without pushing for structural change.
Long-term community resilience and self-reliance depends on establishing social structures in which neighbors are able to care for each other through mutual aid. Through the principle of mutual aid we are able to activate and grow already existing resources, skills, experience, and community. While members of the WSR community already have a network and communicate with each other year-round, we are currently piloting a more targeted disaster response network in the Lakewood neighborhood within Northeast Houston. Our goal is that the Lakewood program will be trained to activate for disaster preparedness and response during future disasters, and serve as a model for other neighborhoods.
WSR organizes alongside disaster survivors for structural changes so that communities can shape and win their own solutions to historical and ongoing injustices. The perspective and priorities of flood survivors that we work with is at the core of all of WSR’s programs, from home repair to disaster preparedness. Our community organizing and advocacy efforts are undertaken in addition to this baseline.
Two distinct community groups driven by residents and flood survivors themselves have emerged within the broader West Street community. The Northeast Action Collective (NAC), formed in 2018, is organizing on issues of inadequate drainage in northeast Houston. The Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus, also formed in 2018, is demanding fair treatment from the ongoing CDBG-DR Harvey Home Repair program (originally run by the city of Houston, now taken over by the State of Texas GLO).
For both groups we offer tech and staffing to support biweekly meetings over the past three years, continuing meetings virtually through the COVID-19 pandemic. We also host regular leadership and capacity-building trainings for skills including media, grant-writing, and facilitation.
Currently the vast majority of WSR’s just recovery advocacy is undertaken through or alongside the NAC. With NAC members we have initiated campaigns to push government agencies to respond adequately to disaster, environmental, and climate issues our neighborhoods face. In 2018 we pushed for the Harris County Flood Bond to equitably distribute $2.5 Billion of drainage infrastructure funding and won a historic inclusion of “equity” language in the bond itself. Currently we are demanding real investment from the City on street drainage and maintenance.
West Street Recovery has taken on a number of research projects on flooding and disaster recovery that center the knowledge and perspectives of marginalized neighborhoods, flood impacted communities and disaster survivors.
Our research projects use a participatory action research approach, which understands research as a tool for action, reflection, and social change. In taking community members on as full co-researchers, we recognize the knowledge of marginalized individuals, build the skills of community leaders, and strengthen a community’s understanding of flooding, disaster and recovery as collective rather than individual issues. Gathering knowledge and experiences into defined papers also creates a path for solutions envisioned by frontline communities to reach decision makers and a broader audience.
This style of research is motivated by WSR’s conviction that flood impacted communities and disaster survivors are best positioned to identify flaws in the current recovery process and propose the dramatic changes needed to make a just recovery possible. This approach strives to disrupt the pattern of extractive research that further burdens marginalized people while benefiting researchers. In participatory action research, the knowledge created is shared with the community and used to further solidarity and strengthen community.
Survivors as Experts: Disaster Recovery after Hurricane Harvey
Working Paper to be published by Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado, Boulder
This comprehensive report identifies and analyzes the barriers to recovery from Hurricane Harvey from the perspective of residents living in low income Black and Brown neighborhoods in Northeast Houston. The research interviews and focus groups took place in 2018-2019, and the report was written in 2020-2021. The results include critiques of the disaster recovery apparatus both on an administrative and a structural level, as well as recommendations for improving the recovery process to work towards a Just Recovery.
Study funded by the River Network
This study used 68 survey responses as the basis for a community mapping project to assess impacts of flooding in Northeast Houston. The survey results illustrate the widespread issue of flooding from both natural disasters and everyday rain events, the consequent risks to health, finances, and community, and the dissatisfaction with government response. The study also collected desired solutions from the community, which included improved street drainage, improved sewage system, and updated infrastructure.
Study funded by the National Academy of Sciences, Gulf Coast Resiliency Program
This report explains strategies that individuals, households, and communities can use to improve preparedness and resilience. In Spring 2021, WSR conducted three focus groups of residents who have faced disaster in quick succession. Residents living in marginalized communities and repeatedly flooded are realistic; they say we should continue to push for state action but plan as if it will not occur. Thus, they are most reliant on and confident in community organizations and each other to prepare for, survive during and recover from disasters.