Amy Zachmeyer was the co-chair of the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America during the recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey. Zachmeyer describes how before the storm, the DSA began an online fundraiser to raise money to buy essential goods for those in need and discusses the challenges the group faced after raising more than $100,000.
A large portion of the funds were distributed directly to those in need. Zachmeyer explains that as time passed, recovery efforts became more difficult as the DSA focused on other issues, such as canvassing for Medicare for All, and that the DSA Harvey Relief Program lasted for two years. Zachmeyer expresses her frustrations with FEMA’s disaster response strategy and explains how the recovery efforts have shifted her ideas of political advocacy. The conversation covers how Zachmeyer believes Houston is still unprepared for the next storm, despite the lessons learned from Harvey.
Interviewee: Amy Zachmeyer
Interview Date: October 23, 2019
Interview Location: M.D. Anderson Library at University of Houston
Interviewer: Christopher Kessinger
INTERVIEWER: This is Chris Kessinger recording an interview with Amy Zachmeyer for the Resilient Houston project. Today is October 23rd. We are in the M.D. Anderson Library at UH. And Amy is going to tell us about her experiences volunteering with Hurricane Harvey.
CK: Amy, can you just tell me a little bit about your history, and how you came to Houston, and also how you got involved in politics?
AZ: Sure. I guess I’ll give you, again, the long version. So I grew up in a small town in north-central Texas — very conservative family, very evangelical upbringing. And then I went to Texas A&M University. I met my [0:01:00] partner there. I was always a little bit, like, rebellious in ways. Like, but it wasn’t rebellious in a sense that, like, normal people — like teenagers go out and drink alcohol or something. You know, I would, like, just be like, “Evolution’s real, and I can wear pants.” So like, I mean, I was always allowed to wear pants, but to church even I could wear pants. So you know, I was rebellious in that sense — always a Democrat. Then I went to Texas A&M. I actually got less politically involved there, because it was so conservative. And also, my heart had been broken by the Bush-Gore election. That was the first, like, election that I was super-involved in.
And then when I moved — my partner — I met my partner my freshman year of college. And we — I started my career there, because he took a little longer to graduate than I did. And I was working in child welfare. And then when he [0:02:00] graduated, it was in, like, late 2007. So it was, like, starting to get a little more difficult job-wise. And you definitely couldn’t find a job in College Station just by the nature of lots of people in College Station want to stay there. So he ended up going to railroad school, and we moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. So I continued to commute to Texas and work doing child welfare work — and then got really burnt out on that, because the problem isn’t the individual families, like, do acts of child abuse. The problem is more often that it’s a systemic problem. So you can’t fix those by doing a case-by-case basis. So I got really burnt out, because it just felt like I was spinning my wheels constantly and helping people here and there. It’s still an important job, but it’s also just soul crushing for that reason.
And then I ended up being a manager at Walgreens when I left that job. At the same time, my partner had a union job for the railroad. So we were able to kind of compare and contrast our relationships [0:03:00] to management and our way — like the way that companies treat people. And at my job, they always had me have, like, meetings where they would have me tell people like, “Oh, yeah, we need to cut your hours by two hours a week, because Walgreens has got this project for growth where we’re going to need a hundred bazillion dollars in liquid cash. And we want our assets to be this amount, so the Walgreens family is cutting, like, hours as a whole.” And there’s no way to tell someone making $7.25 an hour that you need 14 of their dollars so that you can have a hundred million dollars and not start getting a little bit radicalized by it.
And at the same time, my partner had a union, and, like, they would fight together. And I started understanding, like, the working-class movement and became a Socialist in 2009. But I didn’t think anybody else was a Socialist. So we were actually pretty miserable in Shreveport [0:04:00]. We had made friends there, but it was just not a great place for us. So ended up — the second he got an opportunity to move to Houston, he took a job here. And we both moved. I still thought that I was, like, one of the only Socialists in the world and that, like, I didn’t have a lot of like-minded people out there. But then Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy, and I saw a group forming very early on in his candidacy. Like before he even had a ground game, there was a group of volunteers here in Houston organizing.
So I went to the first meeting, and I was like — oh, we all did, like, the round of introductions, where you say, like, why you came. And so I was like, “Oh, my name is Amy Zachmeyer, and I’m here because I’m a Democratic Socialist just like Bernie Sanders.” And I thought everyone in the room would — keep in mind, at this point, it was like eight people, one other person a little younger than me and a bunch of people that were [0:05:00] significantly older than me. And I thought that it was going to be a little bit scandalous for folks, but then they were kind of like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And so I kept going to those meetings. That movement kept growing, and then when Bernie Sanders came in July of 2015 to speak. And, like, there were — it was here on — at U of H’s campus. Thousands of people were there. Some of the older folks that I thought would be scandalized by me saying that I was a Democratic Socialist — like one of them literally had a DSA tattoo — or a Democratic Socialists of America tattoo. And like, they were, like, it’s time to start a new chapter. Then they made me the co-chair. And then — yeah, so that’s how I got to kind of where I am now with DSA.
CK: Alright, so moving on to Hurricane Harvey, what were your thoughts as it began to approach Houston back in 2017 [0:06:00] on Wednesday and Thursday before?
AZ: So we had just had our national convention of DSA. And we had done, like, a lot of bonding and, like, started to really believe, like, our movement could do something. And we thought, “Well, the storm’s coming, and, like, people are going to want to help. And so, we’ll make a fund. And we’ll probably raise, like, $10,000. And we’ll be able to buy, like, water and that sort of thing.” So as the storm was rolling in, like, and we’re all staying in our homes, via, like, using, you know, like, online platforms basically and telephone calls, we planned to start, like, a GoFundMe.
We used what was called YouCaring, which I think has since been bought by GoFundMe, but that’s irrelevant. We started a fund. We did not have a bank account. We did not have a plan as far as, like, anything than just buying water and, like, blankets or something. And [0:07:00] while — as the storm is rolling in, the funds are getting higher and higher and higher. And we’re watching it, and it’s like $30,000 and then $50,000. And then we start panicking, because our treasurer had just been using their personal bank account to, like, cash out stuff in the past. Because we had raised, like $300 here and, like, $200 there, and $15 — you know, like small amounts of money. And you don’t have to report that to the IRS necessarily. So like, we just hadn’t worried about it, because our group was so small. And then, all of the sudden, we have a $120,000.
So we had to call — one of our members was a lawyer. And like, we got that going, so he was like — he did our paperwork online to get us, like, an EIN, which is what you need to open a bank account, and got us registered. We had to vote very quickly to incorporate and make decisions, like, [0:08:00] that that we normally wouldn’t have just made on our own. We would have used — made the whole — have the whole group involved — and then did that. And then we learned from a comrade from another state. I think he’s from Oklahoma, who works in disaster relief. He immediately was like, “Do not buy water and blankets. Like, people are going to do that, and that’s going to be available. What people need is cash money.” And so we bought like a lot of gift cards and then just started handing them out.
CK: Before all that started, what was your personal experience with the storm? How did it affect you personally?
AZ: So the storm didn’t affect me individually. Like, my house didn’t flood. I had moved my car up to the top of a garage, so that didn’t flood. Although, I couldn’t get my car out. So many people parked on the top of the garage that you couldn’t leave, which was fine, because we didn’t need to anyway. But we — I didn’t know, but my partner [0:09:00] kept watching the dam — like, the dam levels of the — I think it’s the Addicks. And it got like right before it was going to crest. And like, he just kept thinking, “It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.” And I didn’t realize that, had that washed out, there’s this, like, gross, like, what I thought was a drainage ditch that ran along the edge of my apartment. And I just thought of it as a drainage ditch that I thought was, like, kind of a fancy drainage ditch.
And every day, my partner was walking the dog. And every day, he’s watching that get higher and higher. Like trees had fallen over, but just from my perspective not leaving the apartment at all, I couldn’t see any of that. So yeah, the water was getting higher and higher. And I didn’t realize that that drainage ditch was part of the bayou. And so had the water flooded out, like, we would have almost immediately flooded significantly. So yeah, it was [0:10:00] — like, after we could leave the house and go places, if you went one block north of me or one block west of me, all of those homes were flooded, but I didn’t know. I guess my partner was just, like, keeping me calm, or he didn’t realize I didn’t realize. But yeah, we were very luck that we didn’t get affected.
CK: After the storm, once the fundraiser was done, what did you decide to do with the money? How did you decide it was going to be allocated?
AZ: So we had an executive committee that was now, like, the board of the nonprofit that we had formed during the storm. And we came up with a proposal to do three things with the money. We learned from our comrade in Oklahoma that people would need help pulling out, like drywall [0:11:00] that was no longer dry and that sort of thing — and, like, pulling out flooring and all of that — and that we could buy tools to do that. So we agreed to spend some of the money on that effort — and then another portion of the money on direct aid. If you want to get money from FEMA or from the Red Cross and that sort of thing, like, you have to go through an application process.
And it takes time, but there are lots of needs that people have that are immediate and that you can’t just get handed to you for free — you know, specific medications, lots of stuff that you just need for your personal care every day, menstrual products. You know, and everyone has, like, individual needs that aren’t just, like, lined up in a row at a shelter. And you had to get access to the shelter in order to get to those things. So with the nature of sprawl and the nature of the parts of town that flooded and the fact that people’s cars were flooded, like, people [0:12:00] weren’t necessarily able to access the aid. So we just gave people, with no questions asked, “Here’s money.” And we set up a form that people could fill out to do that just through, like, Google Forms.
And then we gave $30,000 to a nonprofit organization that works specifically with the undocumented community. We knew that, you know, there was a lot of threatening behavior going on during the storm. They said, “Oh, no one’s going to get, you know, interviewed by ICE or arrested during the –” like if you go to a shelter. And then at the same time, President Trump visited the NRG Stadium shelter and had Border Patrol act as his security during that time. And I actually worked right by over there, and it was clearly sending a message. And so we knew that there was a lot of fear at that time [0:13:00] just because most of us only speak English. Like, we weren’t going to have a much access to maybe people who were monolingual Spanish. And so we wanted to make sure that an organization that could get the money where it needed to go had it. So we donated the money directly to that organization.
CK: Was there any consultation with the general body of the organization before you did this? Or was it just a lateral decision?
AZ: So initially, we did just kind of have to make decisions on the fly. But eventually, it came time to have our first meeting, so we made a proposal. And we sent that to — like we gave the proposal to the general body. And so before we wrote a check for $30,000, that was decided collectively. And before we, like, really started handing out money in earnest, that was also decided collectively. And then the decision to create [0:14:00] a team that would be leading up the efforts for the muck and gutting was also decided collectively. So we had like this three-part plan that we presented. And it was voted, I think, unanimously to go into place.
CK: What kind of needs were you seeing from people? Do you know what people were using the money for?
AZ: One of the things that we started purchasing that we did for a few families was car seats. That was something that wasn’t just provided easily. And people couldn’t leave their homes or would have to risk, you know, driving with their child not safely secured. And so I actually — we were giving out $200 gift cards, and that didn’t necessarily cover that. So for families that needed car seats, I would go find — I would find out exactly what the child’s weight was and, like, all of that and then would purchase a car seat that would [0:15:00] — and we wouldn’t purchase like the cheap one that was just for one weight class. But we would try to get the ones that would last them until, like, the child was five years old. But we would purchase car seats. A lot of children’s furniture was purchased.
You know, we didn’t have enough money to, like, furnish entire homes. We would have helped like three people if we had done that. So instead, we decided to spend smaller amounts — bought people a lot of furniture or mattresses. But people definitely wanted to make sure their kids were taken care of first. That was really clear to me, so we helped with that as much as we could. We were hopeful that if we could help with that then the other funds could go toward meeting, like, the entire family’s needs — and then definitely medication.
We also — you know, when people got flooded out and, like, their properties were deemed uninhabitable, they would have to find a place to live immediately. And so it made it actually [0:16:00] very difficult to find an apartment. So we like paid for like some security deposits and that sort of thing so that — you know, people could afford their rent, but they couldn’t afford, you know, first and last month plus a deposit. So we helped with that whenever we could.
CK: Did you see needs change as time passed? And how so if you did?
AZ: It went from just, like, immediate things like, “I need diapers and, you know, water,” or like the ability to — because not everyone got a free hotel with FEMA — you know, like, the ability to have, like, a place to stay overnight to just replacing the things that were lost. You know, when we very first starting, people weren’t asking us to buy furniture. And then — but as time went on, like, it started being, like, more permanent needs and less, like [0:17:00], immediate needs.
CK: You already mentioned the charity that worked with undocumented immigrants, but were there any other organizations that the Houston DSA worked with during all this?
AZ: So some other organizations were working rebuilding. And so initially, we had like a strong list of people that needed their homes to have a muck and gut, which is where you pull out all of the — basically everything. And you pile it up on the corner. And so we initially, like, had enough people, and we could just keep doing those. But we started running out of, like, our own contacts to do that with. So initially, we worked with the Texas AFL-CIO and the Texas State Employees Union. And we were helping union member families.
Then we moved onto helping with West Street Recovery. They [0:18:00] had a list, so we acted as a volunteer, like — or through — like, using their list and, like, identifying families that needed help with muck and guts. And then eventually, organizations started doing rebuilds. So we would come in and do the first part. And then we would, like, clear it out, so that then the other organization could come in and do the rebuilds. Other than that, we didn’t do a lot of — on the financial aid side of things, we didn’t work with a lot of other groups on that. We had our own list, like, because through social media, people shared it. And so ended up with more people than we could actually help financially just on that list alone.
But we did have people — like other groups sharing it, for example. Like, the Texas State Employees Union definitely — I was working there, so we shared it for sure. And we were able to help state workers who had been affected [0:19:00] very immediately. Because the AFL-CIO and the Communication Workers of America were — had a fund, but it was an application process. So whenever people would come in to apply, I was able to also help them immediately so that while they were waiting to receive larger funds from larger organizations, they would have something to help get them by.
CK: This is a political-activism organization kind of. So what did the process of getting people out to do physical labor, like the muck and guts, look like?
AZ: So people were initially really enthusiastic about going out and helping with that. So getting our local organization to do it was just literally, like, messaging about it on our — on the, like — on our online communication platform for that, putting up Facebook events, and sending out emails to our membership. But we also [0:20:00] used a Google Form for people to be able to volunteer, so we — like, people outside of the organization sometimes did come as well. And then people from other states occasionally — or other chapters occasionally would come. And we would arrange for them to, like, have a place to stay while they were here and that kind of thing. But they usually did that by emailing our leadership directly.
CK: To what degree did Houston DSA collaborate with other chapters?
AZ: It wasn’t a major — not to a great degree. I mean, you know, people came and helped on occasion. But once the storm calmed down, like — you know, like, life went back to normal. And so people having to travel here was pretty significant. We did have one group from Chicago that came that was particularly helpful to me personally, because they took on the role of calling the people who needed financial aid [0:21:00] and delivering some of those funds. And I had been doing that. At the very first, it was just a couple of us doing that. And I had been heading it up, which meant that I was making these phone calls to people in crisis all day long. So that was really helpful that they kind of took that off of my shoulders. One of the people in that group was a social worker and so recognized that I was, like, starting to suffer from vicarious traumatization, which is what happens whenever you’re just constantly provided empathy and taking on the trauma of the people around you. And so she was very, very helpful in that. She went through and tried to call as many people as possible, because I wouldn’t do it.
Because the thing is is that people aren’t used to receiving aid just because they need it. They’re used to having to prove that they need it, so even though I would say, like, “Here’s a $200 gift card. It’s free to you. Like, you don’t have to, you know, fill out [0:22:00] a –” They’d be like, “Well, where’s the paperwork? Like, what do I need to do to get this from you?” And I’m like, “Take it out of my hand, and spend it however you need.” People didn’t understand that, so they would want to tell you what had happened and why they really needed it. Because they felt guilty taking aid even though they were in great need. So they would just tell me, you know, this is — this happened, and then this happened. “And you know, my mom is disabled, and we couldn’t get her out of the house.” And like, I would just go through these stories all day long. So whenever other people came in who hadn’t lived with the trauma of the storm, hadn’t just been there as it rained for days and days and days and didn’t stop, and hearing the helicopters, and watching the news — having people from the outside come and help with that was really, really useful to us.
CK: You already briefly touched on FEMA, but how effective overall would you say that existing government programs and organizations were at dealing with the crisis [0:23:00]?
AZ: Well, you know, most poor and working-class folks are renters. And FEMA is very centered around property. And so if you’re not a property owner but you still lost your home where you live, you don’t get the same kind of assistance that a homeowner gets. And so I found that like — I understand they have to measure value. And I understand, like, why the government thinks that they need to run things a certain way. But the way that it’s structured, it isn’t structured around meeting the needs of people. It’s about replacing property it seems to me. So often, the people in the most need are the people least able to receive aid, because they couldn’t show that they had some massive property loss even though the security of having a place [0:24:00] to live and their ability to replace their basic needs was probably less than a landlord who owned several homes. And so that, I think, is a major problem with the way that we run FEMA.
Not only that, but there was massive misinformation out there. And the hoops that you have to jump through are massive, and you’re talking about people who literally only have, like, the clothes on their back. And you’re asking them to proof XYZ and show, you know, proof of things and that sort of thing when they’re unable to do it. So they’re put in a situation where they’re told, “This is how you ask for aid.” They’re absolutely unable to do it, and they just feel hopeless as a result. So I was glad that, when folks were in those circumstances, we were able to at least give them a little bit to help get them by, so they could get through that crisis and then be able to jump through the ridiculous hoops of applying for FEMA aid.
CK: Earlier this year, the [0:25:00] Houston DSA’s Harvey Relief Program was finally wound down. So what led to that?
AZ: You know, we started running out of homes. But also, Colleen, one of the two women who ran our demo crew, had been — eventually, she started doing it on her own, because the other person moved away. She had been doing it almost every weekend for two years. And so, as the need reduced, it was kind of time for her to be able to step away and say, “Okay, like, we finished this.” Of course, like, a couple months after we finished it, we had another massive flood. So they ended up coming back and doing one more weekend recently. But we did start running out of homes, but it’s wild to me that it took us two years to run out of homes. We were going to homes that had not been opened since Harvey, like, two years later [0:26:00].
CK: How did this volunteer program affect Houston DSA?
AZ: In many ways, I think it helped bond us and bring us together. And in other ways, it did, like, take up capacity that was, as a political organization, would probably have spent on other political work. At the same time, like, I would choose to do it again every time. But you know, it made — it did, for a while, make it hard to do anything but that, because the project was so big. So we kind of stopped doing political organizing and, like, what most people would call activism. We kind of quit doing as much of that and were focused more on aid. Luckily, we were — had grown to the point where — after maybe, like, three months, we were able to kind of step back and say, like, “Okay, the people on this steering committee are going to focus on, like, making sure [0:27:00] the organization’s functioning.” And then we had people that led the aid side and the demo side that were able to take on those projects and get volunteers for that.
But you know, before that, we had been working on Medicare for All. And so, you know, whenever we would do a Medicare for All canvas, members would have to choose, “Do I want to go do muck and gut? Or do I want to go do a Medicare for All canvas?” So it did affect our capacity to do certain political work, but I think that, you know, it was much better for our community for us to be out in the community helping the community than knocking on additional 40 doors for Medicare for All. Some people disagree with that, but I don’t think those people lived here and saw what people were going through.
CK: Did it affect the broader national organization in any way? Or were its effects mostly local?
AZ: I think its effects were mostly local. I do think that it motivated people to [0:28:00] take on, A, projects in their own communities. And I do think it made it where, you know — I’ve been — I’ve talked with people that have had stuff going on who’ve said, like, “What do I need to do to help with this thing that happened in our community?” It’s usually stuff that’s on a way smaller scale than Hurricane Harvey, which is one of the worst disasters we’ve ever seen, right? So I’m able to tell people, like, “Okay, well, there are things you need to do before you do this. Like, have a bank account. Consider the fact that you’re going to have to file taxes. Like, consider that you have to be extremely responsible in managing the money.” So if these chapters don’t have bank accounts or things like that yet, they’re able to be better prepared than we were — on kind of one of those things, like — it’s one of those things like, “Learn from my mistakes,” kind of thing, which we were very lucky.
Everything ended up okay, but it was really [0:29:00] stressful in the moment whenever we were, like, watching that money roll in and not knowing what we were — how we were even going to withdraw it, because we didn’t have a bank account. It was pretty stressful. So I’ve been able to — I have, and then other comrades that worked on this have been able to talk with other chapters about the work and, like, guide them in a more efficient, better way to do similar things in the future.
CK: Speaking of learning from mistakes, what lessons were learned from this whole program?
AZ: I think that, you know, a lot of times in DSA we talk about mutual aid projects. But I think in many ways, we fail to make it a mutual aid project. Because mutual aid is when you are aiding a group, and it also benefits your group. And I think that we mostly were just providing aid to others, but we weren’t using the political moment to do things that would move our organization forward in the same way. We did receive, like, some peripheral benefits of, like — you know, it helped build a name [0:30:00] for us and, like, that kind of thing within the activist community. But I would have preferred that we had been doing organizing of the people, teaching them how to better advocate for themselves and their communities.
Because there was one street in Houston that we worked on almost every single home there. And then the next time it flooded, all of those homes flooded again. Because that community just floods. And the city doesn’t care, because they’re poor and working-class folks. So they — like, I would have preferred to spend more time on political education and more time on teaching people organizing skills, so they could organize in their own community. But honestly, we were all just trying to survive in the moment. And I don’t — you know, I don’t think it’s bad that we didn’t do those things. I just wish that we could have done that as well, because I think that it would have — I consider [0:31:00] organizing people into learning how to do political activism and political organizing as teaching people how to have the key to their own liberation. That’s why I do this work.
It’s why I believe in Democratic Socialism as I believe the working class should be able to advocate for ourselves and have a say in our own lives. And I wish we had been able to incorporate teaching people those skills in addition to the physical labor that we did. But I never want anyone to hear me say that and think that I say, “Oh, I wish we hadn’t done this.” I’m happy with what we did. I just wish we could have also done more.
CK: Earlier this year, Houston was struck by Tropical Storm Imelda, which, once again, caused a lot of flooding. Do you think that the city learned any lessons from Harvey? Or is it still stuck in the same patterns?
AZ: Oh, absolutely [0:32:00] Houston is still stuck in the same patterns. So not — maybe not even a year after Hurricane Harvey happened, there was an application to build in a floodplain. And it unanimously passed with our city council to build a housing development in a floodplain. Like, developers run the city, and they don’t care about people. Because not only is that going to result in those homes flooding eventually, but it’s also going to result in more homes flooding because there’s nowhere for the water to go. So no, I don’t think the city cares. And we did see that, like, the same homes continue to flood. And I don’t think that we’ve been proactive enough. I don’t think we’ve held polluting corporations accountable enough, because we also have the — what was — the ITC fire has [0:33:00] happened. You know, we put our community at risk all the time in the name of capital. And we continue to do that, and I think that until the people of Houston stand up and say, “Enough is enough,” that it’s going to keep happening regardless of the consequences. Sorry, that’s dark.
CK: It’s fine. So how has Harvey specifically affected you political organizing then?
AZ: I think it deepened my sense of wanting to organize the people to advocate for themselves rather than an advocacy model where I look at an issue that I think would benefit the working class. And then I say, you know, “Oh, support this issue,” or whatever. And then, like, I do the work on supporting the issue. Instead, it shifted me to [0:34:00] really think about the fact that people’s own lived experience is the most valuable political knowledge that anyone has and that nobody knows their own circumstances and nobody will advocate for themselves like themselves.
So we have a lot of people who are disenfranchised in this country — a lot of people who are — that feel really disempowered because of the nature of our political system. And I think that it really rooted me in — I had like a theoretical understanding of what it meant to be a Socialist and to believe in working-class power and organizing. But it really rooted me into the why — the why we talk about it that way, the why white saviorism is bad, why we have to really go out there and start talking to people and organizing them, and trusting that people, like, have the ability to [0:35:00] advocate for themselves.
So I already knew it, and I already thought that way. But it really grounded me in it, because I saw how people were actually very resilient. And people could articulate what they need. The only problem is is that — the problem isn’t the people don’t know what they need or know how to demand it. The problem is that they don’t know that the system’s broken. The problem is is that we’ve been kept separate and individualized and taught that, like, you know, we’re supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We haven’t been taught that we build community and we can become political — that we’re all political all the time and that we can work together to build power and demand not only what I need for myself but what my neighbor needs for themselves, et cetera, et cetera.
CK: Since we still have a little bit of time, would you mind going back to Harvey and talking about specific stories about people who you encountered that were in need [0:36:00] of help?
AZ: Sure. One of them — one of the people that we worked with early on — two of the union members that we worked with early on – like, one of the first weekends we went out – had really sad stories. One of them was somebody I happened to be really close with. When we went in his home, you could see that it was already in really bad condition before it had happened. And what happened is he lived somewhere that flooded during Allison. And he got his money, and he owned his home. He’s a state employee. He owned his home — had like scraped together all his pennies that he could — definitely not a well-paid position that he’s working with in the state. And he paid people to help fix his home during Allison, and they did, like, almost nothing and then took his money and left him high [0:37:00] and dry.
So when we were going in, we were dealing with things that were left over from the time before. And he had been living like that since Hurricane Allison, which I can’t remember when that happened. But it was a very long time ago. And that’s because there are people who come in and do a lot of — I mean, it’s disaster capitalism to a certain extent. It’s also just like people who see these federal funds that are going to happen and see an opportunity to take advantage of people who are powerless in our communities. And so that had happened to him. And it was really heartbreaking to see that my friend had been, like, kind of living in these conditions for a while. So we got his home as livable as we possibly could but also arranged — like, talked with him about that he could go stay with family while he figured out what to do about his home. So that happened.
And then we were also working with literally his next-door neighbor [0:38:00], who also happened to be a state employee. And she lived in a rental home, so we didn’t do as much there. But we were helping her move all her stuff out and go through and figure out what she could save and that kind of thing. And she had — it’s something that you see a lot in working-class families, so I think people don’t realize — where you have like three or four generations living in the same home. So it was, like, her, and her brothers, and her mother, I think — like, all lived in this rent home. And she had been living in Houston for some time, but her brother, who had, I think, lung cancer and could barely breathe anyway and had been staying in this mold-filled house for, like, two weeks, had moved to Houston, because when — I’m going to cry. When Hurricane Katrina happened, he — they literally just put people on a bus [0:39:00] and took them where they took them. So he went through Hurricane Katrina, lost everything, got taken on a bus, literally just told, “Okay, here’s your stop. Get off here,” had nothing — didn’t even really understand exactly where he was, I think, in the moment.
And so he’s telling me about how he had been through that — about how horrible it had been at the shelter and that he would not go to a shelter. He would rather stay in the mold-filled home that he couldn’t breathe in than go to one of the shelters, because he had been so traumatized by what had happened to him in Katrina. So you had people who were in utter crisis in a very traumatic event that were also reliving trauma. And there was still almost nothing available to help them. And so it was really, really, really heartbreaking. And we helped, you know, as much as we could, but it was not that much help, right? We helped them move all their things out and throw them away. And we gave them a small amount of money to, like, get by [0:40:00].
And then, with that family, we also did a lot of calling to try to help find — because even though, like, FEMA was paying for hotels and stuff, you couldn’t find one. So we — we went to, like, the FEMA office that was set up, like, at a community center. We went there. I helped with that. And then we drove them — because they didn’t have cars, because they got flooded. We drove them to a hotel and got them set up there, which they would not have been able to do on their own, because you needed transportation to get to the hotel like 45 minutes away from your home. And there was no way to do it without having someone able to drive you. So we were able to help with that. I think about that family all the time, because once you drop them off and you drive away, they’re still on their own. And you don’t — there’s not more you can do, but I think about them [0:41:00] a lot.
CK: Do you know what happened to them?
AZ: So I knew the lady that was the renter. And she — one of the — one her nieces already had some, like, mental health issues going on but, like, absolutely fell apart during the storm after that happened. So they were able to get her, like, hospitalized and get her some help after things had calmed down a little bit. The brother ended up, I think, being able to move in with a different family member eventually — after that family member’s house got put back together a little bit. But after we had taken them to the hotel — after that ran out, he ended up — I do think he moved back into the house for a little bit with the mold, which was not really safe for him in his medical condition.
But over time, they did get things taken care of through not necessarily the help of the government [0:42:00] but just the help of the community at large. But it took months. It wasn’t a quick fix, so yeah, the other guy — the first one I talked about, I think, ended up selling his home and moving into an apartment. So now, he’s no longer a homeowner. But that’s what he had to do to be able to make it. He was enviable to afford to remodel the house. So a lot of people who had at least achieved that level of security of owning a home after Hurricane Harvey didn’t anymore, because they couldn’t afford to rebuild. Or it was maybe the third time that had flooded, so they just knew that it was going to happen again. So developers just came in and paid, like, bottom-dollar for their homes. So yeah, that’s — I mean, that’s really what happened. It’s not, like, a happy ending, but the people are okay relatively.
CK: Okay. I just wanted to [0:43:00] thank you for your time.
AZ: Alright, yeah, thanks. This was good. I’m glad we are talking about it. [0:43:07]