Poor minorities will be most affected by Hurricane Harvey. And Beyoncé can’t fix it.

I’m tired of seeing people ask what Jay-Z and Beyoncé (and other celebrities) are doing for Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Why is that so many people’s FIRST question?

Why don’t we expect more from the government we pay taxes into, and the officials elected or appointed to serve and assist citizens? — Especially in a crisis such as a natural disaster.

Most celebrities give millions of dollars to charity, publicly and privately, BUT — these celebrities aren’t local, state, or federal officials or employees.

They don’t handle emergency preparedness or response. They don’t work for the Army Corp of Engineers. They don’t direct FEMA. They don’t direct the NOAA or the DHS (which houses FEMA) — both critical institutions that, during a crisis following a major hurricane, don’t have permanent leaders. (You can thank the celebrity we DO have in the highest office in the land for that!)

There are PLENTY of people to point fingers at when, in one of the most wealthy and powerful countries on the planet, we continue to allow manageable effects of natural disasters to destroy or take people’s lives. Most often, those who suffer the greatest harm are the most vulnerable in our nation — the poor, the elderly, and children. There are plenty of people to blame when we refuse to protect people who may not have the knowledge or means to protect themselves. But celebrities shouldn’t be first.

These are systemic issues that go FAR beyond Beyoncé. She and Jay-Z are no doubt horrified just like you and I. And they will give more money than you and I. They quietly give millions to Houston as well as to other areas and causes regularly. But beyond that, they don’t have the knowledge or power to deal with this, or more importantly, to PREVENT these occurrences from having such catastrophic effects.

Our government DOES.

The Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, told residents to stay put, effectively sentencing some to a watery grave. But arguably saving many more. He defended that decision (and many others have since defended him), noting that the traffic jams caused by the large population of Houston trying to evacuate would have been much more dangerous with the impending storm. And that’s likely true, as many families could have literally drowned in their cars on a highway that flooded in just 8 hours.

But, is that good enough? Are the only options risking death by trying to leave or risking death by staying?

It’s been widely reported (and confirmed) that federal authorities were unwilling to stop immigration checkpoints, even as a category four hurricane barreled down on the area. As a result, many undocumented immigrants feared seeking shelter. Critical emergency services have been stretched to the limit. Those still stranded, as well as homeless people who may not have found shelter, faced the danger of tornadoes and continuing rain. And the Coast Guard reported taking up to 1,000 calls per hour from people needing to be rescued.

Yet, as The Atlantic reported — citing a ProPublica report on why Houston was so vulnerable and unprepared for this kind of disaster — “it’s long been understood that the city is unprepared to handle the effects of a storm as unprecedented as this one.”

In spite of the fact that the area is vulnerable to extreme flooding AND the knowledge that many residents don’t have the means to evacuate safely, authorities still haven’t come up with a disaster plan. Mayor Turner may be right — large numbers of people stuck on the highways as flood waters rose would have been a disaster. But being stuck on rooftops, in homes, and in cars is STILL a disaster.

A Houston family waits on a roof to be rescued, as flood waters rise.

And all of this simply addresses loss of life. What about loss of property? Jobs? Income? What about lives disrupted?

Kirsten West Savali, a well known writer and associate editor for The Root, was uprooted along with her three sons, dog, and her husband, who is battling stage 4 lung cancer. The family had just moved to Houston so that Savali’s husband could be treated at the famous M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. While struggling through flood waters after escaping their home, they lost the few material possessions that they were able to take with them — including very expensive cancer medication. There are countless stories like this that will never be heard. What about sick people, and pregnant women, and hourly workers who can’t afford to lose time at work?

What about the people who will never quite recover from this?

Jay Blazek Crossley, executive director of Houston Tomorrow, wrote a piece for the Houston Chronicle just last year, titled “Stop building neighborhoods that make other neighborhoods flood.” He reported that new developments “have prompted developers to convert absorbent open land — fields and prairies — into much less absorbent suburbs, leaving floodwater to rush downstream.” Crossley wrote:

“While many of our older, more densely populated neighborhoods are suffering from decades of disinvestment and neglect, we are choosing to subsidize massive public spending on new roads and building of new neighborhoods that destroy the ecological resources that manage flooding in our region. This needs to stop now.
IN MARCH 2009, at a meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, Texas Department of Transportation staff member John Barton described Segment E of the Grand Parkway — State Highway 99 — as “an opportunity to open up areas for development in the Greater Houston area.”
The result has been a toll road causing a massive loss of trees and land critical to rainwater absorption. Along with the original Segment D, which made possible hundreds of thousands of new car-dependent homes on top of the Katy Prairie, it’s led to the over-filling of Addicks and Barker dams — both of which are on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ list of the most endangered dams in America.”

The article referenced the then overfilled Addicks and Barker Dams. Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, those dams have been opened to release water, which will cause even greater flooding in some neighborhoods downstream.

All of this is, at least in part, a result of unregulated urban growth and homes that “probably never should have been built.

Simplified — flooding doesn’t just happen. Development and decision making contribute to who is flooded, how flooding happens, and how the government prepares (or doesn’t prepare) and responds.

And what about the aftermath? People are stranded in Houston, resorting to Facebook pleas for help. If private citizens can gather boats and trucks and start wading through the water to rescue people from rooftops, why can’t a local government effort do even better? How could the city not AT LEAST be prepared to get people out? Why is there not outrage at the lack of a PLAN? Why do we just accept the status quo when lives are at risk? Why do we just accept that some people will be sacrificed to poor planning?

Why do we just accept the way that some lives are valued more than others?

As with many things in our society, it is very easy to say that there was nothing anyone could do. Or that officials did all they could. But honestly, that’s rarely ever true. We’re just used to accepting so little. Bureaucracy, government, corporations, boards, commissions — all of these things are made up of people. And too often we forget that.

For example, disaster historian Jacob Remes points out on Twitter, that “despite scandal after scandal after scandal, the American Red Cross remains the go-to generic suggested donation.”

Remes literally wrote a book on disasters in which he contrasts the way citizens respond with the way government responds in times of crisis. One review of his book states that he “has revealed the power of the informal networks and solidarities that existed in poorer communities, particularly during disasters, and he has highlighted the ways agents of state intervention failed to understand these strengths and their democratic significance.”

We can do better!

But … Nobody could have known, nobody would have thought, nobody predicted…

Oh really? So why is it that the Houston residents who lived in the most flood-prone areas, and near the petrochemical plants that are likely to flood and pollute these areas, happen to be largely poor and minorities? And these issues aren’t limited to Houston. Urban planning often leaves the poor and minorities to be segregated, faced with declining property values, and/or put in harm’s way by highways, pollution (including noise pollution), or natural disasters.

People knew. People thought. People made decisions because they knew and thought.

And we need to examine that.

“ I think fundamentally that’s what good democratic citizenship is: asking better and harder questions of our fellow citizens and of our government and encouraging each other to do that also.” -Jacob Remes