West Street Recovery

Out of the Loop Post Harvey: A Volunteer Perspective

By Cassandra Georgantas

November, 2018 

It’s easy to forget. Over time it’s easy to forget that over a year ago one of the most devastating storms in Houston’s history swept through and destroyed people’s homes. about the neighborhoods and the people that have not been able to fully recover.  

When I moved away from Houston for college, I realized that I had taken Houston’s diversity for granted and I missed it. When I moved back, however, I realized that I actually didn’t know much about the neighborhoods or the people that make Houston diverse in the first place. As an aspiring law student and a native Houstonian, I am interested in the city policies and legal difficulties that people face in the wake of hurricanes and floods. Learning more about these issues, however, requires getting know the people that are the worst off after Harvey. In just a few work days, talking to residents has taught me so much about this city and its unique pockets of culture. I want to know more about what it means to be a Houstonian and the communities that make Houston one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.

Until I started working with West Street Recovery, I had no idea how beautiful Trinity Gardens, Houston Gardens, Kashmere Gardens, and Lakewood really are. These neighborhoods are interlaced with bayous and dotted with patches of woods. It doesn’t feel like the same city that’s situated within the bounds of 610. Although these areas are well within Houston’s city limits, they feel rural. There are horse stables and people produce their own food. The juxtaposition between this almost bucolic landscape and the heavy industrial infrastructure that cuts through these communities is striking. The train tracks, which are part of Houston’s economic backbone connecting the port to refineries and metal smelting plants, represent one of the many sharp contrasts that define the leafy neighborhoods bordering Tidwell and Mesa.  In my mind, East Houston existed in one mass loosely divided into specific neighborhoods, but any resident can tell you the exact lines that separate one area from another.

Driving around and seeing the areas that were heavily impacted by the storm is one thing, but getting out of the car is another entirely. The smell was the first thing that hit me. The putrid smell of the nearby landfill hangs in the air in Lakewood. Many of the homes in Trinity Gardens, Houston Gardens, Kashmere Gardens, and Lakewood appear to be in one piece, but their walls conceal the true wreckage left behind by Harvey over a year ago. A picture or a story cannot portray the full sensory effect of walking into a home that’s being eaten away by black mold. Even with a mask on, I can feel the mold in the back of my throat as we bust out rotting wood. The people who live in these houses deal with the mold every day because they do not have a choice or anywhere else to go.   

Everyone in NE Houston is in a different stage of recovery, and each family faces their own problems or barriers to putting their homes back together. Although one woman who I met had a her house intact, it took a year and three months for her to get hot water again. Another family I met, an elderly couple, desperately need a new roof and the shingles were donated to them, but they do not have the resources or the manpower to get the job done. These are just some of the realities that people continue to live through every day since the storm. Despite the varying states of disrepair that their homes are in, everyone that I have met is positive and funny and happy to chat for a bit. Although the built environment may still be in shambles, the sense of community within these neighborhoods is strong.

The lasting damage left behind by Harvey is not simply the physical wreckage, but also the mental strain and frustration associated with a slow recovery process. The barriers to accessing resources seem insurmountable without basic conveniences such as internet. The process to obtain aid can be complicated further by seemingly non-traditional family dynamics. One man, for example, cannot rebuild because he lives in a “non-essential” dwelling on his mother’s property, which makes him unqualified for aid. Small barriers such as this prevent him and many others from rebuilding the homes that they have lived in for years and sometimes generations. The neighborhoods in the forgotten pockets of East Houston have not fully recovered and rebuilding is often fraught with a new challenge at every turn.

Many of my friends who visit me in Houston ask if they can still see damage from the storm. In my naivety, I used to tell them no, not in Houston proper. I look back on that now and realize how uninformed I was about my own city. My neighborhood was lucky. Just a week after Harvey, things looked completely normal again. In fact, much of the inner loop was back to normal in three months, more or less. Houston, however, is much bigger than that and we still have entire neighborhoods that have not recovered. As Houstonians we cannot think of ourselves as isolated into separate groups. We cannot have a successful recovery without ensuring that all of the neighborhoods within the city limits have the same opportunities to rebuild as the rest of the city.