At a mass aid distribution site this weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told reporters tens of thousands of Houstonians still don't have running water in their homes, two weeks after a winter storm caused crippling power outages in much of Texas.
“So even though the power is on, the water pressure is normalized, the reality is that there are literally thousands of homes, including apartments, that have been affected because of busted pipes and they still don’t have water,” Turner said.
The city's public works department is trying to figure out exactly how many places don’t have running water. One major reason for the continued water outages: Plumbers are overstretched and scrambling far and wide to find replacement pipes.
“We’ve made that request on FEMA for more materials and supplies. And the need is so, so overwhelming,” Turner said.
The water outages are just one example of how many in the nation's fourth-largest city are still recovering from the ice storm.
Houston Public Media talked with Keith Downey, who leads a neighborhood civic group in Kashmere Gardens, a historically Black community in Northeast Houston, about what recovery looks like there.
Read or listen to our interview with him below, edited for length and clarity.
What does Kashmere Gardens look and feel like right now, two weeks past this latest disaster?
I will tell you, it looks promising, but it’s hurtful as well. I was handing out gift cards from HEB yesterday provided by a restaurant on the other side of town, and as I was calling seniors, one of the seniors said to me, “Mr. Downey, look in my yard, I’m not home now. Please, thank you for the card, put it in my mailbox, but look alongside of my home and all the pipes that have had to be pulled out from underneath my home.” And she said, “I don’t know of a plumber that’s out here helping people.” I say, “We have a few that I’ve run across, and I will get you the information.” And she says, “Yes, we don’t have the means to repair our homes.” This particular senior is on dialysis, so she’s dealing with health issues; she’s still dealing with trying to repair her home from Hurricane Harvey. And she’s saying I have leaks under my home. And in many cases, there’s more than one leak.
How widespread is it that your neighbors don’t have access to water right now?
Of the seniors that I see, if I took six seniors, five of them have broken pipes. And they’re saying, Well, Mr. Downey, we don’t have the means to afford to repair our home from Hurricane Harvey, much less the situation of pipes that have broken or expanded to the point, well, you know, they’re seeping water or what have you.
So would you say the water situation is the biggest need right now in Kashmere Gardens?
The biggest need is resources of all types. This is just another layer of the onion. Many people need food, yes. They need water, yes. They need self-sufficiency. And what are we doing for mankind on a dry day to be proactive? If you notice all of these things around Houston seem to be reactive. What are we doing to help people be more self-sufficient and proactive? And I know it’s not their fault that the pipes froze and the power was turned off and what have you … But if people are already struggling before a disaster hits, what happens to them after the disaster is gone?
What do people need or want going forward, as far as help from the city? What are you hearing?
They need truly, to listen to the people. There’s a gap right now between government and the people themselves because I’ve been on Zoom calls where you’ve had over 100 people express their concerns opposing something, yet it was voted in anyway. People feel like they’re not being listened to. And when people feel like they’re not being listened to, you won’t hear them speak anymore.
What do you think our leaders need to do to make sure that recoveries are even and don’t make existing inequalities worse?
So it’s very important that we bring equity. And equity does not mean that they’re trying to take away from you and what you have. It means that you need to share. For example, with the COVID vaccine. I’m very concerned and other community leaders are very concerned. The homebound have no transportation to get to a vaccination site across Houston. So how do they travel to another community? Why not with the drugstores, a CVS, the Walgreens that are in our communities? Bring those the vaccines, so the people that can’t leave their community — because 20% of our communities do not have transportation — bring that into the poorer communities. And it’s not a bad thing to try to share with the poor. It’s not a bad thing to maybe give them more because they’ve gone with less.
And someone says to me, “Mr. Downey, well, the funding is not fair.” When it comes to poorer communities, the statement of we don’t have the money has been said for over 100 years. So to say it again means you’re just continuing to say what their ancestors have heard: We don’t have the funding to help you all. And so that’s when I say that there’s a gap. You need to close that gap, not expand the gap. So that’s what our politicians can do is begin to listen to the people, close that gap between them and the residents. And let it be a for the people, by the people, of the people, but start listening to the people.