By Amy C. Evans
This story was updated at 3:05 p.m., Friday, September 1.
As of this morning, Thursday, August 31, a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 25 miles northeast of Houston, is exploding. Beaumont, our neighbor to the east, is flooded, and both of the city’s water treatment plants failed in the middle of the night. Port Arthur has all but washed away. All of this after Hurricane Harvey covered my hometown of Houston in 52 inches of water last weekend. Harvey has left his mark across the Texas Gulf Coast and beyond. This essay is in no way meant to minimize the related tragedies or turn a blind eye. Rather, it’s an attempt to let people outside Texas see past the fog of statistics and get a tiny taste of how people on the ground are making do.
It’s for y’all to get a dose of #HoustonStrong.
A few weeks ago, it was just another Monday — another blazing-hot August day in Houston — and I was in traffic court (another story for another time). A young woman with waist-length, purple hair stood before the judge.
“Where do you go to church?” he asked the woman. I couldn’t hear her reply, but it was quick. “OK, then,” said the judge. “If you’re going to bring me a letter of support, next time, please bring it from your church. Don’t bring it from the beauty shop.”
As they continued, the court bailiff approached a woman seated next to me who was wearing a shirt from Farmer’s Fresh Meat.
“What kind of food do they sell at your work?” he asked her in a whisper.
“Oxtails, collard greens, stewed cabbage — soul food, you know,” she answered.
“Do they sell pralines? I make pralines. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. Here’s my card.”
After I finished by business with the judge, I Googled Paul the bailiff and his pralines, and then I called my friend Chuck Reece to pitch a story — not about pralines so much as what happens in the course of a day when people are thrown together in circumstances that they might not find themselves in otherwise. And, well, yeah, OK, a court bailiff’s side-hustle making pralines. So, I called Paul and placed an order. When my mixed dozen was ready, I met him to pick up my pralines and hear his story.
And then an asshole named Harvey blew into town and drowned our city.
There are a million different ways to talk about what has and hasn’t happened over the last four days. Everyone knows that the country’s fourth-largest city is in dire straits. Thousands have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and too many have lost their lives. The numbers associated with this storm are staggering. The political spin is reaching a fever pitch. But Houstonians — the people of this, my city of many colors — aren’t listening to the chatter. They’re getting to work.
It’s been said before, and it’s worth saying again: Houston is the most diverse city in the country — racially, ethnically, and, more than likely, economically. The greater metropolitan area is home to around 6 million people. What folks outside of our city may not realize, though, is that 51 percent of our residents who are under the age of 20 are Latinos. Some of our street signs are in Vietnamese. We are home to more than 20 mosques.
Over the course of the past four days, responding to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, Houstonians continue to go above and beyond in support of their city — our city. Employees who were trapped inside the beloved El Bolillio Bakery distracted themselves by furiously baking through the night, making mounds of pan dulce to help feed evacuees. Les Ba’get, a fairly new Vietnamese café in the Montrose neighborhood, made phở for first responders. Every single one of Houston’s 21 mosques opened its doors to anyone in need of shelter. And last night, Mayor Sylvester Turner used Twitter to squash a rumor that had been circulating, making doubly sure that his community knows he has its back: He sent a tweet in five different languages — English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese — to communicate that people seeking shelter will not be asked to produce immigration papers.
“I and others will be the first ones to stand up with you,” Mayor Turner said in a press conference. “If you need help and someone comes and they require help, and then for some reason someone tries to deport them, I will represent them myself, OK?”
That is some fierce love for such an enormous city. And it’s not surprising, if you’re at all familiar with Houston. But what came to light over the course of the past handful of days, as thousands of our neighbors suffer unfathomable losses, is that my day in traffic court was a preview of what was to come — that in this particular, unimaginable, horrible circumstance we all find ourselves in, we’ll do things we never imagined doing. We’ll even think up another side hustle to help out our fellow Houstonians.
On Tuesday, local drag queen Regina Thorn-DuBois started a Facebook Live video as a fundraising event, inviting friends and fellow drag queens to perform and share their stories. “It was a nine-hour escape from the madness of Hurricane Harvey,” she told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday. “I had no idea how many people so badly needed this escape.” Regina raised $3,000 for the Montrose Center and Legacy Community Support, two organizations that serve Houston’s LGBTQ community.
“We have a chicken upstairs that we rescued,” Halina Dodd told me on Tuesday. “Someone brought it with them to the GRB [George R. Brown Convention Center] when they evacuated.” Halina and her wife, Salise Shuttlesworth, opened their Montrose home to receive pet-related donations. Salise is the founding director of Friends for Life, a no-kill animal shelter that has been working overtime to make sure Houston’s displaced pets and their owners have what they need (many of the city’s evacuation centers are, thankfully and perhaps surprisingly, pet friendly). For now, Halina is fostering the chicken in their townhome.
“She’s safe here,” Halina told me, “chirping her heart out in a tent in our kitchen.”
When the George R. Brown Convention Center, the city’s largest available shelter, maxed out at 10,000 evacuees (and a chicken), the NRG Center, a conference center that’s adjacent to NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans football team, opened to house even more evacuees. Soon after, the Houston Independent School District sent out a tweet, requesting volunteer translators: “At NRG Center, translators needed for Farsi, Urdu, Vietnamese and Tagalog. If able & have fluency, consider volunteering! #HoustonStrong.” Many of the people who heeded their call turned out to be teachers already working for HISD.
None of this is lost on me or my fellow Houstonians. Nor is it lost on our mayor, Sylvester Turner, who has steered us with confidence, grace, and just the right amount of grit.
“Anyone who underestimates the spirit of this city does not know Houston,” he said in one of his many tweets, informing and uplifting us all. “‘Woe is Houston?’ That just encourages us further.”
That’s one hell of a letter of support.
PAUL’S PERFECT PRALINES
I just got off the phone with Paul, and he’s safe. His brother, who lives just northeast of the city near Lake Houston, lost everything — yet another reminder of the ripple effect the storm has on all of us here. And another: The City of Houston Municipal Court downtown, where Paul works as a bailiff, flooded (traffic court is in the basement), and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to get back to his regular day job. Paul says he hopes hopes to start making pralines again soon, though. In the meantime, he thanks you, BS readers, for sending him so many emails of support. Be sure to bookmark his website, so you can queue up an order for pralines. They’re good.
FARMER’S FRESH MEAT
Farmer’s Fresh Meat, located in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, is part butcher shop, part soul-food joint. You can get links of fresh boudin and a take-out box of smothered pork chops with greens and cornbread. If you’re in Houston and haven’t been here, go as soon as the roads are clear. According to their Facebook page, they are fully open and ready to serve. Note, though, that as of yesterday, their phones and Internet were still down.
Regina hosted a second Facebook Live fundraiser that ended at around 3 a.m. this morning. No word yet on the amount she raised.
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Halina texted this morning to let me know that they’re heading to a chicken meet-and-greet at a pullet-friendly home that might be able to fold her feathered friend into their brood. If you’re interested in supporting the animals affected by Harvey and the good work that Halina, Salise, and their community is doing, please consider a donation to Friends for Life.
HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
Richard A. Carranza sang and played violin with a student-led mariachi band at a celebration honoring his appointment as our new HISD superintendent last year. Now, he is leading the city’s school district through this tragedy in the same manor as our mayor, with grace and grit. While school openings are still postponed as a result of the storm, Superintendent Carranza has already committed to making sure that students receive three meals a day at no cost once school resumes. You can donate to the HISD Foundation to support Houston students and families. Because of high traffic, the HISD Foundation website has been down periodically. Keep trying.
HOUSTON FOOD BANK
Feeding thousands of displaced Houstonians is going to be a big job with no real end in sight, Harvey or no. Houston Food Bank is a trusted organization that is already working hard to serve the community. Please consider a donation.
The Bitter Southerner is donating Amy’s fee for this column to the Friends for Life.