Northeast Action Collective makes headway in fight for better drainage infrastructure

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Thursday, April 25, 2024
Earth Month: Northeast Action Collective makes headway in fight for better drainage infrastructure
Many Black and Hispanic residents who live in northeast Houston have been dealing with decades of poor drainage infrastructure. "The scariest part for me is not being able to make it home. It causes us stress and PTSD," one resident said.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Imagine being trapped in your neighborhood every single time a heavy rainstorm rolls through. That's the reality for many Black and Hispanic residents living in northeast Houston, an area that's been dealing with decades of poor drainage infrastructure.

Flooding is common in Kourtney Revels' Verde Forest neighborhood, a place she's called home for most of her life.

"When it's raining really heavily and the ditch in the front of the neighborhood starts to overflow, it floods us into our street. It can stop us from being able to come in and out of our community. The scariest part for me is not being able to make it home. It causes us stress and PTSD," Revels said.

Advocates said these issues stem from the type of drainage infrastructure on this side of town.

According to the City of Houston, about 80% of open ditches are in northeast Houston. It's a system that Alice Liu, co-director of organizing for West Street Recovery, believes is outdated.

"For the past 20 years, ditches have not been maintained on a regular schedule in Houston, which is why they're so inadequate at moving water out of communities," Liu said. "A lot of times, the ditches aren't functional or there isn't any drainage infrastructure at all. That stagnant water can stay for days or even weeks on end, attracting mosquitos."

Liu explains that this area's flood risk is also compounded by other environmental justice issues. It is home to the Fifth Ward/Kashmere Gardens Union Pacific railroad site, which has been recognized as a cancer cluster. There are also truck routes passing through these neighborhoods, as well as recycling centers, toxic sites, and illegal dumping that increase the amount of pollution.

"All of that combined means that when flood levels are rising, those waters are bringing pollutants into people's homes and creating dangerous situations in the streets, like when kids have to wade through those toxins to get to the school bus," Liu said.

The issues came to a boiling point after Hurricane Harvey. Liu said Halls and Greens Bayous saw the highest percentage of flooded homes. Both are in northeast Houston, an area with 97% Black and Hispanic residents.

"There's history of redlining and Jim Crow segregation. All of that has led to where Black people live versus where white people live," Liu said. "Northeast Houston is an area with high levels of poverty and low levels of generational wealth, which are the factors that impact how well you're able to recover from disasters."

READ MORE: 5 years after Harvey: Exploring the racial inequities in disaster relief distribution

That's when flood survivors came together in October 2018 to form the Northeast Action Collective, a grassroots organization that aims to educate, empower, and enrich its residents. The organization falls under the umbrella of West Street Recovery.

Members of NAC are often seen in their yellow shirts cleaning up debris in their own neighborhoods and speaking up for drainage equity in front of Houston city council members.

"We are seeing the squeaky wheel get the oil. They say that all the time, but it is true. The people that are squeaking and squawking the loudest are the ones that are getting these projects," Revels said.

In the last year, NAC saw two big victories thanks to their advocacy at City Hall. The first was reversing a decades-old policy that put the burden of maintaining ditches on residents and required them to call it into the 311 line. The responsibility is now back on the City, which will reignite its maintenance program.

The other win came after District B Council Member Tarsha Jackson sponsored an amendment that passed the City Council to increase funding for one year on local drainage projects by $20 million. The money will come from the general fund, instead of other drainage projects.

RELATED: 'We just made history': City of Houston passes Mayor Turner's final budget, totaling $6.2B

But the work doesn't stop there. Liu said their sights are now set on making this funding permanent, especially as the city works on its budget under a new mayor.

"This isn't a problem that's going to go away anytime soon. Based on every climate assessment, Houston is one of the most vulnerable cities in the country. Flood mitigation and flood risk has consistently been identified by Houston residents as the number one or the number two issue. What's concerning is that it's not being reflected in the mayor's priorities and where the mayor is choosing to spend tax money," said Liu.

As for Revels, she still hasn't seen any drainage maintenance or upgrades made in her neighborhood. But she plans to continue fighting alongside NAC, no matter how long it takes,

"There was once upon a time where this area that we're in was thriving with Black excellence. We want to see that again," Revels said.

For more information, visit Northeast Action Collective's website.

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