Energy & Environment

Northeast Houston residents call for better drainage in low-income communities of color

The majority of the drainage systems in Northeast Houston are open drain ditches, which residents say get repeatedly clogged with trash, overgrowth, and debris, making them less effective.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Members of the Northeast Action Collective gathered in front of City Hall to demand better drainage in their neighborhoods.

Community advocates and residents of Northeast Houston gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday to demand action from city officials to address street flooding in their neighborhoods.

Residents said they're sick of repeated flooding and want the city to increase its investment in drainage infrastructure and maintenance in communities of color.

Fifth Ward resident Sandra Edwards said residents in her neighborhood are unable to access their streets when it rains hard in the area.

"You will have to wait a while for the water to recede before you can go into your neighborhood. If you get caught out, you're going to be stuck out for some hours," she said. "You have to wait for the drainage and the drains aren't draining because they don't clean them. They don't keep up with them; they're outdated. And so we're left with the problem."

The protest was organized by the Northeast Action Collective and West Street Recovery, which were both formed after Hurricane Harvey to advocate for equitable recovery.

"A lot of attention is brought to homes flooding, and many of us are still living in damaged homes. However, I want to talk today in particular about street flooding," said Julia Orduña with the non-profit Texas Housers. "It may not seem like a big deal, but it has huge impacts. Street flooding limits mobility, and opportunities for these communities."

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Protestors showed images of what their streets look like when it rains.

The majority of the drainage systems in Northeast Houston are open drain ditches, which residents say get repeatedly clogged with trash, overgrowth and debris, making them less effective. Research from Texas Housers in 2017 found that more than 80% of Houston’s open drainage ditches are located in low-income communities of color, compared to wealthier neighborhoods, which tend to have closed drainage systems with gutters.

The group wants the city to reassume the responsibility of regularly cleaning the open drain ditches, which currently falls on private property owners. Residents like Doris Brown, who lives in Houston's Settegast neighborhood, said that many can't afford or are physically unable to regularly clean the ditches.

"It is always backed up," Brown said. "Water sits in the streets for four to five days after it rains and it's really ridiculous because there are a lot of elderly, disabled people in the neighborhood."

Public Works provides maintenance for bigger tasks, such as desilting or regrading the ditches and said in a statement that they encourage community members to "report any concerns about open ditch functionality to 311."

But the protestors like David Espinoza said they have also had issues when calling 311.

"The people kept telling us to call 311," Espinoza said. “We called. 311 calls don’t produce results.”

In addition to calling for regular drain maintenance, the protestors were also asking the city to make 311 more effective and transparent and to make the drainage governance process more transparent and accessible.

"We just need a just recovery. We need somebody at the table. We need a maintenance schedule," Doris Brown said. "We're just sick and tired of being sick and tired."

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