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Racial Inequities Emerge As Houston Recovers From Last Week’s Winter Storm

A line of people wait on the other side of a table stacked high with cardboard boxes full of food.
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
People wait in line for food and water at a Houston distribution site organized by U.S. Rep. Al Green on Feb. 22, 2021.

Already devastated by COVID-19, the winter storm is another blow to Houston’s communities of color.

As hundreds of mostly Black and brown Houstonians lined up outside of Bethel's Heavenly Hands food pantry in Southwest Houston Monday, U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, helped carry supplies into cars for those suffering through the aftermath of last week’s winter storm.

Cases of water, boxes of cereal, cans of soup, fruit, juice — the event, organized in conjunction with the Houston Food Pantry, was set up to serve as many as 1,000 families impacted by power outages, burst pipes and other issues that left people without food or water. The majority of the surrounding community is Black and Hispanic, with a median household income well below the U.S. average, according to Census data.

Green had already seen how communities like this one were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Now, after the region was hit by yet another disaster, he was seeing a familiar scenario play out: neighborhoods without resources struggling to get by as the lives of others went largely back to normal.

“Minority communities are suffering,” Green said Monday, between loading up cars. “We have to be here to minimize that suffering, and mitigate it, and eliminate it, to be quite honest.”

A week after a winter storm that dropped temperatures to freezing levels and knocked out power and water for millions, families in some areas of Houston had already begun the process of filling out insurance claims and calling plumbers as warmer weather began to take hold over the weekend.

But while the situation may have improved for some Houstonians, others are in danger of being left behind.

In lower-income communities, older and more compromised homes struggled under the stress of a harsh winter storm. Chrishelle Palay, who advocates for equitable disaster response through the HOME Coalition, said that some of the families in her community of Kashmere Gardens don’t have insurance.

Many of Palay’s neighbors needed house repairs even before the winter storm hit, she said. Some are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, nearly four years later.

“One of my neighbors, I looked at his house — it's just amazing in my mind that he's still able to stay there,” she said, “But he’s like, ‘I don't have any other choice. Where else do I go'?”

Palay started her organization in the wake of Harvey to make disaster recovery more equitable. Research by the Episcopal Health Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation has shown Black and low-income communities in the region were less likely to have recovered a year after the storm.

A Rice University Kinder Institute survey also revealed that more than half of Black and Latino immigrant respondents could not come up with $400 to meet an emergency expense.

“The recovery is going to be very delayed, very slow,” said Aisha Siddiqui founder of the nonprofit Culture of Health-Advancing Together, which works with refugee communities in Gulfton.

She said the people she serves often don't have cars, struggle with English and live in rundown apartments with poor management.

“If the pipeline broke or burst or the ceiling opened or something, they're stuck with it,” Siddiqui said.

The population there relies on small stores in walking distance for food that may not be as well-stocked as H-E-B, or other big stores that are themselves struggling to keep items on the shelves, she said.

But while the refugees Siddiqui works with are struggling, they’re also part of a very tight-knit and supportive community, she added.

“I know a few of these ladies who are always cooking and sending food to people, and if they know so-and-so is sick, they will cook something and send it to them,” she said.

That’s common in many neighborhoods facing hardships, according to Zeinab Bakhiet, a Rice University researcher who works in Third Ward and Sunnyside.

“People are really looking out for each other and for their neighbors,” she said. “I think there's a strong network of support.”

While her contacts in Third Ward have struggled, she said she’s also heard of neighbors helping each other out. Growing up abroad in a Sudanese family, Bakhiet said her family and friends always came together in a crisis.

Now, she sees similarities from her own background in how communities are helping each other in this most recent crisis.

“In absence of outside support, we are going to take care of each other and we are going to check in on each other,” Bakhiet said. “And that’s a strength in those communities.”

Houston Public Media provided this story.