James Joseph has lived in Houston for most of his life and is a community organizer in Fifth Ward. He remembers previous hurricanes, like Allison and Ike, and their effects on his neighborhood. Joseph says that he moved back to Houston just after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and that he saw that the devastation from the highway.
He explains that he did not think that Harvey was going to be a devastating storm until the storm had almost passed. He received calls from community members asking for help because their homes had flooded. Joseph says that many people in his neighborhood were denied aid by FEMA because water entered their home from the roof and not because of rising water. He helped rescue people in boats and in trucks during the storm. He explains his efforts to get a grocery store to come to his neighborhood to ease food accessibility issues. The storm also affected his own family, as he did not have electricity or food at his house. Joseph expresses frustration with how disaster aid was distributed, and that his communities will not see any of the money the city received. He also says that the storm brought his neighborhood together, as they had to help themselves. His neighborhood did not receive much help from the city, but they did get a lot of aid from other institutions like non-profits and churches. At the end of the interview, Joseph says that disasters like Harvey are especially difficult on low-income neighborhoods because those areas are already struggling.
Interviewee: James Joseph
Interview Date: April 11, 2019
Place: Lyon’s Unity Missionary Baptist Church, Houston, Texas
Interviewer: Xandria Outing
Transcriber: Xandria Outing
Transcription of James Joseph Oral History
Notes for reader: Interviewer’s notes throughout are enclosed within parenthesis. Emotions and relevant pauses of both interviewer and interviewee are included in parenthesis, or alternatively, italics are used to add emphasis on words to represent spoken tone. Hyphens are used to show breaks in thought, or an exchange between narrator and interviewer.
Start of transcript
XO: So. Today’s date is April 11, 2019. My name is Xandria and I am conducting an interview for the Center for Public History at UH. So, can you state your name for me?
JJ: My name is James Joseph. (Pauses – Spells out name)
XO: And, when is your birthday Mr. Joseph?
JJ: February 1st, 1969 the best year ever.
XO: And how long have you lived in Houston? And –
JJ: I’ve been in Houston all my life and I grew up in many communities of Houston Southside, Sunnyside, South Park, Katy, Spring, 5th Ward, North Forest community. But I reside in fifth ward now.
XO: Okay and where are you from originally? Are you from Houston originally or -?
JJ: Ville Platte Louisiana. Ville Platte Louisiana, yeah, yeah, born and reared in (XO chuckles) Ville Platte Louisiana. And I’ve been in Houston most of my life.
XO: Okay. (Pauses) What is your experience with past tropical storms and hurricanes?
JJ: Whew, in the city of Houston, we often have hurricanes and storms. I can remember back, way when, I think in 1984 Alice, Hurricane Allison came through and I think all our lights were off the streets were flooded. No one could get out of the house and go anywhere. It was just devastating. And then rec- more recently. Actually, I lived in Atlanta for awhile but when I decided to move back to Houston, I had set my date maybe three months earlier. But unbeknownst to me Hurricane Katrina would be coming that same weekend.
XO: Mhmm. (This was used to acknowledge what was said.)
JJ: But I kept my plans (chuckles) and I came back to Houston right after the hurricane. So, hurricane Katrina. So driving through all that devastation and actually seeing it with my own two eyes on I-10 and seeing trees across the road coming through New Orleans, you know, a twelve hour trip took me 24 hours you know and most of that was trying to get through that hurricane stricken area of Katrina. And then we had, Ike here in Houston recently and a lot of people assumed that it was going to be as devastating as Katrina and started to evacuate the city. Now the Houston – City of Houston. City of Houston is the fourth largest city in America. So, to evacuate all those people out of the – this type of city without any evacuation plan was devastating. And truth be told Hurricane Ike was halfway as bad as Katrina. So, people trying to evacuate from something that didn’t come – I hate to say but some people died sitting on those roads. You know (Pause) I didn’t evacuate but some of my friends would tell me the stories about how they only went two miles in eight hours trying to evacuate out of the city you know. And with no running water no restrooms and no food. And if you are a senior citizen and you’re on dialysis or a diabetic you know some people died trying to evacuate when they actually couldn’t go anywhere. So. That that was really devastating. And then rec- more recently we have Hurricane Harvey that just hit us last year which devastated a whole bunch of the communities and especially the low-income communities because they have been underserved already for years. Drainage is lacking you know, cleaning the neighborhood is lacking, infrastructure is lacking. So, when you have something that come and devastates you and I could say the same thing for Hurricane Katrina. When I rode through there most of the lower income communities were the ones who did not have the resources to get out or the resources to have somebody come and help them out you know. So, they had to get on top of roofs you know and survive. And the same thing happened here with Hurricane Harvey. A lot of my senior citizens, in my commune- I’m a Civic Club president. So, I have a lot of senior citizens who live in homes, that were before Harvey in devastation. Floors rotten, roofs had holes in them. Just, just and they are low income and on a fixed income so they couldn’t repair their homes and then have a hurricane Harvey come through and to wipe out what’s already devastated you know was terrible for a bunch of my senior citizens in this community.
XO: Okay, uh (Pause) – When did you recognize that Harvey was going to be a serious weather event?
JJ: I did not realize it was going to be as devastating as it was until it was almost over. Just like almost everybody else. I mean I know our weather casters tried to tell us the best they can, but no one can predict, predict what’s actually going to happen. So, by the – I must say three fourths of the way into the hurricane – me and a lot of other people realized this is more serious than we actually thought. Now being a community leader, you know I’m getting phone calls. (Pause) You know, hey Joseph we got somebody stranded in the house can you get some help to come get them? Let me see what I can do because, my house and my home, my street was flooded but the flood didn’t come into my home from the ground. But the flood did come into my home from the roof ceiling. It was a lot of rain. And usually my how- home did not on a regular rain day or light rain day it wouldn’t – my roof would not leak but it was just that the wind, the rain, the heaviness of hurricane Harvey really impacted a lot of folks home from the top down instead of the bottom up. And that was one of the situations that we did have with receiving funds to repair our homes because they were only given flood money and a flood to them is from the ground up. So, a lot of people were denied who were flooded from the roof down. Yeah.
XO: That’s Pretty sad. (Soft chuckles – sympathetically)
JJ: Yes. And a lot of those people who were floated from the roof down are still in the same situation because FEMA did not – FEMA denied them. They’re still trying to get funds you know from other places to rebuild their homes and some of these people been their homes were 7 – 60 and 70 years. You know that’s their home, you know that’s where they grew up, that’s where they know, you know in like Dorothy you know no place like home. You know no place like home. So, it’s just devastating to see a 80-year-old couple not physically fit anymore to maneuver like they used to, to fix their home and their kids are now living out of town or have other families you know to take care of. So, when the hurricane – like say when it came no one was prepared. Not only was no one was prepared but in low income communities which I serve. No one. (Pauses) The communities were not stable infrastructure wise to handle something that devastating.
XO: Okay – (Pauses) How did you weather the storm?
JJ: I actually was a volunteer in the storm. I helped a lot of people during the storm. My, like I said, my home was – my roof was damaged really, really bad. But I didn’t let that affect me for going out and helping other people. We got out in boats. We got out in trucks, to go out and help people who were stranded because it was just that devastating. You know on city streets we have a boat – We were driving down the street in boats trying to help people, senior citizens, you know on dialysis machines you know carrying out their houses with their breathing machine actually attached to them you know and no other way they could get out. Pets, you know, stranded. You know, they run into to the highest ground that they could find and now they’re stranded. So, we had to get some pets out of some of those homes and then that was just the immediate after effect. Now. Along, well I’m a say – see the mid-range after effect is now there’s no gas. All grocery stores are closed. Any resources that you need just to live a normal, mediocre life was taken away and with already a community that’s devastated and underserved by its political atmosphere. It, it just you know cannot sustain itself. And a lot of people are still in the same situation. I know one senior citizen right now she had her home gutted out because all the sheet rock and all that was destroyed. Volunteers came in to help her get it out but she’s still living like that today with no re-modifications because she was denied money to repair her home.
JJ: (Clears throat) Excuse me.
XO: Mhmm. (Pause) The grocery stores that are in the community, (inaudible), were they locally owned grocery stores or like the bigger chain grocery stores?
JJ: Well in a community. In a lot of low and commute- low income communities there is a thing that is called a food desert. A food desert is a community with no big box grocery stores with adequate goods and services. A lot of the mom and pop grocery stores that are in the community. For one they’re low income also. They had to shut their doors because they couldn’t get, already they’re getting mediocre goods and products. So now they can’t even get you know get that. So, with this being a food desert there’s not a lot – there wasn’t a lot of opportunities or varieties for people to go shopping for food. Now I must say since then I’ve been an advocate for – about food deserts in my community and I’ve been to City Hall and been able to talk to my mayor and my city council member. To get a grocery store in the Fifth Ward Community. We had talked to H-E-B and Kroger’s and some of those big box stores, but they chose not to come in the community and their reasoning were a multitude of things, but they were all false. They said that a community of twenty-five thousand people did not have the resources to sustain their grocery store. Well last time I checked everybody eats. (Pause) Everybody eats and there’s only one way to get the food and that’s to go buy it. So that was one of the issues and the other issue with the big box stores said that black people steal. Low income people steal so the risk management mediation would cost them too much. That was one of the other reasons that we did not get an H-E-B or Kroger’s in our community. I’m still beating over their heads (unclear) and we’re going to get a big box store I guarantee it. But today we do have our work with the grocery store and with City Hall and we’re building a grocery store in the community right now today. It’s not a big box grocery store but it’s privately owned, and they’ve been proven in other places. So, we decided to go with them to bring them in the community. So, I’m looking for them to do some great things and they should be through building by the end of the summer. So, I’m looking forward to that.
XO: Awesome! (Dropped Pen) Uh-oh, I dropped the pen.
JJ: I got it. (Picked up pen)
XO: Did you need assistance during the storm?
JJ: Yes, I did. I didn’t have any lights, so I needed assistance. No grocery stores were open. I. I’m in college. So right now, my funds, are you know, I have loans to pay and school to pay for. So that that that devastated me. So, I myself had to get on public assistance. Food stamps and light bill assistance even though I’m a community leader. You know I actually do that for free. I don’t get paid for that. So, I’m in the same situation as everybody else. You know I just, you know, try to see if I can help those that I can. So yeah, I needed help. My family needed help, you know, and luckily we had some family that were not hit and they were more on the outskirts of Houston and we were able to go and spend some time there instead of having to get a voucher for a hotel room. Like many, many, many, many others had to do you know getting this. And then if they could get the voucher. You know so – and I know a lot of people who just simply could not get the voucher just stayed in their home as unhealthy as it was. They felt that they would not receive the resources on – based on how they had been treated year after year after year after year after year after year after year. So, they just simply said hey we’ll just fight this out on our own. Yeah. And praise the Lord that the people who I know that did that they did make it. Yeah.
XO: What was the most significant moment of the hurricane, of Hurricane Harvey for you?
JJ: (Pauses) The most significant moment is – I made a phone call as a community leader to some of my resources because like I said this is a low-income community. Grocery stores, clothes, no water, no toiletries, no diapers for our children and whatnot. And I made a phone call to a few organizations and which I won’t mentioned but they showed up for me and they showed out. We had military trucks come through with food, water, toiletries. We had doctors calling me Joseph, “what do you need?” We need clothes for our females because they don’t have clothes. We need some clothes for these children. They didn’t have – and they actually went to Walmart or where ever they could find something and brought those things to our community. And I was pleasantly surprised to see the compassion from more affluent people helping people in my community. So that that was really the love I guess you can say. I mean a hurricane can take the mind, but it can’t take the heart. Yeah.
XO: How did this storm impact your family?
JJ: My family, most of us were, like I said our lights were out. We didn’t have any food. And I have a 9-year-old daughter who loves to play on her video games, so it affected her tremendously. (Laughter from both parties) Look I think she was the most affected by that but nah. But we just had to fight through it, you know, fight through it. And I think that’s what a lot of people did because we are strong, strong people. We live with less and made more out of it. So, when a hurricane like that came – I, I like I, said it never took our heart, but it will mess with your mind. You know so. My family was – we stay connected. That was the most important part. We made sure everyone was safe. We made sure everyone had some food to eat. And you know what out of the storm and the rain while I continued to go out and assist, you know, not only my family but other residents, you know, in the community.
XO: You mentioned a little earlier that you have family that lived is it, outside of like the greater Houston area that you went to see?
JJ: Yeah. In some of the other areas like outside of Houston wasn’t hit so bad as the inner city. So, my, my mom is on the outskirts of town. So that – which was higher you know and in low income communities they build those communities on lower ground. So, the water when it recedes it goes into lower ground which is – the lower income communities which flood, you know. So, where we were was on higher ground and all the lights, the, the lights did go out at my mom’s house, but they came on very, very quickly. Because she does live in a more affluent area. But the lights in our neighborhood stayed out for three weeks. (Pause) Yeah. So, and lack of resources and what, what kind of ticked me off being city utility acclimated if I can say it like that. I saw other affluent areas like Kingwood and River Oaks and Meyerland get quickly – quick remedy to their situations. Now the flood hit everybody the same. Everyone the same. And the difference was a lot of low-income people didn’t have insurance, you know, to, to mitigate their damages. But King would Sugar Land those places had, you know, those homes had insurance you know. And I say this I’m going to speak on behalf of them too because they were flooded out just as well. And I say that their flooding was intentional because they opened – they were not flooded until they opened the dam. When they opened the dam then those areas got flooded. Let me tell it. That was intentional, to flood because they had insurance. Their home, their homes already fixed. And I think some other people knew that, that now you know, let’s do this so we can get this other government money. So, we can (Pause) put it where we want to put it, let’s put it that way because – now we have received, the city of Houston over one point eight billion dollars of Hurricane Harvey money. But the residents that I’m speaking about won’t see a dime of it. So, it affects our community tremendously.
XO: Do you want to add anything else about how Hurricane Harvey impacted your neighborhood?
JJ: Yeah. Yeah. It also impacted the neighborhood as in, I’m a say it, it actually brought us a little bit closer together. Because, you know, when your family, as a community, you fault. But when you’re devastating, you find a way to come together. And the love of the community that came together, who once in fault are now helping one another trying to get the trash off the side of the road. Helping build roofs and rebuild those fences that were torn down. Cutting down trees, moving cars, you know, things of that nature. When at one point they were at each other’s throats but now they’re working hand in hand. So. You know things – Some good things can come out of devastation. And that’s one of the things that I see good that came out of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
XO: Okay and what role did local state and federal government play relief efforts? We’ve talked about this just a little bit.
JJ: Yeah. In my community I didn’t see them at all. Only people that we saw were people like myself. Civic leaders, residents, business owners, trying to help one another. We didn’t – I, and I said many times saying we’re – I don’t see any city vehicles. You know we were calling them. You know, I called the mayor, I called my city council member, you know, but they were sending all the resources out to Kingwood and places of that nature. You know, there was a big fuss at City Hall with the mayor. And with the mayor and the City Council, because the mayor was sending monies to Kingwood without equally distributing the wealth of the, local inner-city low-income communities. So, that that that, that was devastating a lot of people didn’t, didn’t appreciate that, did not appreciate that. A lot of people on city council did not appreciate that, that the mayor was sending money to rich neighborhoods and neglecting the poor neighborhoods. So – and we witnessed that firsthand. You know we got to get rid of the paid to play rules in the city of Houston and other cities because our low-income communities are just being devastated. Yeah.
XO: Okay. What role did local non-profits, charities or the religious institutions play in relief efforts?
JJ: Now that’s where the real help came. The only – Every one of those that you named put a hand in, that in my community, that I see, the church groups opened their doors. They collected clothes; they gave clothes away. They collected food; they gave those things out. Some of our nonprofit organizations went into their, into their kitty and pulled out all the things that they had in reserve. You know, school supplies for kids, canned goods and things of that nature. So, the community helped itself and actually I think that’s a good thing to be honest with you. When you have – (unclear) – proper resources that is to help yourself that’s, you know, the best you can do. You know, because no one can, do you like you.
XO: (Pause) Can you take us through a day of the hurricane in the week after. The weeks afterward. What challenges do you face and how did this situation change over time?
JJ: Well one of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced in the big old city of Houston is that you have to have a car to get around. And if it’s flooding well you don’t, you can’t get around. Anywhere. So that’s one of the things that I saw that was devastating. You couldn’t get around anywhere. You were stuck. I mean even some people homes didn’t get flooded but they had water all the way up to the front porch. You know, so like I did my home didn’t get flooded but from the ground. But I had water all the way up to the front door. You know so. So, that was the beginning of the day of, of the hurricane. It was a lot of rain. It was continuous. And what I saw, and I took a picture of it, the night of the storm. And I saw, (Pause) in front of my house a river flowing. It was flowing fast. But it looked like a river. It did. You couldn’t see the street. It was so much water it just, you couldn’t see the streets. You couldn’t drive. You couldn’t do anything. And at this time, I had a little clothing store myself, so I had let some people stay in my clothing store. You know who couldn’t stay in their houses. So, this this was the day of the storm. So, they need the clothes, they need food and I’m getting calls about people are stranded here, they’re stranded there, my grandmother can’t get out of the house you know. I mean no cars on the road, no Metro bus riding, just like I said, no grocery stores, no gas that day. I mean it was – and everyone was just in a total uproar. And if you didn’t have a cell phone you couldn’t watch TV. Because the electricity was out so you couldn’t get the updated news on that day. So now. The weeks after was just as devastating. The water did not recede, it stayed there for who knows how long because the city’s infrastructure and drainage system is inadequate in low-income communities. You know so, there is then. Now, that the floods – the homes were flooded. You know we got carpet that’s soaked. We got beds that are soaked. We got furniture; your whole home furniture structure is devastated. And now the cleanup has to start. And now there’s furniture, sheet rock, you name it on the side of the roads and the City of Houston is not picking it up. So, the weeks after was nasty, trashy, environmentally unsafe. You know because, once again, the city sent those resources to Kingwood, to more affluent areas of the city because they were able to pay. You know we were both hit by (unclear) we were all hit by the same Hurricane Harvey. But the distribution of wealth was not fair. Yeah.
XO: What impact do you think the relief efforts had for you, for your community?
JJ: Well what I did see was that the resources that came through the community people were happy to receive them. They were actually genuinely happy because when you’re devastated like that – and once, I say it again, your mind can play tricks on you. So to have someone to come in and say hey do your child need some diapers, do you need some milk, or some Enfamil, or do your grandma need some depends, you know or what not, or some deodorant, you know, or toothbrush, you know simple things simple things. And the people appreciated the simple things you know that they were able to receive from the resources. You know, thank God they answered my phone call when I called. You know so. They were happy to receive though, and I saw it in their faces. You can actually see the relief when they actually went up – when a 18-wheeler truck rolled up packed from wall to wall. You know with resources of things that any and everybody needs.
XO: (Pause) Now that we are a year past the storm, what do you think the storms lasting impact has been on you and your family? Your neighborhood?
JJ: It’s been impactful, cause we’ll never forget this one. I mean I have named some other hurricanes in the past but this one here we will never ever forget this one. It impacted us tremendously, some especially, in the neighborhood, some of the senior citizens couldn’t go back home. They’re either living with relatives you know, or just was displaced. Period. My home, I have a 9-year-old daughter at home and like I said she was devastated cause she couldn’t go outside and play. It’s devastation you know and no electricity. You know for her it was to study, you know, to get on a laptop and do her homework and you know things like that. It just wasn’t it wasn’t possible you know to do. And when food – you know we didn’t have any food. We didn’t have any food and especially we didn’t have the food that we, even though once we got some food, of course we were grateful, but it wasn’t always what we would enjoy on a day to day basis. So the food – some of the things that we received were provisionals you know, and we were grateful for those but to, to, to struggle to eat, you know, a family of four to five that’s on a low income already you know, you know it’s devastating. Kids can not learn at school if they’re hungry. Babies cannot grow properly if they’re not nurtured, you know, and I would say this we have a lot of babies in our community. You know, we have babies and senior citizens and those are two that get sick the most if you don’t have, they don’t have what they need, you know we will see a total devastation. So, and we did, see some die, seniors and infants in Hurricane Harvey because they just didn’t have what they needed. And one senior citizen, she passed away simply because she was heartbroken. And it was, it was devastating for me. You know to see it, because I knew her personally and I could tell she was totally heartbroken after the hurricane and what had happened to her and her family. So, she couldn’t take it anymore. Yeah. Yeah. (Tears up – grabs tissue)
XO: (Pause by both parties) Do you need a minute? You okay?
JJ: I’m sorry.
XO: No, your – I understand.
JJ: I’m passionate about my senior citizens.
XO: I can, I can tell, I can. Cause that’s our connection to the community. Does your neighborhood face any special long-term challenges that are unique to the community and, perhaps, different than the situation facing other recovering communities?
JJ: Yeah and not just on Hurricane Harvey even before Hurricane Harvey and after. What happens in our low-income community, the tax base money that’s supposed to come back to the community is diverted to other communities which were already devastated, and they were getting robbed. So – and we see it every day and after Hurricane Harvey came some of the monies that were just distributed from the city of Houston went to some of the quote established CDC and they already had a plan for what they were going to do without Hurricane Harvey and before Hurricane Harvey. So, when they received that money they continued on, with they continued on with their plan and didn’t do anything for the people who were devastated by actual Harvey damages. You know so that, that was just very unfair. The mayor, the city council, you know all agreed to give the CDC the money thinking that they would do the right thing for the community which they did not. So they took the money and ran basically and we’re still devastated by this community – we have the illegal dumping and trash, trash everywhere because still Hurricane Harvey, you know, some of the fences that were damaged in Hurricane Harvey that was put in the back yard, put to the side until you can clean up everything else has now been put on the side of the road. And the city decided to halt heavy trash pickup in a already devastated community of heavy trash. So, it still affects us now. I’m working on some plans with a couple of partners of mine to propose to the city of Houston that we can clean up our own neighborhoods, we just need the resources, and those resources are the resources that you’re sending to another community. So, the money is there, we just need the appropriate the correct way and we can take care of ourselves because it’s our money. It’s tax base money, it’s community money. But when you put it in the hands of the powerful and the elite and who, who don’t understand the plight of low income people, not to say that, you know well, yeah some of them do wrong but some of them just simply don’t know. Yeah, some of them just simply don’t know. I wish they did. Yeah.
XO: What else do you want people to understand about Harvey’s impact on the 5th ward?
JJ: And, I had a conversation earlier in the day. Communities like 5th Ward, before Harvey, were already devastated. Harvey jus brought the dirt to the top. It was known that the infrastructure was lacking. It was known that all these homes that were built in 1932 were falling down. But the city decided not to do anything about those things. Well, what they did do was put a Band-Aid on a gunshot. And we know that’s not going to help anything. So, the community today is still devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The environmental infrastructure here is just totally unhealthy. You know, trash, mosquitoes, rats and roaches, you know, get into that debris that we put on the side of the roads hoping that the city of Houston will come and pick it up because our tax money paid them to come and pick it up on time. But it’s not happening, so, a lot of people are discouraged though. I can – the heart is good but like I say the mine is another thing and they’re discouraged because they see that the powers that be, well are not willing to help in a in an adequate way. They pacify. They put it, like I say, they put a Band-Aid over a gunshot. They kicked the can down the road. And until they get out of office and it’s no longer their problem, it’s somebody else’s problem, who comes back, without knowledge, and do the same thing. So, we could use better infrastructure here. We could clean up our own neighborhoods. Yet when, when the city approves this proposal that I’m about to present to them that, we can clean up our own neighborhoods, but we have to have the resources, once again, which are our own resources and we’re not asking them for money. We’re going to collect our own money so we can do what we have to do in our own communities. And that’s the way I see it anyway. I’ve never seen asking anybody else to clean up my house. You know I clean up my own house. I just need, to right the right cleaning tools to get it done. Yeah.
XO: Well thank you very much for contributing to our oral history project. Is there anyone else you can probably think of that would probably want to be interviewed?
JJ: Yes, actually I do have quite a few people that we can interview who were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Actually, I’m the president of a civic club blocks organizing neighborhood defense and a lot of my members there were affected by Hurricane Harvey. And I spoke with them about it. So, they would love to come and interview too.
XO: Okay! Thank you so much for your time Mr. Joseph.
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