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'It changed our classification of what a disaster is'

My World's on Fire
'It changed our classification of what a disaster is'
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #47 • View online
Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!

Well, we are officially in the Atlantic hurricane season (though, as has become the norm, the first named storm of this season didn’t pay attention to the calendar). So, for today’s edition, I wanted to introduce you to Andrew Barley and Ben Hirsch, two of the co-founders of West Street Recovery (WSR). Founded in 2017 in response to Hurricane Harvey, WSR is a “horizontally organized grassroots non-profit organization” with a focus on community involvement and empowerment. I got connected with Barley and Hirsch in April as I sought to hear from non-profits in Texas about how they were dealing with the compounding crises the state has faced over the past year, including Covid-19 and the February freeze, as well as how they were preparing for the 2021 hurricane season. 
If you missed my first Q&A on this topic with Matthew Marchetti, one of the founders of CrowdSource Rescue, you can check it out here!
Barley and Hirsch were really generous in sharing their time with me to detail how WSR has built trust in Houston neighborhoods where locals have “heard the same story over and over” from officials following disasters, as Hirsch described it, and how they have sustained that to support recovery and resiliency efforts. I had to edit our interview down to fit into this newsletter, but you can learn more about WSR’s ethos and goals in this post on Undesigning Disasters
Now, onto the interview!
Colleen Hagerty: I’m curious where the Covid-19 pandemic found you last spring, and how it impacted the work that you were doing and the communities that you were serving?
Andrew Barley: I would say that it sort of evolved our understanding of what we felt was a natural disaster, or what we felt was appropriate for disaster recovery work. For a lot of our homeowners, all of these things are sort of interconnected. You know, they live in communities that are flood-prone and have poor flooding infrastructure, but they also are victims in other ways due to heavy industrialization in these neighborhoods; they’re also victims of various forms of environmental racism. 
These are Black and Brown communities, meaning these are some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods when it comes to an infection rate [of Covid-19], but they’re also the ones who are not really given the appropriate resources so that they can better protect themselves. And we’re also, keep in mind, talking about the intersection of class. These are working class folks who have to leave their houses in the middle of this pandemic and who have to subject themselves to potentially getting Covid in order to make ends meet, they don’t have the luxury of staying home like a lot of folks do.
So, for us, it changed our classification of what a disaster is, and it felt only natural for us to use our community resources and our community connections in order to prepare our folks the best we could for the long haul when it comes to the Covid-19. That meant working with our partners to provide economic assistance, that meant working with partners to provide masks and other sanitation supplies, and that also meant working with our community members and making sure that they had a network amongst each other where they could check-in and make sure not just that everyone’s okay but that everyone has equal access to resources in the community. 
Ben Hirsch: Our membership has actually done quite well in the face of Covid in comparison to the broader community that they’re part of, and we think that part of that is just that we have all these weekly calls and weekly or bi-weekly Zoom meetings with pretty high numbers of community members where we’re just, like, encouraging people and people are encouraging each other to take proper protective measures. Also giving people money so that they can pay their rent and stuff like that and maybe they don’t go take a risky job as a day laborer or maybe they don’t go back to their daycare job. I know there was one woman we were working with who we basically paid her to not go back to work. She had just given birth, and she worked at a daycare that was taking very few precautions. 
Also, supporting each other and people talking about different things they’re doing to avoid boredom, for example, or to get people sharing food pantry information every day on our WhatsApp chat. And I think all that together really did make a difference for people. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, this is the one intervention that did it.’ I think it’s more building the community, combining the financial capital with the social network, and [connecting] different people with different types of information. 
I would say also, in terms of vaccines, the broader community that we work in has some high degree of suspicion with the vaccines and even some people that we work with really closely were originally pretty worried about the vaccine. They didn’t feel that it was safe, they didn’t feel that it was right – that it was being sort of tested out on Black and Brown people from their perspective. And I think over time, having discussions and celebrating every time someone did get the vaccine, being like, ‘Oh, Miss Sandra, you got the vaccine, congratulations!’ People shared pictures of themselves getting the vaccine, coordinated rides to get the vaccine, and I actually think over time that did build trust, because people saw people that they’re in community with getting the vaccine and that it was working out for them. So, I think from prevention all the way to vaccination that community care work was so important. 
CH: With the start of hurricane season now approaching again, what does your work look like day-to-day at this moment? 
AB: So, one of the things that has been helpful for us is that we’ve got these two community groups, the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus and the Northeast Action Collective. They’re completely community-led, and they go out and they do their own actions and events and things. With them, I’ve been fortunate enough to do some of that, like, future planning in regards to community-based disaster prepping.
We have a disaster response team as one of the subteams of the Northeast Action Collective, and those guys are working to create a system now prior to hurricane season coming. They do things like they have a convenient disaster call list where they check in with all the members of their community to make sure that folks are safe, and they have these disaster go bags that have the essentials people will need when in the middle of a disaster to keep themselves and their families safe. They’ve been able to get grants so that they can do things like buy generators for the community, and when a disaster happens, we’ll know that house has the generators, that house has the water and medicine, and that house has a couple boats over there. 
A lot of our team members – they know that hurricane season is coming, and, unfortunately, they’ve experienced this enough and they now have the resources and self-advocacy to know that they don’t want that to happen again. So, we’re helping them gather the resources and prepare themselves knowing that there will be failures in the system every time like there have been in the past again. We’re already organizing to protect ourselves during the next hurricane. 
BH: We’ve been in this long-term fight trying to get disaster organizations to reduce the barriers to getting aid, and we’ve actually seen some real success on that front. For example, after the winter storms, they did some stuff to pre-qualify certain geographic areas of Houston where the median income and such are so low that they don’t feel the need to do a household-by-household check, it’s like, if you live in this zone, you need help.
Part of the disaster preparedness work is fighting for changes in the overall system, and the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus has spent all of their efforts fighting to get HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) money to their families and in doing so have come to understand the HUD and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) aid systems so much better. And that knowledge is like a type of preparedness as well, but it takes a lot of collective effort to build that knowledge over time.
West Street Recovery
The Northeast Action Collective disaster preparation team kicked off their 1st block walking campaign. We want to be proactive in connecting Northeast Houston to resources & trainings, our community group, & identifying specific needs of households before the next #Hurricane
CH: From the winter storm recently or if you’re kind of reflecting back on other events that you’ve come across through this work, are there any sort of misconceptions or narratives that you kind of keep coming up against?
BH: Yeah, I think there are two or three that really need to be emphasized. One is that natural disasters are not great equalizers, they amplify previous inequality. I think that narrative is used to, like, get people on board in a way – to unify people – but it also really obscures the reality of what happens after disasters. We know from academic research that, actually, FEMA declarations of disaster on average increase white people’s wealth and decrease Black and Brown people’s wealth, and the gap that is created by disasters is extremely significant. 
The second thing is that the climate crisis is now. You know, I am in my early 30s and even 10 years ago, the framing that seemed very reasonable to me was that climate change is going to be this crisis that is going to do this stuff all in the future tense, and we really need to bury the future tense about climate chaos, because it’s happening right now in the Gulf Coast. Every year, every hurricane season seems to be worse, or at least if you look at five-year periods compared to the previous five years, it will be getting worse all the time. 
Then, the other thing is that we have a poverty crisis in America, and the poverty crisis and the climate crisis are inextricable from each other. That poverty is what makes people so vulnerable to climate change, and that poverty is not really an acceptable thing to talk about in America. We don’t even say ‘poor,’ like we say ‘low’ and ‘medium low’ and ‘moderate income,’ which is a huge falsehood. Like, I am a low to moderate-income person, and I am not a poor person, I have assets, you know, I grew up with wealth. But there really is deep and intergenerational poverty in America that we are not addressing successfully right now, and the climate crisis is happening right now.
CH: How do you navigate doing this sort of ongoing care, understanding the levels of burnout that I know a lot of volunteers in this space tend to develop? Is that something that’s been a challenge for you?
AB: Principles of mutual aid really help out when it comes to burnout because our community is all-in with it. When we talk about the community researchers, the folks who know their neighbors better than anybody, who can get access better than we can, that helps when it comes to writing our papers. When we talk about going out and working on people’s houses, and the guy whose house I just worked on two weeks ago, he’s excited to help me work on the next house and help his neighbor across the way like that, that helps me a lot when it comes to burnout. 
Obviously, the community is wanting – there’s a degree of self-interest there, where they want to strengthen and make the community as good as any other community in Houston. But with that, there’s also the element of – now they’re developing the skillset, they want to be there for each other, and they want to be there for us. There are so many things I’ve had to do with West Street and the community members are like, ‘Okay, you’ve got to do that today. Let me help you.’ Like, I’ve had situations where I couldn’t get access to a West Street vehicle, and community members will be like, ‘Oh, you need to get that delivered today? Let me help you get that wood delivery over to that house. I’ll deliver that paint for you before you get to the job site today.’
Those little things, like, that shared sense of community that we’ve been fortunate enough to be invited into with a lot of our members, that helps us with the burnout, too, because whether they know it or not, a lot of our folks are, like, they’re pitching in. Without our community members, West Street doesn’t happen, it doesn’t work on our own. And they really, at the end of the day, contribute a lot to us not burning out.
West Street Recovery
Señora Verónica'a roof was damaged during #hurricaneimelda & we were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to help replace it. Now she can focus on helping our community group Northeast Action Collective in its fight for equitable drainage #equtiablehtown #communityorganizing
Thank you again to Andrew Barley and Ben Hirsch for their time!
MWOF at the movies
So, I’m thinking this might need to be the choice for the first-ever MWOF disaster movie viewing club because… yeah, there’s a lot going on there! Sign up here to receive updates on when and how to join our (free) little viewing party to hang with other readers and me.
And as always...
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire. You can support this newsletter and get access to exclusive content by signing up for my Patreon. It also means the world to me when you share it on social media like Aaron Clark-Ginsberg did (hope you enjoyed getting this first edition in your inbox!):
Aaron Clark-Ginsberg
@colleenhagerty I just wanted to thank you for putting this together! What a nice breakdown of some of the disaster policy stuff I try to track. Subscribed.
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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