TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Black liberation in relief aid: Social change for one group meant self-sustainability during a natural disaster

in Crisis & Natural Disasters/Hurricane Trifecta/Major Collaborative Project by

Black empowerment and social justice group spearheaded critical emergency rescue and relief efforts when they saw that aid missed communities that looked like them.

The humble beginnings of Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that molly-whopped South Texas, started as a potential cyclone in the Atlantic Ocean, miles off of the eastern side of Barbados.

By the time Harvey evolved from an oceanic whirlwind to a tempestuous stream of hot air and water, the storm hit the U.S. shores with such power, it was considered a “once every thousand years” occurrence.

Quickly, Hurricane Harvey made landfall, showing little compassion to the Gulf Cities of Houston and Corpus Christi along with their outlying districts.  Rain pour surged to 60 inches in five days, while thrashing winds reached upwards of 135 miles per hour. A week later, the storm ended as a weakened, but still formidable tropical wind-system in Kentucky.

Leaving behind over a billion dollars in damages and thousands of families forced to piece their lives back together, Hurricane Harvey dramatically restructured urban planning and emergency preparedness for a city that is the fourth largest in the US. Numerous divisions of Houston’s sprawling 600 miles were damaged while sections of the populous metro sat underwater as a result of continuous deluge. 

Luckily, Houstonians, Malik Muhammad and Harun Jones, sat on high ground away from overflowing bayous, breached levees and compromised drainage systems. Although their homes were spared, they began to get calls about extreme flooding in the Northeast part of the city and the Fifth Ward.

Whereas the reports they received spoke of rising waters trapping Black and Latino residents or forcing many to evacuate without the proper paperwork or enough food and clothes, Muhammad and Jones, both executive office holders of Black liberation organization, National Black United Front (NBUF), noticed that local coverage of rescue efforts seemed off.

“The news showed that most of the help was going to communities that did not reflect us,” recounted Muhammad.

Emergency efforts were “brought to rich” and predominantly “white areas,” said Muhammad. However, Houston is largely Black and Latino with a significant working class population and low wealth and immigrant communities. According to demographic statistics by the city government, Houston is 25.1 percent white, 22.4 percent Black and 44.3 percent Latino.

To create an American Black Cross

Muhammad and Jones said that they knew organizations like the American Red Cross would not help Black communities and other underrepresented districts.

Immediately, they began to strategize on emergency assistance to help those who lived outside of the areas targeted by mainstream relief aid organizations.

“For us coming together like this, you couldn’t have planned it any better, for people to answer the call on such a drastic measure,” told Muhammad.

From as far south as Miami to across the pond in London, groups partnered with the Houston chapter of NBUF to procure supplies and support. Soon, NBUF members and volunteers turned its headquarters into an American Black cross.

“We had 30 to 35 organizations working with us,” said Muhammad, National Vice-Chair of organizing and training for NBUF.

NBUF members organize supplies and goods donated for the efforts in hurricane emergency relief aid. Photo courtesy of Facebook page of NBUF Houston chapter.

The two comrades set up an online crowdfunding account to collect funds for rescue and relief then put together a wish list of equipment and goods that they registered through Amazon. “We wanted to make sure that people knew our efforts were legit … so if you didn’t want to give money than you could purchase from our registry … [that] we assembled by studying Katrina and other natural disasters,” explained Jones, Chairperson of the Sankofa Study Circle.

The mass mobilization brought a range of organizations—from Black Lives Matter to gun clubs, as well as, local chapters of Black Greek organizations pitched in. Various religious denominations like the Nation of Islam fielded the call for help, and even the local US Post Office coordinated deliveries that numbered 600-700 a month. At the height of their operation, between 50 to 60 people volunteered daily.

“NBUF turned from a place where you could hold workshops to a food pantry to [a] full on relief aid headquarters,” detailed Jones.

“We didn’t turn anyone away,” added Muhammad who pointed out that a significant number of Latinos sought assistance during the storm and its aftermath. “We had some members of the Brown Berets and other organizations to take part … they learned to organize their own communities in emergency situations … and they served as [our] interpreters,” so that they could help recipients who only spoke Spanish.

Bouncing Back

NBUF headquarters in Houston. Photo courtesy of Facebook page of NBUF Houston chapter.

Once the waters receded, NBUF took on another role—recovery. They provided food, clothing and water, in addition to remediation. “There were homes with black mold and mildew, but people did not have the resources to clean them up, so we went in there and cleaned it up,” said Muhammad.

With all of the efforts, “people still have not fully recovered” told Jones.

In Houston alone, an estimated 100,000 homes were damaged with more than 60,000 people displaced. Today, Blacks and Latinos who make up much of the working and poor evacuees, still meet difficulty in finding housing.

As Houston residents work to restore some semblance of a normal life, tumultuous weather in the age of climate change is taken more seriously. “Hurricane season is now about life or death,” remarked Jones. “I know for certain that people now, are in the process of thinking proactively.”

Black rooted

Feed the Hood is a regular program by NBUF that provides healthy meals and toiletries to the community. Photo courtesy of NBUF official Facebook page.

Black groups centering the empowerment of Black communities seemed to be a thing of the past, if dominant culture told the story. However, NBUF counters the assumptions of a bygone era of radical Black activism.

Today, their partnerships with churches and Black Greek organizations show a hybrid of an ideology of self-determination within a digital landscape, mobilizing by any means necessary.

To continue to create more awareness in emergency preparedness, NBUF members fold in information on readying for the next crisis in their many programs such as Feed the Hood, advocating for political prisoners or the Sankofa Study Circle.

Much like their predecessors, the Black Panther Party and more radical Civil Rights movement workers, NBUF centers their work on educating community members while providing services that assist in members of the African diaspora to develop a critical eye against mainstream systems, as well as work towards change.

“We work very hard to improve the needs of our people,” said Muhammad.

NBUF was started to increase empowerment and social change for Black people. Muhammad and Jones pointed out that NBUF’s Hurricane Harvey efforts have increased their popularity and membership. They hope that their newfound celebrity translates into the overall goal of social justice.

“If anything, we learned that we must do for self,” surmised Jones. “The more we continue to have camaraderie and we continue to stand on our mission and  continue to promote the self-sustainability model in our community, there’s no way we cannot move forward.”

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Kaia Niambi Shivers is a media scholar and professor at New York University.  She has been working as a media professional for over two decades, getting her first chops a local Black paper in her hometown of Los Angeles. Founder of Ark Republic, she covers diaspora, news and features. The story is part of the Ark Republic’s inaugural major collaborative project, the Hurricane Trifiecta: One Year Later.

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