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Solidarity After the Storms

In Texas and Florida, political activists are “living socialism” with their disaster-relief efforts.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux

It has become a cliché—but no less true for that—to point out that so-called “natural” disasters tend to show us the fault lines in our society. The aftermath of major storms such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which blew through Texas’s Gulf Coast and across the Caribbean and up Florida’s peninsula respectively, lay out American inequality in almost unbearably sharp relief. 

“For large portions of Houston things are going back to normal, the highways are reopening, people are going back to work and their lives look relatively the same. But for other portions of Houston things are not going to be OK for a very long time,” says Amy Zachmeyer of Houston Democratic Socialists of America, which has been doing volunteer disaster relief after Harvey. “A lot of those divides are economic divides, and it has also really highlighted the racial segregation in our city.” Moving through flood-ravaged neighborhoods, one sees “everything inside a home that made that home a home” in a heap on the sidewalk, Zachmeyer says, a potent visual representation of the way communities of color tended to be in the path of destruction, while wealthier neighborhoods’ better positioning left them relatively unscathed.

Americans were shocked by the vision of their country thrown up by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the sights of people stranded on their New Orleans roofs or stuck in the Superdome without food or bedding, the failures of the government on all levels to provide for those whose lives had been destroyed. And while disaster response has superficially improved since then, in practice it is still largely communities that take care of one another, stitching together the last shreds of the social safety net volunteer by volunteer.

As the name-brand NGOs and the austerity-stripped state have failed to meet human needs after storms like Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, community activists have increasingly, impressively, stepped up. In New Orleans, one of the most significant recovery groups was Common Ground, led by former Black Panther Malik Rahim. In New York, Occupy Wall Street organizers became Occupy Sandy, and were so effective that they even garnered praise from the same police department that had thrown them out of Zuccotti Park. In Texas, in addition to DSA, Zachmeyer has seen Black Lives Matter Houston doing “muck and gut” work similar to the DSA volunteers, while labor unions have been coordinating relief work.

The Democratic Socialists, Zachmeyer says, had set up a post-storm fundraiser expecting to garner around $10,000, and wound up with over $100,000 to spend. That’s allowed them to consult with experts to make sure they’re doing the most effective work—like distributing funds to undocumented families who are ineligible for federal disaster aid. Their volunteer operation has gone into home after home, pulling out sodden belongings and stripping out moldy drywall. The work is backbreaking and emotionally exhausting, Zachmeyer says—families who are unused to getting help feel the need to justify why they deserve it. Others are simply traumatized. And yet when it comes down to it, she says, it’s the most fulfilling work she feels she’ll ever do, and one that’s helping to build trust with a lot of people around Houston who “who may not realize that they know a socialist.” 

For some in groups like DSA and Occupy Sandy, the very idea of relief work can seem counterintuitive. Is doing what amounts to charity consistent with fighting the system that causes the inequities, the fight against austerity politics’ terrible human costs? As the Sandy relief work changed the minds of many who had been skeptical of Occupy, so, too, can mucking out homes in bright red Houston DSA shirts expose people to a politics that had never been brought into their lives. 

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate political gains—at least in terms of recruiting new members. Occupy Sandy tried to convert the relief efforts into political organizing by stressing “solidarity, not charity,” aiming for its work to be “mutual aid” done alongside the residents of the community. The goal was to to build lasting relationships with affected people and to move toward political organization that can agitate for change. It made sense in theory. But organizers found that many people simply wanted their homes repaired, not to join a community group. 

And yet for many organizers, this kind of mutual aid is part of a long-term project of building connections and breaking down barriers while alleviating immediate pain--and even transforming themselves. “Really living socialism in that way has been amazing for us,” Zachmeyer says.

In the wake of Harvey and Irma, and in a warming world that is likely to see many more such, there’s nothing wrong with “politicizing the tragedy” to talk about the lessons we can learn from the recovery about the unequal country we live in. It is not enough to build stronger, greener buildings where the wrecked ones were; the failures of the state and the successes of ordinary people in the wake of hurricane after hurricane have shown us that we need a more fundamental reorientation of our political system around the idea of caring for one another.

On the surface, that may not sound so radical. But amid all our ideological divides and disputes, activists are being reminded now of what George Orwell once identified as the first aim of socialism: nurturing a society where human beings love one another.

Hurricane Katrina famously brought more suspicion than solidarity in its wake. The failures of FEMA after Katrina were countless; George W. Bush had put an Arabian horse breeder in charge of the agency, a man so manifestly unqualified for his job that it seemed an intentional signal that when it came to disaster, Americans were on their own. The state and local governments, too, came in for deserved critique aplenty. New Orleans, a majority-black city with a near 30 percent poverty rate before the storm, had few evacuation plans in place, and after the storm it was hit with a wave of profit-seeking and privatization that included its public schools. It’s not for nothing that Naomi Klein begins The Shock Doctrine in New Orleans—the failures of the government were used as an excuse to turn everything over to the private sector. 

Yet the private sector has done little better. The Red Cross’s failings after Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012 inspired deep investigations by the reporters at ProPublica, and many complaints from the people on the ground. Walking the streets on Far Rockaway at the time with organizer Desean Burrus of New York Communities for Change, I heard anger from residents directed at the Red Cross and FEMA alike. I saw one Red Cross truck drive up the street and honk its horn; people doing their own cleanup work straggled out to see what was on offer. It turned out to be a hot meal, something necessary but wholly insufficient in the face of the destruction. “We’ve got nothing but ourselves,” resident Kenyatta Hutchinson told me. “Where’s the real help? Where’s the government?”

The official response in Houston has had fewer remarked-upon failures. But Zachmeyer says for many of the households she’s helped, FEMA and the Red Cross have been lackluster in their response. Families are still in homes that flooded with water that is itself toxic, with mold growing, because the hotels that FEMA offered had already been filled. Many people—far too many—told her she was the first person to have checked on them.

As usual, what many of the storm-affected communities have gotten instead of help is more policing. As Irma bore down on Florida, the Polk County Sheriff’s office tweeted that police would be checking ID and arresting people with warrants if they attempted to go to official storm shelters. In Texas, where a harsh anti-immigrant law had just been passed before being halted by the courts, immigrants also feared going to shelters, worried that they might be turned over to ICE.

After Sandy, I spoke with a young man named Kenyatta Hutchinson, who told me: “All I see is cops, and they’re still harassing us.” A young black man, he was worried that police would arrest him for looting if he tried to move his own belongings out of his home. As we talked, a police car drove by slowly as if to underscore his point. Some of this is also evident now in Houston, after Harvey. “I do not live in a wealthy neighborhood,” Zachmeyer says, “but I drive through one to get home from downtown and the police would be lining the wealthy neighborhood watching who was coming in and coming out.”

The obsession with security and order, most people who’ve survived a major disaster can tell you, is mostly unnecessary. And yet, in a society where the people most affected by “natural” disasters are the poorest and most vulnerable already, it is a constant. For the poor and working-class, black and Latino survivors of Katrina, of Sandy, of Harvey and Irma, the part of the state that they are most likely to encounter is the police. “The whole system is built around punishment and prevention of abuse instead of providing service,” says Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a nurse and president of the New York State Nurses Association who did volunteer work after Sandy.  

And yet what actually happens on the ground in flood-ravaged poorer communities, is often the opposite of the florid Fox News fantasy of chaos, disorder, and rampant looting. “The people who are really there for each other are the people who live within these neighborhoods,” she says. “When we help someone, I will get follow-up from that about their neighbor, their cousin, their friend.” 

Conservative politicians, of course, are happy for community organizations and donors to step into the breach left by decades of peeling back the welfare state. Such community work is, in fact, part of the conservative ideology—leave it to the churches and neighbors to step up or not. 

But the needs created in part by the economics of race, and by the politics of austerity, were too great to ignore. And the more prominent role played by political activists in disaster recovery is teaching profound political lessons—about where to apply political pressure and how to shift narratives, as well as how to tear down moldy drywall and float a boat down a city street. And DSA, at least, aims to be around when the recovery is done, and to provide a political home for more of the people who find themselves looking to build a different kind of society when the soggy drywall and blue tarps are gone.

In a society staring down the barrel of climate chaos, the biggest lesson is right under our noses: In order to survive the coming disasters, we need to do more than cut carbon. We need to learn to care about each other once again. That doesn’t mean that we all magically become friends; it means that we recognize the humanity in one another and we build a society where we are all taken care of, where our needs are met. 

That kind of care is evident in the streets of Houston and across Florida right now, as neighbors check on neighbors. It was evident in the “Cajun navy,” storm survivors themselves, loading their boats on trailers and heading to Houston to rescue more people from rooftops. You can see it in the work that the nurses of NYSNA do every day, the carbon-neutral work of saving lives and curing hurts. We don’t normally think of caring labor as a “green job,” or consider Bernie Sanders’s single-payer healthcare bill as a climate change mitigator. And yet, as Naomi Klein and others have noted, replacing dirty jobs with care work, turning our labors to healthcare, teaching, and other such jobs as infrastructure-building would be both better for the climate and better for the vast masses of people on the planet. 

Such changes seem so sweeping as to be impossible. They would require that we shift consumption habits and learn to value the work traditionally done by women in a way we have never done. They would require we see poor people as deserving care as much as anyone else. But in the moments after a disaster we can see what a world that values humans for their humanity, not their consumption habits, could look like. “It’s been something beautiful,” Zuchmeyer says, “that I didn’t realize I was missing.”