“It’s been a hell of a few days,” says Andrew Cobb, whose house in Houston’s Fifth Ward was spared the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters. His decentralized, grassroots relief effort called the “West Street Response Team” started with a simple scouting mission to a nearby flood plain across Highway 59 on Sunday.
After he and his roommates arrived at the location, they began coordinating with neighbors from the area on social media to find specific addresses of people needing rescue. They paddled more than two miles out in an inflatable kayak to make their first rescue of a mother and son, who they brought back to their own home to shelter for a few days.
“We posted about that and there was just a huge response, with some videos from that. And so, people were like, ‘What can we do? What’s up?’ And I was like, ‘We need boats. We need trucks. We need to get out there, and … people just responded in a big way,” Cobb tells me over the phone after nightfall — the only time when his team isn’t actively on rescue dispatch — earlier this week.
The group started formally raising money, and their house has since been transformed into a volunteer dispatch base running several rescue operations each day, including the rescue of a woman who was low on oxygen, whom they paddled and drove across town to another set of volunteers who got her across the final leg to a home with an oxygen concentrator.
Cobb’s team’s activities aren’t limited to rescues. They have also been working to drop food, water, clothing and dog food for stray animals to shelters and to certain drop-off spots at cross streets in his area.
Cobb is just one of many Texans braving Houston’s rapids from sun-up to sun-down to organize decentralized rescues in the early days of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation. Pre-Harvey, he organized with a local Food Not Bombs chapter and with the Society of Native Nations to oppose Energy Transfer Partner’s Trans-Pecos pipeline in far West Texas.
His work providing homeless people with food via Food Not Bombs has amplified his disgust for the journalists and city officials ridiculing Houstonians for providing for themselves during a time of crisis.
“Calling it ‘looting’ is just such an absurdity when you have no food in the neighborhood. So, people were getting what they need, but we were hearing that supplies were limited, and the closest real grocery store was Fiesta, and there was a four-hour line to get in,” Cobb says. “It’s a food desert in normal times, and right now it’s even more so.”
His team is already working with outside groups from Austin to coordinate resources, including acquiring more technical gear for rescues, in the coming days. It’s a sign of the emerging coalitions among leftists, radicals and anarchists, including those involved in antifascist organizing, that are beginning to solidify in the wake of Harvey. While Cobb says his response team opposes fascism and supports a diversity of tactics, they do not identify specifically as antifa. But many other leftists, including those who do identify as antifa, are poised, ready and waiting, for the water to recede to begin providing direct relief.
According to Scott Crow, anarchist, author and cofounder of the decentralized Common Ground Collective that provided relief and aid to those most in need almost exactly 12 years ago during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, grassroots distribution centers and clinics for Harvey victims are already cropping up.
Moreover, he says, a lot of people in antifascist networks have acted as first responders, including activists with groups focusing on rural areas like the anarchist-inspired Red Neck Revolt, who are working to build distribution centers in Houston’s Third and Fifth Ward. Organizers with Austin Common Ground Relief, who helped build the original Common Ground Collective in New Orleans, went into Houston with boats this week to bring in gasoline, water, food and other supplies, and are currently coordinating more volunteers each day.
“This is how we build liberatory communities, because we can’t rely on the government,” Crow tells Truthout. “Disasters show us the failures of government and large entities like the Red Cross every time. … It creates a crisis, and what you see is, the government cannot fill the void.”
In Houston, that void is not just being filled by radicals like Cobb, but hundreds of everyday Houstonians conducting search-and-rescue missions using personal boats and kayaks. Whether or not they know it, they too are engaging in mutual aid and direct action.
The autonomous coalitions already forming across Texas are set to grow into the type of coordinated effort that occurred after the government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Sandy, the largest hurricane on record for the Atlantic coast. In response to the storm, activists built the grassroots disaster relief network Occupy Sandy. Now, organizers with Occupy Sandy are raising money for water filtration systems to be deployed in Houston in the coming days.
“This is not to just fill in for the state, where it’s failing, but actually to begin to take control and self-determine our lives again in each of these communities,” Crow says. “[Mutual aid] creates spaces where people can take the power back. Decentralized grassroots efforts are one of those ways. You can go, ‘We don’t need to wait on somebody to rescue us.’ You build a search-and-rescue base, and then we begin to rescue ourselves.”
Crow told Truthout that what he saw when he initially went to Houston just after Harvey made landfall looked a lot like what he saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: hundreds of miles of inlands flooded, a patchy and failing response from the government — and anarchists and radicals diving in.
“You have all these anarchist networks that have existed before Katrina, strengthened through Katrina, and have continued after disaster after disaster in the United States, and now they … are ready to be the boots on the ground,” he said.
One of those anarchist groups is Houston’s Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), whose members have been acting as first responders, and working to share resources and information. ABC has also been leading a “call-in” drive to prisons and jails on behalf of prisoners and families affected by Harvey, including those from county jails that have not been evacuated.
“[Prison officials] were just relocating prisoners deeper into a mandatory evacuated county,” says ABC member and Houstonian Lena M. She requested her last name be withheld, fearing potential targeting over her anarchist organizing. “While we’ve been stuck in our houses, we’ve been reminding people not to forget about the prisoners because you’re doubly vulnerable if you can’t move voluntarily.”
Lena and other organizers stressed that Harvey has united various factions of leftist activists to work together to keep one another accountable, and to ensure that donations and funding are kept within the communities that need them the most, rather than going to support overhead for large aid organizations like the Red Cross.
“Lots of groups that have had issues in the past, just personality conflicts, are coming together right now because it’s better to have a fund run by somebody that you know, and that you can hold accountable whether or not you interpersonally like them. I think we all recognize that there’s a lot of big groups that are coming in and setting up these funds and we don’t know where any of that money goes,” she said.
According to an investigation by ProPublica and NPR, the American Red Cross only built six homes for displaced Haitians after the earthquake there in 2010 despite raising a half a billion dollars. The organization has been similarly criticized for its poor track record and lack of transparency after Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Isaac. In fact, the organization’s reputation has become so tarnished that Facebook has even decided to steer donations toward other charities on its platform.
“Groups like Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, United Way and all the big groups … don’t really look at those most marginalized — immigrant communities, rural communities, prisoners,” says Crow. “So, the decentralized efforts, especially the ones that are much more liberatory or anarchist-inspired, they are putting those communities at the forefront of what they are doing, and it’s all different kinds of people who are coming into those communities who are directly affected right now. There’s a difference in that. It’s not savior mentality. Everyone is in it together. That’s where the mutual aid comes in.”
Among the grassroots organizations focusing on communities of color is the Dallas-based Black Women’s Defense League (BWDL) — “a revolutionary womanist coalition that provides political education, self-defense training, and resources and rescue to abused, underserved [B]lack women and marginalized genders.”
BWDL is working with its sister organization, World on My Shoulders, to gather donations and supplies from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and deliver them to communities of color in Southeast Texas.
“What we’re doing is making sure those donations are being centered and focused on communities of color, and communities that are often left without or aren’t really targeted as much. We’re dealing with a lot of folks in Port Arthur [a city east of Houston] right now,” says BWDL Founder Niecee X, who also worked to provide relief to people in New Orleans after Katrina.
She says BWDL has been directing crews and teams to conduct rescues, and will be setting up in neighborhoods of color this week to provide supplies like diapers and hygiene products. “A lot of times the issues that women are dealing with are not really put to the forefront in rescue situations, and so we’re going to be out there with hygiene products and all of that, but also just with a nice face,” she told Truthout.
Other grassroots groups are focusing on the undocumented communities who have been rendered even more vulnerable after the Texas Legislature’s passage of SB4. While a federal court recently blocked the law from taking effect today, it may still ultimately be upheld. Among the groups providing crucial support to these communities is the Fe y Justicia Workers Center, LatinaTransTexas, RAICES and the South Texas Human Rights Center.
Additionally, street medic teams, which traditionally work to provide first aid during protests, are readying themselves. Debra Elliff, a street medic with the Houston-based Bayou Action Street Health (BASH) tells Truthout that members of the medic collective are working to coordinate incoming street medics and EMTs from across the US and Canada, and plugging them into areas where they are needed.
According to Elliff, BASH is actively coordinating with Cobb’s West Street Response Team in the Fifth Ward, as well as the BWDL and World on My Shoulders. In the coming weeks, she says, it’s likely they will work to set up temporary clinics where medics will work to ensure Houstonians have access to their prescriptions and to doctors, and will provide first aid and preventative care.
Elliff herself has been busy giving rides to dialysis patients, checking blood pressures and blood sugars, and making sure her neighbors have their medications.
“Right now, it looks like the main need is, and always has been, in lower economic status, predominantly and historically Black communities that are underserved in general,” Elliff says. “This is a really long-term project. A lot of people come in, and they get that charge from that initial, ‘I pulled somebody from the water. I rescued this person, or that person,’ and that absolutely needs to be done, but when the waters recede and the homes are devastated and the people are devastated, that’s when the long-term healing and recovery work begins. So, medics stay.”
Radical organizers Truthout spoke with expressed nuanced views on the government’s response to Harvey, calling Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to evacuate the right move, but condemning his emphasis on preventing “looting.” They also condemned the federal government’s response to the disaster — from its decision to keep border checkpoints open during the storm to President Trump’s recent visit.
Cobb and others suspect the government’s response has been stronger in wealthier areas of the city, mirroring what happened 12 years ago during Hurricane Katrina. At the same time, he is “extremely grateful for whatever government response was there because we could do fuck all against what was needed.”
Still Cobb says he’s been amazed to witness the compassion and strength of his neighbors and of average Houstonians amid the ongoing crisis.
“Looking at our current government that’s building walls and borders, and overtly supporting white supremacy, it’s amazing … just the conversations on boats and in the waters and in the car. People have been so happy and gracious and just like, ‘This is what we need. We need each other. We don’t need all this noise, and all this hate. We just got to look out for each other,'” he says.
Lena M. echoed his sentiments about what she has witnessed in Houston.
“It’s anarchists who take care of each other and who don’t worry about how things are going to get paid for and to value people’s lives over property,” she said. “With the chain of command disintegrating with these volunteer relief efforts … that is anarchism, that is mutual aid. … It’s been a really gorgeous sight even in a lot of heartbreak, a lot of death and a lot of fear.”
For a more comprehensive list of decentralized groups working to provide relief in southeast Texas, visit “A Just Harvey Recovery” from Another Gulf Is Possible.