Stephen James saw the devasting effects of Hurricane Harvey firsthand and documented his experience through photography. James’s career as a CBS affiliate at Houston, Channel 11 prepared him to seek photographs in storms and other devastating events. While he documented the storm and later volunteered for those in need, James witnessed community-wide acts of kindness. He walked through Houston in knee-deep to waist-deep water and seeing two young Hispanic boys pushing a boat in the floodwater to help an elderly black couple. James witnessed further community support while volunteering at Lakewood Church, helping hand out donations and supplies and assisting at FEMA while working for Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee. He oversaw the set-up of two distribution centers that provided food, water, and supplies to those affected by Harvey. When asked about previous storms, James discussed his experiences with Alicia, Katrina, Allison, and Ike. In all of these disasters, James remembers politicians seeking out those in need and offering their help. James denotes a similar aspect of all these disasters, including Hurricane Harvey, and community communication – people providing information about which roads are open and where damage is on certain streets and neighborhoods. James finishes his interview by offering advice for future storms; he encourages people to trust media forewarning of natural disasters and local agencies’ advice during said disasters.
Interviewee: Stephen James
Interview Date: November 3, 2019
Interview Location: St. Mary of the Purification Catholic Church
Interviewer: Samuel Phillips
INTERVIEWER: Today is November 3, 2019. I’m Samuel Phillips, and I’m here with Stephen James at St. Mary of the Purification Catholic Church to talk about Hurricane Harvey for the UH Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project.
SP: Sir, could you start by telling me a little bit about yourself?
SJ: I’m Stephen James from New Orleans originally — received a scholarship to come to Texas Southern University. And I’ve remained here ever since. My Hurricane Harvey experience was unique in two ways. One, I got to firsthand see the devastation but also those random acts of kindness that you see from Houstonians in all situations. That particular weekend, I was living [0:01:00] at my brother’s house for a short while as I transitioned apartments. And the storm came, and one of us decided, “Hey, let’s — somebody needs to go be with our sister-in-law.” So I drove over there, luckily, as the storm was just getting bad. Anyway, the waters rose quickly as they did in many places.
And over there on the community of Fondren at Airport, as a photographer, I decided to go take some pictures. I walked for about 12 blocks in knee-deep to waist-deep water taking various pictures of people lining up at the local convenience stores. There was one Chevron station that opened up. And the lined wrapped the building inside and out. But the gentlemen, they were [0:02:00] understanding, patient, allowing people to get basic substance — you know, just food and water in many instances. But you know, it’s odd as a photographer when you see certain things like the McDonald’s, where the water was all the way up to the driveway sign — where you see parents carrying the little fellows on their shoulders and the moms carrying whatever possessions they had as well. But there’s one image that I’ll never forget — this couple, an elderly black couple, in a small boat being pushed by two young Hispanic boys. They made the local news, because random acts of kindness, you saw it everywhere.
But walking through the communities and you see large trucks underwater [0:03:00]. So I had that experience. And as the water settled — about a day and a half after the water had settled, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Lakewood Church. They had a donation as well as pick up arrangement — really massive, really massive set-up for them. I got to help taking donations out of cars. And then you set them into the various areas. You have various church groups who came to help to separate and coordinate into different categories what was being given away. And then later in the afternoon, they were giving out supplies. This was a massive operation. And once again, it was Houston. We help one another. So taking the pictures were memorable experiences to see water so high. I mean [0:04:00], I’m 6’2″, and water was up here to my waist. So you saw little kids. Everybody was carrying the little kids. But then you also — there’s a little family that had like a little — what was it? The Red Flyer wagon? Kids were in the wagon. They were having a ball. They didn’t really realize what was going on. But to them, they were having a ball.
But you saw the firefighters in the boats. I saw those guys. These young men work hard. These young men work hard. But then you saw neighbors who had their own personal boats, I mean, because there was some areas where you could see for blocks, and blocks, and blocks water. I mean, just for blocks you could see water. So there was no walking unless you were prepared to walk. But that was my experience. I had my stepdaughter and grandson. They were secluded over in the Memorial area. You literally couldn’t get over there [0:05:00]. It took me three days to get over there. The water was that deep.
SJ: Uh-huh. And I also worked with FEMA during that time as one of the other guests that you were talking to. In the Kingwood area, mountains of debris — mountains of debris — so the City of Houston really took a hit, but Houstonians rose to the challenge.
SP: Kind of a two-part question for you, it’s very intriguing to hear that you were walking through this waist-deep water. And you’re taking pictures, and you’re seeing so many things. So I guess, for one, I’d like to know what your mindset was like, as far as, even though I’m seeing all this stuff, I am worried about my own safety. But at the same time, you’re just kind of taking it all in. So what was your experience taking it all in, for one? And then secondly, what experiences have you had with prior storms that maybe could relate to what you experienced that day?
SJ: Well [0:06:00], early in my career, I worked at a CBS affiliate here in Houston, Channel 11. So being in storms and tragedies of that nature, you don’t want to say you’re comfortable. But you understand your role. We were taught, “If you want the picture, you got to go it.” So me putting on my boots — because I knew it was nasty water, but you could step on anything. So I had my waders on. And the mindset was to just capture the human experience. There’s no other way to say it, because when you see people walking with all their possessions — well, not all of them, but you know, those critical items on their heads and carrying their kids on their shoulders and what not. That’s a tragedy. But the part that was — I don’t want to say overwhelming, because I wasn’t. It’s just like, “Wow,” when you’re walking [0:07:00] through and you’re seeing vehicles underwater. You’re seeing — because I didn’t go over there when it was too deep. But all you see is the roof of a car, the roof of a truck. Yeah, that was pretty awe inspiring. What was the second part of your –?
SP: The second part would be what prior experiences had you ever had, again prior to the day that you were walking through the water, and things of nature.
SJ: Every major storm that’s hit Houston since 1976, I’ve had a role in it. And for — as I said, the first 20 years through CBS, we were in the middle of it, okay? One of the ones, Alicia, that was a frightening storm. I’ll never forget — see, I’m from New Orleans. I’m accustomed to storms. I was raised — Betsy. I wasn’t there for Katrina, but I had a unique experience with Katrina. But when you walk outside and you look up and the sky is green, it’s not [0:08:00] like it’s dark or cloudy. The sky is green. You know, that lets you know it’s really serious. I covered Alicia, Allison. And as I said, Katrina, my family — I’m from New Orleans. And I had a unique experience that my brother-in-law at the time was the city finance manager. So we were able — my brother and I were able to get a pass to go behind the National Guard lines and see what true devastation is like.
SJ: You know, because what they went through is — you know, one of the most striking things for me was — and I didn’t experience it here in Houston. When we went to New Orleans, total silence. You couldn’t hear the wind, because there was no leaves on the trees. No dogs barking. No traffic sounds. It was total quiet. And everything was [0:09:00] devastation. But comparing that to what I’ve been here to Houston, I think like Ike was, in my opinion — I know Harvey was bad because of the water — that much water falling. But Ike and the number of trees it destroyed — I mean, to see a giant hundred-foot oak tree snatched out of the ground, that’s power. To see all of the communities in darkness because the trees in Houston just ripped the wires down — just ripped the wires down. And they were in darkness for what? A week? Yeah, for a whole week, you’re in darkness. And you know, you hear people complain about what local politicians do. I watched politicians go off into the darkness to find people. I watched that. You know, so then, too, that’s because I was at the television station. You get to see [0:10:00] all of those things like most people don’t get to see, but yeah.
SP: Feeding off of that a little bit, there are people that definitely have different ideas on politics and cities and government officials and how they’re involved. From you actually being on the television set, what would you say that maybe is like a misconception for a lot of people when it comes to –?
SJ: I would say, in reference to most, not all — most politicians are earnestly concerned when devastation happens, especially those who are from Houston. I don’t want to get into naming names, because that’s always a problem. But I worked for several politicians. One in particular, when you saw — fought to get federal dollars here. Yeah, I watched that. Yeah, so for people to say, “They don’t do anything for us,” you have no idea [0:11:00] what these people go through to get those types of funds for major catastrophes. And they get it done. They get it done. They work an 18-, 20-hour day, but then they get it done.
SP: You did mention a few times being from New Orleans. For one, how long have you been in Houston? And I guess, what brought you from New Orleans to Houston?
SJ: I was blessed in a city like New Orleans. You’re raised with music. I learned to play clarinet from the fourth grade. And Texas Southern Ocean of Soul marching band came to New Orleans for Bacchus. And like most bands, when you go to a city like a New Orleans or San Francisco where music is really important, they send out recruits. And they came to my high school. And I performed for them. And I was invited to come to Houston to audition. And it just so happens the band director was a clarinet player as well. So I got full everything.
SJ: Oh, yeah [0:12:00], full everything. And I’ve been here all my entire adult life. Houston, as they can say proverbially — the proverbial, Houston’s been good to me. You know, Houston’s been good to me. But you know, Houston, as an international city with people coming from far and near, New Orleans has had a good relationship. Following Katrina when, at the time, Mayor Bill White sent the busses and opened up the Astrodome — you know, that’s a politician who said, “Look, let’s take care of this,” so yeah, New Orleans has had a good relationship with Houston.
SP: So ultimately, music brought you to Houston.
SJ: Music brought me to Houston. Most people are keenly aware of the type of music that comes out of New Orleans, like Wynton Marsalis [0:13:00], who are ambassadors that travel around the world. But then you have individuals like myself, who come to schools like Texas Southern, Southern, Jackson State, other HBCUs, and we bring that type of music — that type of marching. Because if you march in the parades in New Orleans, it’s altogether different from what most of these schools experience. And that was one of the reasons Prof Butler — Benjamin Butler recruited us. There were 10 of us that came to The Ocean that year.
SP: You did mention earlier about everything that was going on during the storm and, again, the pictures that you were taking and things of that nature. So what was your first impression when you were actually hearing about the storm on the news and in the days leading up to it? Like, “Hey, something is coming.”
SJ: Again, that’s a good question. It leads — that question leads more to your understanding of the danger that’s approaching.
SP: Right [0:14:00].
SJ: Having been raised in the south where storms are all the time, you learn to prepare. It’s not like a tornado. It’s not like a fire. You have days to prepare for these. Those who are — who are — who have been through it, you know, “Hey, I need water. I need batteries. I need canned goods. I need all this, and I need it up in the air.” You don’t put it on the floor. I need it up in the air. So I had plenty of time. I have family here in the Houston area — plenty of time to prepare, right? My background in television — I know to listen and take seriously what the broadcasters are saying. It’s not a joke. And then during it, just the overwhelming awe of listening to God’s power. Because Harvey was no joke. Harvey was no joke [0:15:00]. The water never stopped coming down. And then when you walked through — I mean, this was a vast area I was walking through in waist-deep water — a vast area. This was like — I’m not talking about four or five blocks. This was as far as the eye could see water. You know, down Airport, down Fondren, down — I mean, Fondren all the way down to Braeswood. I walked to the bayou. All the way down to there, it was water everywhere.
SP: Like you said, “Water was far as I could see.” Prior to this, what was your neighborhood like before all this?
SJ: It’s a nice, quiet — there was a nice little tributary bayou that ran through there, so there was never flooding of any kind. Because you had this big bayou that went right there. And to see that bayou over its banks, when you know normally no water comes — but over its banks [0:16:00]. And you walk — and you’re walking literally in three-, four-feet of water even with that bayou there. It was — it was — you know, impressive is the wrong word, but it was awe inspiring. That’s all I could say, like, “Wow.”
SP: How did you communicate with friends and relatives?
SJ: Cell phones.
SP: Cell phone?
SJ: Uh-huh. Luckily, Houston’s cell phone towers were not damaged.
SJ: You know, during Ike, totally different story, because Ike — the trees were coming down. And CenterPoint Energy made it a point to — I mean, all over the city to trim trees back from power lines and communications lines. They took care of that, so Houston never went into the dark, I mean, communications-wise.
SP: Piggy-backing off of that, since Ike pretty much took away the ability for us to communicate through cell phones and going over to Harvey, was that ever in the back of your mind [0:17:00]? Did you think about that at any time maybe?
SJ: Not at that time.
SP: Yeah, okay.
SJ: Not at that time. You’re kind of in the moment, right?
SJ: One of the things Prof Butler at the band taught us, “Be a participant, not a spectator.” So I was actively involved in what was going on. So you don’t have time to think about back or forward. You’re in the moment. Being over at Lakewood Church, being in that moment, and you’re seeing families come by. And you know, they really need personal items. Babies, ladies, they need personal things. And to see the outpouring from, I mean, churches big and small were donating — big and small — you know, massive amounts of materials, yeah.
SP: Wow, okay. Still talking about communication, what role, if any, did social media play for you in that?
SJ: Great role. There was a [0:18:00] — what is it? Instagram or one of them? I know – and Facebook as well – that came up with a program to let people know what streets you could go down.
SP: Okay, right.
SJ: You know, because most of them — 75% of the streets were impassable. So they were telling people, “This street is open from here to here. This grocery store is open from here to here.”
SJ: Yeah. And that was a necessary community involvement. And these were young people, who really didn’t — you know, they weren’t thinking like, “I have to save people.” They were like, “Hey, guys. This street is open. Hey, guys, you can get water here.” You know, and that, in my opinion, was the beauty of social media. It was very social, if you will, during that time. Because it helped people.
SP: And that was kind of a way that you mentioned earlier — you know, Houstonians just really [0:19:00] looking out of each other.
SJ: I have the greatest respect for Houston when a natural disaster happens. People just give their time. J.J. Watt received all the national glory, because he did one heck of a job — what he did. But when you multiply that times the grandma who cooked, the little grocery store, the little convenience store that stayed open — when you count fraternities and sororities who would go around the senior citizens’ houses and clean them out, right? All the debris, as the other gentleman was saying — random acts of kindness.
SP: Right, right. So social media definitely seemed to be a necessity to you.
SP: As far as helping you understand the nature of everything and where you can and cannot go, what else would you say was a necessity [0:20:00] for you during that time?
SJ: Well, like everybody — well, no, my family is different. We all are from New Orleans. We’re accustomed to storms. We were prepared. We had — we had days’ worth of water – and that’s the most important thing – days’ worth of canned goods, right? But there are those who just really don’t get it, those who just take for granted that I will be okay. And those are the people you saw walking down the street. I mean, I’m 6’2″, right?
SJ: So if you’re a woman, and you’re 5’6″, you’re walking in some serious water.
SP: Very much so.
SJ: And your kids — and what you did not understand that you were putting yourself and those others in harm’s way just for a lack of knowledge. And that’s where I thought social media helped a lot of people. Because those who were completely caught off-guard — how? I don’t know how you would be caught off-guard when a hurricane coming. But those [0:21:00] who were not prepared, social media gave them the wherewithal to survive the event. Because it was only for that two or three days that it was really, really, really bad. Ike, there’s a solid week of this is really rough — a solid week, you know. But for me and my family, we know what hurricanes are all about.
SP: Right. Ultimately, going to your direct experience as far as your home, did you have to leave your home? Did you sustain any property damage or anything like that?
SJ: Minimal at best. Minimal at best. As I said, I was in transition with my living facility. And I was with my brother who was off the Antoine and Tidwell area. And they maybe got a foot. They had a giant tributary — giant bayou back over there — water, right on out [0:22:00]. But it really, I think, comes down to when people take seriously the warnings, the preparation that’s required. Because look at it this way, so you go and buy two, three days’ worth of water. Guess what? You can still drink it. It might last you for a few months. Canned goods, you’re going to eat it. It’s not like you’re wasting money. But it’s just-in-case stuff.
SP: Okay. You did mention FEMA a little bit earlier. I guess I wanted to say from everything you’ve said, you do kind of have like a third-person experience of everything going around. Because you’re just seeing so many things, and it’s really a multifaceted storm. So going back to FEMA, were you able to see anything firsthand from the outside looking in of them assisting people or anything of that nature?
SJ: Could I say who I was working for at that time? At that time, Sheila Jackson Lee had just hired me [0:23:00] the Friday before the storm hit. She knew that I was capable of managing things and difficult situations. We were able to get FEMA to set up two distribution centers — resource centers in her district. So we were able to make certain that the trucks came in, that the people in her community — water, food, personal needs. Yes, I was able to work directly with the FEMA people. And what you find out with those FEMA people, they’re the same people who have the same approach as Houstonians. There are people in need. Let’s get it done. And then you watch that happen. Let’s just get this done. So FEMA — with all the problems FEMA had in New Orleans, I think they made a very good showing of themselves in Harvey — in Harvey [0:24:00], but in Ike, their work was, in my opinion, excellent. The FEMA people worked, I mean, tirelessly. You see them go lay down on a cot, take a nap, get right back up and go to work. Yeah, I’ve seen the federal agencies come to bear.
SP: And actually help people that needed it.
SJ: Yes. When you see, especially elderly — especially elderly, who are — in many instances, they were trapped. And you saw FEMA, Harris County, Houston go find those people. They didn’t just say, “Hey, call me on the phone.” They went in those neighborhoods, especially the seniors. And they couldn’t have done it if they didn’t have the resources from FEMA. They simply couldn’t have done it. When they had a fleet of trucks coming in [0:25:00] — you know, yeah.
SP: Wow, okay. You mentioned Lakewood and everything they’ve done there now. Of course, I kind of remember the day and everything going on during that time period a lot of negative connotations with Lakewood. So I guess, from your perspective, how was everything that unfolded for you?
SJ: Well, you know, in many instances, there’s good and bad — in many instances. Mine was an extremely positive experience during that time. Those problems that were pointed out were not because of any malicious act or thought. I’m trying to do good, and I made a mistake. I’m sorry, guys. You know, Joel Osteen and his staff, I thought, in my opinion, did a marvelous job. Did they make mistakes? Yeah, we’re human. But there was no malicious intent. You know, they were good people trying to help people in need.
SP: Right. I guess that was one of the bigger churches. You also mentioned some smaller churches that you saw.
SJ: Oh, yeah. St. Mary’s right now — where we are right now [0:26:00] was a distribution center, yeah. But you look at Hebrew Missionary Baptist Church over in Sunnyside. They may have 800 — less than a thousand in their congregation. They were a major distribution center over there in Sunnyside because of their pastor. You know, these pastors — some of them may not be on the up and up, but the vast majority during a tragedy? They’re great. They really, really are.
SP: Again, random acts of kindness.
SJ: Random acts of kindness, yeah.
SP: Mr. James, we’ve definitely talked about a lot of things. Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss that we haven’t? Or maybe if you could give people that are not so educated on the storm or for storms to come — hopefully, we don’t have any. But for storms to come, what could you say to those people?
SJ: Storms are going to come. We’re on the Gulf Coast.
SJ: It’s going to happen [0:27:00]. The most important thing is the mindset of “It’s going to be alright.” It’s not. It’s not. Storms can — hurricanes are dangerous because of the winds, the rain that they pull, and the fact that they’re going to destroy resources.
SJ: Listen to the local agencies. Television, they’re doing that for a reason. So from my perspective, that would be it. Just take it serious.
SP: Alright, okay. Well, thank you so much for your time. I certainly appreciate you spending time with us today. And I think that wraps it up.
SJ: Thank you.
SP: Thank you.
SJ: Thank you very much. [0:27:44]