Palomas y Buitres, digital collage by Rawmirez.

The RGV’s Response to Disaster Capitalism

Words by Josue Ramirez
Edited by Abigail Vela

Tropical storms, 100-year floods, and drought are some of the impending natural disasters that endanger the Lower Rio Grande due to the increasing climate crisis. From Hurricane Dolly to the Winter Blackouts of 2020, some of the most important lessons learned deal with standing up to disaster capitalists as well as the radical act of mutual aid. 

 

Lessons in Long-Term Recovery 

 

Norma Aldape lives in a colonia in Hidalgo County, where she and her husband have raised their family. They love their neighborhood, but the colonia, like many in the unincorporated county, has a history of flooding. It was severely impacted by Hurricane Dolly in 2008. The Aldapes were among the hundreds of families eligible for the reconstruction of their home through the federal long-term recovery efforts that started years after the devastation. 

 

Overseen by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, the Home Opportunity Program and the Housing Assistance Program provided eligible applicants the options of moving to a different home or reconstructing their existing house. The general disaster recovery program for Hurricane Dolly by the LRGVDC was successful in that it changed the lives of many hurt by the catastrophe for the better. But the process of implementing an equitable recovery requires long-term community organizing. 

 

Local grassroots groups like ARISE Adelante, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), and Proyecto Azteca worked hard to ensure that the most vulnerable and those most impacted benefited from the re-housing and redevelopment projects. Texas Housers, a statewide fair housing organization, was integral in forcing the state of Texas to funnel funds into the region in the first place. 

 

I was hired by Texas Housers a couple of months out of college as a Policy Analyst. My initial task was to assist in the community’s efforts to oversee the implementation of the recovery process. This was to be done in accordance with fair housing requirements and a Conciliation Agreement between the advocates and the state. It was fast-paced and multifaceted. 

 

A typical day could include reviewing intake data of the thousands of outreach and intake forms in the morning to knocking on doors in the colonias after lunch. I’d meet with organizers and community members at house meetings or workshops in the evening in preparation for the Council of Governments meetings. I met the Aldapes at one of those events. 

They, along with other community leaders, were key in overcoming the initial hurdle of distrust among their neighbors. Despite being implemented by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), many recovery programs were associated by the public with FEMA. However, people did not trust them because of bad experiences. As they would say-“estaban quemados,” but referrals from county residents like the Aldape’s were golden.

 

Through their introductions, I shadowed individual clients through the entire process, from their application to intake and their meetings with program managers. I learned the intricacies of the required documentation/paperwork, tracked the contact between clients and program staff, and troubleshot individual cases. 

 

The information gathered was relayed to the organizers, community leaders, and other applicants that were members of larger organizations and networks. Together we would discuss our observations and planned ways to address concerns, chokepoints, and patterns of inequity through policy suggestions, community demands, or legal recourse.

 

The purpose of the single-family housing recovery efforts was to assist the individuals struck the hardest: People who would have a more difficult time bouncing back because they were elderly, a person with a disability, lived below the poverty line, etc. Historically, these individuals have been negatively impacted by the status quo and disproportionately excluded from these types of recovery benefits. 

 

There are federal requirements for addressing these inequities. These laws were leveraged with advocates’ input to create income brackets and targeted areas. They were prioritized in the Needs Assessment for the Hurricane Dolly Recovery Plan that outlined the reconstruction and the methods the community would be served. It was a tremendous success, but accomplishing the goals of the program became a point of contention. 

Aquí Vive Gente, digital collage by Rawmirez.

Disaster Capitalism

In addition to the need for long-term recovery housing, many individual interests were at stake because of the program – political and monetary. With a total of $106 million in funding, some corporate beneficiaries and elected officials interests did not always seem to align with the community’s. 

Disaster Capitalism is a term coined by Naomi Klein in her book Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It describes a situation where private interests prey upon a region hit by a major destabilizing event, manmade or natural disaster. In a Teen Vogue interview, Klein summarizes it as the “responses to disasters” and “the reconstruction afterwards.” She mentions that after wars, private industries, often with ties to the military-industrial complex, help change policies to cement their upper hand on the recovery market. 

A current example are the power outages caused by the privatization of the electrical grid in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Puertorriqueños seeking reconstruction assistance are dealing with some of the same corporations locals in the RGV dealt with in the Hurricane Dolly reconstruction. A year after Maria, RGV advocates (including myself), met with organizers and affected residents in San Juan, Puerto Rico as they prepared for the process of rebuilding.

Similarly, the Valley was targeted by disaster opportunists who sought to benefit themselves. For example, a recurring point of community backlash during the reconstruction was the constant push by the managing organizations to expand beyond the target areas and income requirements. This would have meant residents from colonias would be left out, as people with more access (technology, time, educational attainment, travel, etc.) would fill the gap. Outreach to the target areas would then be reduced. To advocates it appeared that the responsibility of working with rural and colonia residents was inadequate or lacking by these corporate giants.

Rather than help people, it seemed that local interest was more invested in gaining political leverage or moving money. The faster the funding was spent, the more potential there was in receiving additional state and federal allocations. This meant more homes built and more into the pockets of the mostly non-local corporate entities.

 

Grassroots groups and individuals who provided their testimonies and experiences conveyed the necessity and willingness of the residents to apply for housing assistance. They explained that more needed to be done to connect to them and their neighbors successfully. Input and involvement from residents was significant; it kept public pressure on the program and showed that RGV residents were aware of the ins and outs of what was happening.

In comparison to other regional efforts in the state, the LRGVDC was successful. The program demolished and reconstructed 777 homes in Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo Counties damaged by Hurricane Dolly. Despite it being a drop in the bucket for the actual need, the community was able to assure a more just recovery. 

 

In the face of more prevalent flooding and storms, disaster recovery and rehousing are important lessons to revisit. Addressing the lack of structural capacity to adequately respond and equitably recover from natural disasters requires systemic change at the federal and state levels. These bureaucratic programs, while long term solutions, come after years of suffering. 

Local grassroots intervention on a program level often requires a well-situated organizing infrastructure and the reliance largely on the nonprofit industrial complex for advocacy. While still important in the fight for equity, there are different ways to assist after a disaster. This includes a more immediate response through mutual aid-based volunteerism. 

Mutual care wins, digital illustration by Rawmirez.

A Mutual Aid Response

A great example of the community coming together in the spirit of caring for one another came in 2020 with the formation of Rio Grande Valley Mutual Aid. Operated and created by RGV organizers and community members, the collective came together “to support our often forgotten region with financial assistance to offset the damages caused by Hurricane Hanna.” 

According to the 2021 Deep Rio Grande Valley/South Texas Hurricane Guide, Hurricane Hannah “flooding covered swaths of western Willacy, eastern Hidalgo, and western Cameron several days after the event.” Cities like Weslaco and Mercedes experienced flood damage for the third consecutive year with the Floods of June 2018 and June 2019 still in the homeowner’s memories. 

Hannah left tens of millions in property damage with “hundreds of poorly built structures sustained roof, wall, and window damage.” Dozens of self-help and “older trailer-type homes were demolished in colonias from north Weslaco through east Edinburg.”  

Responding to a slow state and federal response in addition to the financial insecurities of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers took to social media to gather help. They countered the incorrect narrative of our region as disposable. Part of their first Instagram post stated: “We are all familiar with hearing things like what was broadcasted on Good Morning America, calling the Rio Grande Valley a “good spot” for hurricane Hanna to have landed because there wasn’t a lot of people that lived there.”

To make up for the governmental failure, they began fundraising. “We urge you to share this and donate yourself, especially if you didn’t know the Rio Grande Valley existed before or you were born in the RGV and moved away,” they stated on Instagram, “We are trying our best to help our people survive these extreme conditions, without any help from our government who doesn’t care about poor Black and Brown folks.” 

Through their call for action, the original collective of 10 organizers amassed a quick response for donations and volunteers. The members came together primarily online and using apps like Slack, Whatsapp, and G Suite. The collective was transparent about the process and mission. They demonstrated how they tracked and vetted incoming requests and based mutual decision-making on good faith. 

The RGV Mutual Aid prioritized undocumented individuals, residents of the RGV colonias, and those with emergencies like property damage, medication in need of replacement or refrigeration, and food and supplies for families with children. In total they raised $45,000 in support for RGV families. 

 

After the Hurricane Hannah efforts, the collective shared additional resources and community requests. They boosted local groups and individuals in need of financial assistance or resources, including general help for Flea Market Vendors during the Pandemic to some help for those impacted by the Winter Blackouts of 2020.

 

Adapting to disasters

 

Natural disasters, in addition to being a threat themselves, can open the door to further inequity and the resource extraction of a region during the recovery process. Vulnerable communities are more susceptible to disaster capitalist’s plans when they are in shock by the occurrence of a catastrophe. However, when community members and advocates are vigilant and active in the preparedness and public assistance processes, a more just recovery is possible. 

 

Even in isolation, we have learned that dealing with shared communal trauma cannot be done in personal silos. Survival relies on people supporting and helping one another, with or without government interference.  

 

That is a more equitable world- with the underlying reasoning for both actions being care. Care for our families, care for our neighbors, our loved ones, and our home. Perhaps that is the driving force of a just recovery; care or caring enough to prepare, to help, and to fight back when the storms subside. 

To donate to the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico please visit:

How to help People in Puerto Rico After Fiona

FIONA Community Response Fund

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