Harold Dutton was born in Fifth Ward and attend Texas Southern University for law school. Dutton remembers Hurricane Carla in 1961 and how it impacted his first days of college. During Harvey, Dutton worried that his house might not withstand the storm, and his neighborhood lost power so he was unable to keep up with the impacts in real time.
At one point, Dutton looked out at the street and saw that there was flooding just a couple blocks away from his home. A friend came to rescue him in a moving truck. They drove around the city and found people who needed help and took them in the truck to higher ground. Dutton explains that his staff worked tirelessly to help his constituents while he recovered from a stroke that occurred just days after the flood. Dutton’s own family fared well during the storm. He says that the city did as well as it could to respond to the disaster, and also says that the state could have done more in the aftermath. The state did not use any of the money set aside in a rainy day fund. He also explains that challenges faced by his constituents who tried to get aid from FEMA, who does not offer much help to people who are renting their home. Dutton’s district is mainly renters, and he says that about ninety percent of his district was impacted by the storm. He also says that his districted is going to be affected in the census, as so many residents left after the storm. Dutton believes that the city is better prepared for the next storm, but that there is still a lot that needs to be done to help those who are most affected by floods. For the 2019 legislative session, Dutton hopes that the legislature will take control of the rainy day fund from the governor, who declined to use it after Harvey.
Interviewee: Harold V. Dutton, Jr.
Interview Date: November 3rd
Interviewer: Sherridan Schwartz
INTERVIEWER: Today is November 3rd. I’m Sherridan Schwartz with the UH Center for Public History Resilient Houston oral history project. I’m interviewing State Representative Harold V. Dutton, Junior.
SS: And I just want to get some general questions out of the way and then talk to you more about Harvey’s impact.
SS: If you can, tell us your full name and age.
HD: Harold Dutton. I am 73 years old — young.
SS: Absolutely young. And where are you from originally? You’re a native Houstonian, right?
HD: I’m a native Houstonian — native of Fifth Ward, Texas. I went to high school and undergraduate school here in Houston and then law school at TSU also. So I’ve been here except for the time that I was working for an oil company, Conoco, in particular. And I got a chance to live and sort of travel all over the world.
SS: Being a native Houstonian, you experienced previous [0:01:00] storms and hurricanes.
SS: Can you tell us a little bit about any memories or experiences?
HD: Well, the most — let’s see. The one I remember most was Hurricane Harvey. I mean, not Hurricane Harvey — Hurricane Carla in 1961. It happened just as school was about to start. I think the day of or the next day — Sunday, matter of fact. And so we — I didn’t get to start college like I was supposed to. And I remember finding — we were finding even seafood in people’s yard. Crabs were in the yard and things like that. And we —
SS: This is inside Houston?
HD: Inside Houston. That got affected by the hurricane, but that’s my earliest. And, of course, the last one was Hurricane Harvey. And all [0:02:00] the ones in between, Ike and Alicia and — what was the other one? The big one? I can’t remember the name of it now, but yeah, they’ve all had different kind of impacts on me.
SS: Do you remember the week before Harvey just coming to the end of the summer? Thinking back on it, can you remember what sort of preparation or what kind of ideas you had? When did you, especially as an elected official, get the idea or get informed of how serious or how significant Harvey could be?
HD: Well, you know, I did — having experienced these other storms — previous storms, you don’t ever think about it’s going to be a real bad one. You think about them in the context of the one you experienced before.
HD: For example, I had some friends who came here from Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans [0:03:00]. And they left all their stuff in New Orleans, because they said they had a practice of — the storm would come, and they would come to Houston and go shopping. And at the end of the storm, they’d go back. Well —
SS: Bless you.
HD: That didn’t happen this time. That air conditioner’s really blowing. But that didn’t happen. But you tend to put it in that context, and so for Harvey, I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t think much about it. I thought we’d have a storm, sure enough. But then when they — about two or three days earlier when they started talking about, you know, the kind of possible effects it might have, I thought, “I hope my house will withstand all of this.” And then I hoped it would pass to the north of us — or to the south of us without impacting us very much. But — so that was kind [0:04:00] of my take on it. I didn’t really realize how bad it was until that morning. And not because I had TV, because they electricity was off at my house. And so I couldn’t hear the TV — look at the TV or the radio.
And so I got a radio that — a battery-powered radio. And of course, I had to put the batteries in it, because I don’t leave the batteries in there. And then I started to realize how bad it was, so I went outside. And I looked down my street and, on either side, what I could see. It didn’t appear to be that much water. But when I looked two blocks away — when I could see that far, I thought, “God, wait a minute.” And then when I went to the other side — to the western side of my house to look down at Cavalcade [0:05:00], it was completely under water. I mean, water was six, eight feet deep. And I thought, “Oh, wow.”
SS: And that was within two blocks of your house?
HD: Yeah, within two blocks of my house. And a tree had fallen across the street on one of the streets. So I was kind of blocked into the neighborhood by water on one side and a tree on the other side. So I couldn’t get out. And I was really thankful to DeAndre Sam, who owns A-Rocket, for sending his truck — which he sent for me to come pick me up. Because otherwise, I’d have been stuck in there. Of course, what I did is — I ended up talking on my cell phone to my staff, who was — who were constantly trying to assist people who were in distress. And the people who needed immediate attention, we tried to give it to them [0:06:00].
SS: And you said DeAndre Sam, A-Rocket, sent a truck for you — something that could navigate high water. So you got to see, at that point, more and more and more as you got farther away from your house.
HD: Oh, yeah.
SS: As you were riding along in this truck, did it strike you that this was not an ordinary, even by Houston standard, flood? I’m sorry. That sounds dismissive, right?
HD: No, no, that’s right.
SS: Ordinary flood.
HD: Yeah, well, I certainly — when I got on the — when I got in the truck, he said, “Man, we –” The guy driving said, “Man, we had trouble getting to you, but we’re here.” I said, “Okay, let’s go pick up Representative Thompson first.” And we went and picked her up.
SS: Representative Senfronia Thompson?
HD: Senfronia Thompson.
SS: Your colleague in the House?
HD: Yes. And then we went back to Interstate 10 to go [0:07:00] out to the western part of — I’m sorry, most eastern part of my district. And as we got beyond 610, we had to stop, because the cars were coming toward us on the wrong side of the freeway. Because they couldn’t go any further, because it was completely underwater by about six to eight feet of water — the freeway was.
SS: And this is I-10?
SS: Which is one of our higher freeways.
HD: And so we had to turn around in the truck, because he couldn’t maneuver it either. He said, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. I can’t go through all that water.” So we had to turn around and come back. And then when we came back, rather than go east, we went north. And when we went north, we found a bunch of people who were in distress, who were just standing out at a place. They found the highest, driest place they could [0:08:00], but they were surrounded by water. And there were kids there — old people there. And so we started to take them in the truck from one place to the next place — from a place that wasn’t safe to a place that was safe. And for a lot of them, it made a whole lot of difference.
SS: How many people do you think you guys were able to transport, if you were estimating?
HD: I don’t know. You know, I never — I never thought about it. I just — I guess I was in kind of a state, too. Because all I did was try to help.
HD: I mean, you didn’t — you didn’t think of people one way or the other way, or who was this person, or who was that person. We just — we just tried to help them. And we took — we took literally — probably close to 40, 50 people.
SS: Goodness, so dozens and dozens of people.
SS: [0:09:00] In this commercial truck?
HD: In this truck, yeah.
SS: Commercial moving truck.
HD: Putting them in and taking them — taking them to a drier place — a higher place. And that was all we could do.
SS: When you started to, I guess, field calls, right?
SS: So I’m assuming you’re making calls out and reaching out to other elected officials or resources that you have contacts.
SS: And the people were reaching out to you, constituents, people.
SS: At what point did you start being able to see other parts of the city, not just the north side or the northeast side, and realize the citywide impact? Because I know a lot of people said, “I thought it was just my neighborhood. I didn’t realize.”
HD: Yeah. No, we actually went to the Astrodome.
HD: We went to the Astrodome to see — Senfronia Thompson and I in the truck [0:10:00], we went to the Astrodome to see —
HD: Yeah, NRG, to see — NRG, I would say the Astrodome. NRG.
HD: To see if we could help and see what we could do, because some of our constituents had been transported to NRG. And so that’s where we went. We got out, and we walked and talked inside to them to find out what we could do to help them, and what we could do to assist, and to what extent they needed our help. But that’s the only place I went that was outside my district. I’m sorry. I went to the other shelter site. I can’t remember the name of that.
SS: George R. Brown?
HD: No, the stadium out here in west — I can’t think of the name of it. Anyway, that’s where we went, and that’s where I did the most. Because, you know, there were so many of my constituents [0:11:00] there that I recognized — that I knew.
SS: That were transported to these shelters?
HD: They were transported to the shelter.
SS: So your district had to be, I mean, so significantly affected. So you had people literally having to be rescued — people displaced.
SS: People taking refuge in shelters.
HD: From my perspective, I think it was worse off than any district. I think it was the worst off. And in fact, there are people now who are still in distress — who still haven’t been helped.
SS: As the water finally started to recede, I know I remember thinking, “This water’s not going anywhere for some time.” It happened at a time where it was just after the end of the legislative session. Normally, it was — it would have been a quiet time.
HD: Well, we had a special session.
SS: We had the special session — or the [0:12:00] not-so-special session.
HD: And then — that’s right. It wasn’t special at all.
SS: No, sir. No, sir. But normally, how different was your workflow or the stress on you and your staff as opposed to what it would be off-session?
HD: Well, for me, it was the worst time of my life, because I had a stroke. And I didn’t know that I had been — you know, I often say — I tell myself that I guess I was kind of impacted by what I’d seen and what I had been through without thinking that. But right after the storm subsided and we were able to help a number of people, September 8th, I had a stroke. And I was in the hospital for the better part of a week.
SS: Yes, sir.
HD: And so I didn’t get [0:13:00] to do much to try to help people even though I was still concerned, and still talking to my staff, and still getting them involved with trying to help people. And they were, of course, trying to help me. And I was saying, “Look, [unclear, 0:13:15]. Go help these other folks,” and that kind of thing.
SS: That’s a hugely impactful life moment. And I remember it just seemed like everyone saying — and your staff working around the clock. There was no clocking in and clocking out. There was no traditional work day.
HD: They dedicated their whole life to getting people the help they needed. And that’s what they did. And I was really proud of them for doing that, because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do, except talk on the phone.
SS: And I mean, there are [0:14:00] so many people, I think, who were affected, maybe not as significantly as you were, from the actual effort of trying to help other people. So that’s an amazing testament to what an impact it had on you. How about your family? How did your family fare?
HD: Well, my family fared pretty well. My daughter — my oldest daughter, who’s a pediatric dentist, she lives out in South Houston, right on MacGregor. And you know, when the bayou overflowed, it came — you know, they’re pretty high up. It came into the yard. She said, “And a little bit more — you know, with a little bit more rain, it would have come into the house.” But it didn’t. She said she ended up with some minor roof damage, which she had — so that happened. And then [0:15:00] my other daughter, who lives out in Summerwood — Summer Creek, she said she wasn’t impacted at all. And my son, of course, he’s in Austin. So he was just calling, trying to check on everybody else.
SS: For a lot of us that were in the middle of it — people around the country seeing it and seeing the horror — obviously, I know people reached out to you. Can you think about people, whether they were your friends, family, elected officials from far and wide, that you heard from, checking in on you and asking what they could do?
HD: Oh, yeah. Oh, gosh. There was so many people calling. I — you know, I don’t — I don’t remember who all they were. But there were people calling constantly trying to figure out what happened. And then people started calling [unclear, 0:15:52] what happened to me. You know, and so it was like around the [0:16:00] country, people were concerned about what we were doing in Houston and how were we faring. And so it just — I mean, the phones stayed lit up. And of course, for me, because the electricity stayed off, I ended up not having a phone at one point. Because I didn’t have any way to charge it up.
SS: How long was your electricity off at your home?
HD: I think mine was off two days, three days, something like that.
SS: Goodness, okay.
HD: Four days — something of that nature. And so I remember when the electricity came on, because I was first — I was then able to see on the TV what had really happened.
HD: And I was amazed at what I saw. Then I saw water up to the level of the street sign [0:17:00], and I thought, “Wow,” because I couldn’t see around my neighborhood that was happening. But the lady who was — who ran to get the Coast Guard helicopter to come and get her —
SS: One of your constituents?
HD: Yeah, right. She was around the corner from my house in fact. She was in distress, because I think she said — I think she said she needed oxygen. And the electricity in the whole neighborhood was out.
SS: So breathing support for an elderly woman who needs that?
HD: Yeah. And it was out, because a tree had fallen apparently on —
SS: On power lines?
SS: As you had time to sit and reflect — so we had our initial concern and then secondary concern. And all of us were concerned certainly about you [0:18:00]. How do you think that the response was in terms of the state and the city?
HD: Well, I think the city — I congratulated the mayor on trying to respond to this as best he could. I don’t think the state did nearly, in my idea, what they should have done — what they could have done. For example, as I mentioned before, just the fact that they didn’t — we didn’t use the rainy day fund to address this issue. I don’t — I don’t know what tragedy we could be waiting on.
SS: What rainy day? It’s amazing.
HD: If the rainy day fund comes and wipes us all out, well, you don’t need the fund.
SS: And that’s the approximately seventeen-billion-dollar slush fund?
SS: As people are taking to calling it.
HD: Well, it’s just sitting there.
SS: That the State of Texas has for emergencies. Isn’t that the thought?
HD: I said to them [0:19:00], “If your child, you know, needed medical care and you had a savings plan but you didn’t use it to help them, I think CPS would get you.”
HD: And CPS ought to get us.
SS: For neglect.
HD: Yeah, for abuse and neglect, but that’s what I think, you know. I mean, the governor has his own reasons, I guess — suppose — but not for me.
SS: What about on the federal level in terms of relief agencies, FEMA, federal response?
HD: Well, I think they were — they were certainly here, but I — and I think — one of the things I’ve been trying to help them change is a lot of their stupid rules that they’ve got that don’t accommodate people who are in distress, who need the help. Because you know, they just never think about [0:20:00], you know, how this — what impact this has when you’re in the storm — when you’ve been affected by the storm. You’re making rules that pretend it’s almost as if the storm didn’t happen. So anyway, I think the feds were present, but I think they were absent at the same time.
SS: What are some of the disparities that you think you see in the relief process?
HD: Well, first of all, you know, in my district, we have a high incidence of renters, okay? And the rules that FEMA has does nothing — does little, I should say, to help people who are not owners of property but are happen to be renters.
HD: And so [0:21:00] I always thought, “Well, you know, they ought to change the rules somewhat so that at least they would be convenient and more appropriate for people who are renting facilities.”
SS: Natural disasters don’t distinguish home owners from renters.
HD: No, no, but FEMA does.
SS: But FEMA does. That’s a concern.
HD: Yeah, and does it in a way that’s punitive toward renters — toward the renters if they were — if they want to do something.
SS: If you were just taking just a gross estimate, what percentage of your constituents in your district do you think were primarily or secondarily affected by this storm? Just a rough estimate.
HD: Oh, I’d say 90%.
SS: That’s amazing. I read a [0:22:00] story that maybe 79% of one part of Cashmere Gardens and in certain parts of your district —
HD: Oh, I’d say 90% were affected.
SS: That many?
HD: In one way or another, because, you know, the thing we sometimes haven’t looked at is — my daughter, who’s a child psychiatrist, says, “We never looked at what effect this had on children.”
SS: The trauma?
HD: Uh-huh. The children were affected so that — and having to go to school under these circumstances — having to go back to school. I read somewhere recently that HISD is down 4,000 students or something — or 6,000. I can’t remember what it was.
SS: Absolutely, a couple thousand.
HD: But I think part of that is related to Hurricane Harvey, because I think people moved and never came back.
SS: Right, right, and it’s amazing. Harvey happened at the beginning of the school [0:23:00] year. How do you send your child to school when you don’t have a home?
SS: How do you make those preparations?
HD: And don’t have clothes. Kids don’t have clothes. And then, you know, you just — you know, it’s like one family I met. You know, the little girl in school, she’s been to five different elementary schools in one school year.
SS: In one school year?
HD: Yeah, because they’re having to move around, because their house was basically destroyed.
SS: Now that we’re looking back and we’re looking just over a year after the storm, what do you think are going to be some of Harvey’s lasting impacts, Representative Dutton, in terms of your neighborhood, your district, the city?
HD: Well, one of the things it’s done now — it’s — like I said, people have left and didn’t come back. That’s one of the [0:24:00] lasting effects. And that tends to affect many things. For example, the census, which is going to come up during the next, you know, year or so, they won’t be counted. They won’t be there. That means that my district is going to be affected by the net migration out of people so that — you know, I can’t — you know, that’s one of the lasting effects, I think — that people moved, and they won’t come back.
HD: Because some of the property owners who were renting their facilities didn’t choose to rebuild the facility.
SS: And that further affects tax bases. It further affects everything like supporting the commercial businesses that are there.
HD: Everything. Yes. And so you’ve got all those things. I hope one of the lasting effects is that we know better [0:25:00] now how to deal with the storm after its passed. I hope that’s one of the effects that will last. But I’m not so sure.
SS: As a city, perhaps, or looking even as a state responding to these things, do you think we’re better or worse prepared in your opinion?
HD: Well, I think we’re better prepared, but we still have a long way to go in terms of making sure that people who are living basically close to the economic edge aren’t critically impacted by what we do after the storm is gone. Because they’re so close to the edge that just a slight bump causes them to need help. And now, what we realize is that a lot of the rules aren’t written to help them. A lot of the rules were written [0:26:00] actually ignoring them. And so I’m hopeful that all of that will be changed.
SS: Which is leading me into my next question, what would you want people looking back to know about Harvey in terms of what we can do? It sort of leads into what you were saying.
HD: Well, I think one of the good things about Harvey, if you can call it a good thing, is it made us all realize who our neighbors were. A neighbor became anybody was in distress and needed help.
HD: And we didn’t normally think about that — think that way. You know, the story of the Good Samaritan came up almost minute by minute by minute by minute during Harvey. And people responded [0:27:00] in Houston in a way that made us all proud of being Houstonites — Houstonians. Because what they did is they respected whether you were black, white, brown, gay, lesbian, tall, short, fat, or whatever. We just —
SS: Uptown or downtown.
HD: Yeah, we just went in to help and to get people help — the help they needed at that point in time. And we recognized that this was a person in distress, and we all got together to help them.
SS: We’re speaking a few months before the 2019 legislative session coming up in Austin.
SS: What sort of effects will we see in terms of Harvey? What are some responsibilities that you think the legislature may or may not take on? Or what are some of the things we might see?
HD: Well [0:28:00], I think one of the things we’ve got to do is decide as a legislature when — and without letting the governor decide it — when should the rainy day fund be used.
SS: Right. What is a rainy day?
SS: If that was not one.
HD: Yeah, because we leave it up to the governor. We couldn’t go back into session unless he called us back into session. And he never was inclined to do so. And so we never got a chance to use the rainy day fund. We have to — the legislature would have to do that. And so one of the things I think is going to happen is we’re going to try to take a look at when should the rainy day fund kick in and when is a natural disaster enough of a disaster to trigger the use of the rainy day fund [0:29:00].
SS: That’s a great question. And I think — again, we’re talking about approximately seventeen billion dollars. So it would be a nice cushion, you would think, for these sorts of events. What is the rainy day?
HD: Yes. You can make it — you can certainly make an impact.
SS: I remember the session in 2009 shortly after Ike. We thought Ike was going to be the storm to end all storms, certainly in the Houston area. What do you think will be perhaps different this time compared to the 2009 session where we saw bills and different things addressing Ike?
HD: Well, I think you’ll get the legislature to at least address it. I think we certainly — like I said, you know, in 2009, I don’t think we had a rainy day fund. Did we? I can’t remember now [0:30:00] when it came into being.
HD: But certainly now —
SS: It was the early days, I think.
HD: But now, one of the things we know is that there are just so many things different we’ve got to do. For example — and this doesn’t have to do with the state necessarily. But it has to do with us here in Houston — in the Houston area. What I found out was that the constables — the Precinct 1 Constables had all of the equipment for storms even though the storm may go into Precinct 6 or Precinct 7 or Precinct 2. I mean, so I thought, “Why are all the — why are they the one that we chose to put that in?” And so I think even the constables now are taking a look at providing facilities for equipment for the other constables [0:31:00] to also have an opportunity to have some of the same equipment. And it’s things like that that I think we’ve got to take a look at — that causes us to take a look at. It sounds good when you’re doing it. But in practice, what happens is you realize it’s not nearly enough.
SS: Do you agree with the decision to have us shelter in place or the suggestion, I guess, to have us shelter in place? Why or why not? If so or if not?
SS: What do you think were any possible alternatives?
HD: Well, everybody can’t shelter in place, because the medically-infirmed — the people who need rescuing first can’t necessarily shelter in place. They ought to get some place where they’re not going to be impacted [0:32:00] by what’s taking place. And I just — I just think that this whole idea about shelter in place applies to those people who can literally take care of themselves.
SS: Better resources, better health, better state of —
HD: Yeah, but not the people who are living close to the edge economically.
SS: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us relating to Harvey? Anything else you’d like to —
HD: Well, you know, I think Harvey sends a message to us that maybe we’re not listening to. And that is that — of course, I realize we’ll always be better prepared at enduring a disaster than preventing one, because we [0:33:00] can’t. But I still think that one of the things we need to start to address is how we move water in this city. For example, in my area in Houston, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the streets — and we have a high incidence of open ditches in my area.
SS: Yes, sure.
HD: Well, what’s amazing is the streets are higher than the ditch. So what that means is when the ditch fills up with water, the water runs back toward our house.
HD: Yeah. And so I think that’s why I say that one of the things we need to take a look at is how we move water. And I think the gutters have to be kept clean. I think — and blown out so that — but I think you can use the streets to take the water off. But right now [0:34:00], you end up with a dry street, and you can’t get out your house. And so that’s one of the things I hope. And then the other thing I think — it’s unrelated to Harvey, but it’s cold in here.
SS: It is. It is. So we really appreciate your time. I know how busy your schedule is, so I’m not going to hold you in this frigid atmosphere.
HD: Well, thank you. Thank you. And I really appreciate this, too. But it is absolutely — oh, my hands are freezing.
SS: It is. It is frigid.
HD: I am freezing. I may have to jump in a fire right now.
SS: It is frigid in here. I’d literally —
HD: Thank you, okay?
SS: Thank you.
SS: Thank you, Representative.
HD: Alright. [0:34:43]