David Leftwich is a writer interested in the intersection of food, culture, history, and immigration. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Sugar & Rice, Edible Houston, My Table, Cite, and Food+City. He co-founded and was executive editor of Sugar & Rice and is the author of the chapbook The City.
This essay originally appeared as a serial in The Houston Chronicle.
“A hierarchy of needs is built into the very fabric of reality and is revealed when a misfortune touches a human collective, whether that be war, the rule of terror, or natural catastrophe. Then to satisfy hunger is more important than finding food that suits one’s taste; the simplest act of human kindness toward a fellow being acquires more importance than any refinement of the mind.”
—Czeslaw Milosz, “Ruins and Poetry,” The Witness of Poetry
Disasters strip away pretenses revealing our humanity. They strip us to our most basic needs: food, water, clothing and shelter.
But this makes flooding a peculiar disaster: Water is our most basic need. Our bodies, on average, are 60 percent water; we can survive only three days without it. Flooding transforms our most basic necessity into a source of death and destruction.
Some of my earliest memories are of flooding. I grew up in rural Missouri, about three miles from the Mississippi River. As northern snowmelt and spring rains meet downriver, springtime flooding is the norm on the Mississippi. It’s what made the Mississippi bottomlands of Midwestern states like Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas and Iowa America’s breadbasket.
Thousands of years of unmanaged flooding deposited large swaths of rich sediments that created what would become fertile farmland. But to make those farmlands manageable, the flooding needed to be controlled. So a system of dams, levees, drainage ditches, and pumps were built to keep the floodwaters at bay.
But in years when there are heavy snowfalls and heavy rain, there is no controlling the Big Muddy. Midwestern farmers mark their past in floods the way Gulf Coasters measure theirs in hurricanes and tropical storms: How did you fare in ’73, ’93 or 2011? How’d y’all do during Allison, Katrina, Rita or Ike?
In March 1973 — after heavy fall rains, lots of winter snow and severe spring precipitation — the waters of the Mississippi began to rise. It breached the main levee, which is about 0.75 miles from the river, and began to inch inland. In Elsberry, where I lived, the raised railroad tracks that ran along the eastern edge of town were the last line of defense. They were hurriedly reinforced with sand bags.
Almost 5 years old, I remember standing at night at the edge of a cornfield on the riverside of the railroad tracks, water creeping up the rows of young corn. My grandfather — a farmer, whom my recently divorced mom and I lived with — and an auger to unload the stored soybeans into a 1965 Chevy grain truck.
A couple days later, I remember sitting in the game room above my grandfather’s garage. My uncle, who no longer lived there, had set up an array of radios and electronics that was perfect for a kid who wanted to play spaceship but now my mom was using the CB radio — the Zello app of the 1970s — to help coordinate rescue and relief efforts.
The Mississippi River flood of 1973 was one of the worst flooding events in the United States. The flooding extended from Minnesota to New Orleans, inundating more than 12 million acres. In St. Louis (just 60 miles south of Elsberry), the river crested at its highest point in the 20th century at that time. The flooding lasted 77 days. In 2017 dollars, it did approximately $2.2 billion dollars of damage.
Most of the damage was to rural farmlands and the homes of farmers, disrupting the food system for several years. Farmers tend to be stoic, resigned to the vagaries of weather: droughts, floods, late frosts. And with Mississippi River floods they usually know they are coming. It’s a slow gathering of waters that starts upstream and allows some time to plan, evacuate and empty grain bins of valuable agricultural product, usually.
But that doesn’t mitigate the long-term damage of having several feet of water covering your fields, either destroying your just-planted crops or making it impossible even to plant them.
But farmers rebuild. And though farmers might no longer be allowed to live in the Mississippi River floodplain, they still harvest those floodplains. There’s a lesson here about long-term resilience — you will survive; you will adapt; you will carry on, shaped by the weather, but not destroyed by it — you hope.
Houston has also been shaped by weather. In 1899, the Brazos River flooded, forcing many Italian immigrants off their farms and to Houston, where many entered the food industry as farmers, grocers or restaurateurs. The 1900 Hurricane devastated Galveston, accelerating the rise of Houston and its port. The destruction wrought by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 drove thousands of African-Americans from southwest Louisiana to Houston, swelling the Creole-Cajun influence on the Bayou City.
More recently our experiences with Allison, Katrina, Rita, Ike and the Tax Day and Memorial Day Floods have shaped who we are and how we responded to Harvey. They made us resilient; they prepared us for what was to come.
Allison showed what massive flooding could do to our modern urban landscape, and we changed some, but not enough, of our infrastructure. Katrina revealed to us our compassion. As we welcomed almost 250,000 survivors from New Orleans, we learned how do to deal with emergency needs on a mass scale. Rita taught us what not to do: Don’t panic, don’t evacuate unless you absolutely have to. Ike taught us we could build impromptu communities in times of crisis. My wife, daughter and I still have long-term friendships forged by those post-Ike experiences. The Memorial Day and Tax Day Floods revealed that the 100-year and 500-year flood maps were wrong. We were getting flooding were it wasn’t suppose to flood.
Unlike the slow gathering of Mississippi floodwaters, Harvey started as a swirling acceleration of wind and rain. Harvey had been downgraded to a mere tropical wave after it crossed the Yucatán and entered the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, Aug. 19.
From there it meandered north over the warm waters of the Gulf. By 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, it was once again a tropical depression.
And then it rapidly strengthened. By Thursday at 1 p.m., Harvey was a Category 1 hurricane. By Friday at 2 p.m., it was Cat 3. When Harvey made landfall close to Rockport, Texas, Friday night, it was a Cat 4.
Harvey wasn’t an instantaneous, unexpected, existential blow like 9/11. I was working in New York that day. I remember the low fog suspended in the Delaware River Valley as my bus drove out of Lambertville, New Jersey, toward New York City. I remember the clear September skies and the cool air hinting toward fall as I walked from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to my office across from Rockefeller Center.
And then the first plane hit. Another disaster. Another city coming together to heal and rebuild.
9/11 was a haiku of destruction. Harvey unfolded slowly, like a dark novel. The storm developed quickly, but much of the destruction in Houston happened over time as torrential rains fell, mainly at night.
We had some time to prepare. Our instincts and our officials told us to stock up on food and water, our two most basic needs. And we did.
On Thursday, Aug. 24, as the warm Gulf waters were turning Harvey into a hurricane, we swarmed grocery stores, buying up the white bread (leaving behind the whole wheat for the late comers), water, canned goods, pasta, potato chips, popcorn: comfort foods, snacks, foods that will last.
On Friday, as officials told us stay home, some of us baked. I, and, based on social media, a surprising number of friends, decided to turn our cache of flour, milk and eggs into baked goods.
If the power went out, they would last longer than unrefrigerated milk, butter and eggs. But there is also something profoundly comforting, especially when you are stuck in your house waiting for lashing winds and rain, about converting raw ingredients into something that will sustain you. So as the hurricane hit the south Texas coast, our house was stocked with homemade rustic Italian bread, biscuits, banana bread and chocolate-chip pound cake, which my 10-year old daughter made.
We ate, and we waited.
The winds didn’t come to Houston, but the rains did.
From Friday, Aug. 25 to Thursday, Aug. 31, between 40 inches and 50 inches of rain fell over the Gulf Coast plains that stretch from Houston to Beaumont.
The total damaged is still being assessed. But some officials have estimated that close to 200,000 homes and about 100,000 apartment units were damaged statewide, which meant kitchens and food were likely destroyed or inaccessible. That meant people needed to move to shelters. They needed to be fed.
First responders, private citizens, the Cajun Navy, the Coast Guard and the National Guard gathered throughout the Texas Gulf Coast to rescue and assist Harvey survivors. They needed to be fed.
Residents in neighborhoods and apartments that were already in underserved communities were cutoff from food. They needed to be fed.
Water, our first primary need, made access to our second primary need, food, a critical issue.
Chefs, cooks, bartenders, bar and restaurant owners, public relations professionals, sommeliers, farmers, engineers, barbecue pit masters, musicians, artists and citizen volunteers went beyond the call of duty.
Many of these formed what would become known as the Midtown Kitchen Collective, named after the commercial kitchen, based in a former homeless shelter, that they made their primary cooking facility and command center. This ad hoc organization that began with no resources coordinated the production and delivery of more than 250,000 meals that went anywhere people asked, from Brazoria County to Beaumont.
People needed to be fed, and they fed them.
When the apocalypse hits, I hope there’s a chef nearby.
On Sunday, Aug. 27, British-born Richard Knight, co-chef and co-owner of the now-closed but nationally recognized Feast, strapped a canoe to the top of a Range Rover and headed out to rescue people.
By that Monday, he was setting up an improvised relief kitchen in Les Ba’get, a modern Vietnamese bistro in Montrose. Inspired by Knight, the restaurant’s owners, Cat Huynh and Angie Dang, who like many other owners had closed because of Harvey, graciously offered their establishment to help feed people.
Also inspired by Knight, whom I’ve known for several years (we collaborated on a couple of articles — he’s good photographer as well as a good chef), I texted him asking if he needed help on Tuesday. He said he’d put me on the list.
Tuesday morning, Knight asked me to talk to Clark Neumann, who operates Radicle Fresh Juice on the University of Houston’s main campus. With classes postponed, Neumann wanted to donate his produce. I met Neumann at his Heights duplex, and we discussed possible flood-free routes.
As we crossed White Oak Bayou at Heights Boulevard, we slowed, observing the mass of green vegetation tangled in the columns of the bridge railing, indicating that high, swift moving water had recently engulfed the bridge. As we crossed Buffalo Bayou, we stopped: Memorial Drive was no longer a road, it was a river.
At the dining hall where Neumann makes his juices, we learned that because classes had started, the kitchen staff had spent the last six days living on campus — unsung heroes making sure students were fed, and reminding us that for every Harvey story we hear, there are thousands that go untold.
When we arrived at Les Ba’get, Knight and Matt Wommack, the chef at Cane Rosso, were already hard at work in the kitchen. Huynh had offered access to anything in his restaurant, so a big pot of phở broth was filling the kitchen with the warming scent of beef and star anise.
After sorting and storing the produce, Neumann and I began prepping plastic takeout bowls with condiments for phở: mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, sliced jalapeños and shredded carrots and cucumbers — yes, we improvised.
Next, we added sliced brisket to quart containers and ladled in the steaming broth. We had 100 servings of phở ready for first responders.
At that moment, nothing seemed more Houston: people at a Vietnamese restaurant coming together in a crisis to prep a staple of one-time refugees.
As private citizens armed with apps and social media were directing other private citizens to people in need of rescue, Dutch Small, unable to get a flight back to Houston, was stuck in Atlanta as floodwaters threatened his husband.
Small, a publicist who has worked with various Houston restaurants and is well known for his work with the music festival Day For Night, received a message on Monday that a hospital was low on food. Small contacted a friend at Antone’s Famous Po’ Boy, and they made 2,000 sandwiches.
By the time the sandwiches were ready, the original hospital had found food, so Small had the sandwiches sent to two other hospitals in need.
From then on, Small and Houston food writer Phaedra Cook, who was in San Diego, worked social media and their industry contacts to match food being made by Knight and chefs working in the kitchens at Reef, Grand Prize Bar, Presidio, Brennan’s, Southern Goods and other restaurants around town with people who needed to eat.
Though both might have wanted to be in Houston, their distance helped feed thousands. Many people wanted to lend a hand: What was needed at that moment were people able to direct those hands.
Back at Les Ba’get, someone picked up the phở. I can’t remember who, but it might have been Carrie Jean Knight, Richard’s wife, who was frantically working the phones arranging donations and pickups while making deliveries with her 8-year-old daughter as co-pilot.
As soon as the phở went out, cooks from Uchi dropped off big containers of soup and rice; Jonathan Jones of Cane Rosso carted in several aluminum hotel pans of polenta and pasta with meat sauce; and Wade Elkins of My Yard Reaction BBQ brought in trays of smoked meat.
Steel guitar player Will Van Horn and Lauren Ferrante, co-owner of Giant Leap Coffee, loaded a small SUV with soup, polenta, pasta and headed to Texas Children’s and Ben Taub. The previous day they had seen on Facebook that their friend Adam Dorris, chef and co-owner of Presidio, needed help delivering the food he was cooking. That day, they made two deliveries to the shelter at George R. Brown, but over the next few days they found themselves coordinating hundreds of food delivers from Katy to Port Arthur.
As they left, Anthony Calleo, co-owner and chef at Pi Pizza; Frank Freeman, a well-known barista; and an 8th Wonder Brewery van drove up to make deliveries. Volunteers arrived and volunteers were dispatched with food and comfort.
At 3:30 p.m. my dad, who lives near Barker-Cypress and I-10 texted, “We are preparing to leave. Looks like we will get water in the house.”
The empathetic chaos of that day continued, at least for me, until Neumann and I ran that last dirty pot through Les Ba’get’s dishwasher and mopped the kitchen floor.
Like me, Camille Kenney, owner of Renaissance Chicken, had been inspired by Richard Knight’s pop-up relief efforts.
Kenney, a local farmer who raises chickens in Sealy, Texas, and sells the eggs at Houston farmers markets, wanted to donate 80 pounds of frozen chicken. I agreed to meet her in a Target parking lot at Fry Road and I-10 in Katy.
I-10 at Eldridge Parkway was backed up for miles. Floodwaters were deep on both sides of the freeway, blocking several lanes. Boats were parked on off-ramps and feeder roads, their owners still making rescues in the neighborhoods affected by the controversial controlled release from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, whose 70-year old infrastructure, designed for a smaller, less developed city, was threatened by Harvey’s deluge.
Past Eldridge, it was a surprisingly quick run to Fry Road. With the chicken in back, I headed to the Heights. Though Presidio had been closed for the last several days, co-owner and chef Adam Dorris had been cooking hot meals for Harvey relief.
When I arrived, the staff was busy prepping the restaurant to reopen that evening. Dorris put the chicken in water to thaw. Even though his restaurant was going to be open, he still planned on spending his mornings cooking meals for first responders and survivors.
At 12:30 p.m., my dad, who had managed to get back to his house, texted, “Water only rose about a foot more. So believe we have dodged the bullet for now.” But he was worried about his mother-in-law’s house.
Then Knight texted asking if I could help make sandwiches. He could no longer cook because Les Ba’get’s staff was deep cleaning the kitchen in anticipation of opening the next day. Restaurants operate on thin margins, so being closed for several days, like many restaurants were in the days following the storm, is a major financial burden: rent, utilities, vendors and staff still need to be paid. And still these restaurateurs were generous.
When I arrived at Les Ba’get, the dining room was buzzing with chatter and the sounds of knives and spoons clinking against glass jars. Two rows of tables had been set up and a diverse group was lined up on both sides of the tables making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I grabbed a knife and a spoon and started slathering.
As the sandwiches were loaded in cars headed for George R. Brown, we cleaned the dining room and gathered supplies to be moved to the Midtown Kitchen Collective. Around 8 p.m., owner Cat Huynh arrived to lock up. He graciously offered us beer.
Thursday, Aug. 31
Like Knight, Adam Brackman, a partner at Axelrad and New Living, found himself performing boat rescues.
Also, like Knight, he wanted to do more. Not only did he put a call out to some friends in the Cajun Navy, he donated the use of a building he co-owned: the former SEARCH homeless shelter at Fannin and McGowen.
In the upper floors, he housed the Cajun Navy. The first floor became central command for the Midtown Kitchen Collective.
When I arrived there Thursday morning, Knight, chef Dimitri Voutsinas (who grew up in Queens and will be helming the kitchen in the soon-to-open Emmaline on West Dallas), several professional cooks and a handful of amateurs like me were already stirring pots and chopping vegetables. After prepping beets and dicing onions, I jumped into the dish pit to spend the day scrubbing pots, cutting boards and sheet pans.
From there, I witnessed nonstop hustle and bustle. There was the constant din of the pros shouting “corner,” “behind,” “knife,” and “hot” — sounds familiar to anyone who has been in a restaurant kitchen on a busy Saturday night.
On the other side of the swinging doors separating the kitchen from the former dining hall, 30 to 40 volunteers were prepping countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, meat and cheese sandwiches and tacos.
And sommelier Cat Nguyen was organizing crates of onions, jars of mayonnaise and redirecting donated meat to available refrigerator space. Nguyen, who couldn’t get to her apartment, had spent the last few days as one of the key people organizing the restaurant industry’s relief efforts and was now setting up a pop-up “grocery store” where area chefs could acquire the ingredients they needed to prepare meals for those affected by Harvey.
All day, I watched a steady stream of food donations flow by on dollies and carts with defective wheels, all headed to Nguyen’s “store” — crates of spinach; tubes of frozen ground local Wagyu beef; cans of powdered mashed potatoes; 10-pound boxes of pasta; two-pound cans of tomatoes; cases of off-brand mayonnaise; 50-pound bags of rice; 25-pound bags of carrots.
A cross section of the large, complex food system required to feed a city like Houston.
Around 12:30, Plant It Forward Farms tagged me in a Twitter post. Most of the crops on their three Houston farms had been destroyed by the storm. But the Congolese-refugee farmers still wanted to donate the 100 pounds of okra they managed to harvest. Knight and his team turned them into gumbo — another one of those very Houston moments.
By the end of the day, several thousand hot meals and thousands of sandwiches and tacos and been prepared and delivered to hospitals, first responders and shelters in Beaumont, Port Arthur, and the Houston area.
And Knight, Small, Nguyen, Van Horn, Ferrante, Jonathan Beitler, Claudia Solis, Matthew Wettergreen and several others had set up a command center at a counter in the dining hall.
For the next 10 days, they used a makeshift collection of computers, whiteboards, and Post-It notes to field hundreds of requests from the website they established Tuesday: I Have Food I Need Food. They managed hundreds of volunteers and coordinated the acquisition, delivery and distribution of thousand and thousands of pounds of donated meat, produce and dry goods.
And, most importantly, they oversaw the production and delivery of more than 250,000 meals to a region in crisis.
Saturday, Sept. 2
By Saturday, thousands of acts of chaotic compassion had occurred across the Houston area: from neighbors helping muck out houses to Aimee Woodall, founder of the Black Sheep Agency, and Carla Valencia de Martinéz, publisher of Local, starting the Giving Hub — a rogue relief organization that from Sept. 1 to Sept. 20 collected and distributed literally tons of water, diapers, wipes, cleaning supplies and nonperishable food to area organizations, churches, families and individuals in need of help after Harvey.
Punk-rock goat farmers and cheese makers, Lisa and Christian Seger, owners of Blue Heron Farm in Waller County, also wanted to help. They know firsthand the generosity of Houston’s restaurant community. When the 2011 wildfire threatened their goats and destroyed neighboring homes and farms, James Beard-winner Chris Shepherd rallied a busload of chefs to bring supplies, cook for firefighters and help any way they could.
The Segers didn’t forget. Initially, they wanted to contribute by buying the goat milk from a farmer affected by Harvey and converting it to cheese for the Midtown Kitchen Collective. Lisa asked her Facebook community to help raise $300 to buy the milk.
Before she knew it, she had $1,400. Worried about the excess money, she cutoff contributions. But then she had an idea.
Seger sells chèvre, goat feta, goat yogurt and a few other products at Urban Harvest’s Eastside Farmers Market. The market on Saturday, Aug. 26 was cancelled due to Harvey. Farmers and vendors lost a week of income. In addition, several farms suffered damage in the storm.
The hardest hit was Gundermann Acres. Located near the Colorado River in Wharton County, they are one of the Houston-area’s largest vegetable growers. On Aug. 29, as we were prepping phở in Montrose, the rain-swelled Colorado over ran its banks, flooding over 400 acres of their farm—in places it was 10 feet deep. The floodwaters destroyed all their crops, tractors and equipment. The next day the water they once needed during the recent years-long drought flooded their house.
Seger’s idea was to continue raising money and then buy from the farmers at the market on Saturday, Sept. 2. She would then give the meat and produce to the Collective. It was, as the cliché goes, a win-win: Both farmers and Harvey survivors would benefit.
I agreed to help Seger purchase, collect and deliver the produce. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Farmers, as I knew from my grandfather, are a stubborn lot and they, like chefs, are generous in their desire to feed people.
When I first approached Garrett Gundermann, who owns with his wife Gundermann Acres, about procuring produce for the Collective, his first instinct, despite losing everything but the vegetables he harvested before the storm, was to donate.
It took some convincing before he let me pay. With farmer after farmer, the story was similar. They wanted to donate or sell at reduced prices. Seger wanted to pay retail prices, but her fellow farmers weren’t having it.
This barely scratches the surface of the Houston food and beverage communities’ generosity. Lyle Bento, chef and co-owner of Southern Goods, who is from the Beaumont area, collected water, supplies and food for the severely flooded Beaumont and Port Arthur area. Then he and several friends — including Alex Gregg, the co-owner of the bar Moving Sidewalk, who spent more than two weeks driving trucks for the Collective and the Giving Hub — convoyed along still-flooded highways to deliver them.
In the days right after the storm, Heights restaurant Down House collected truckloads of goods and then arranged for them to be shipped where they were most needed. The H Town Restaurant Group (Hugo’s, Xochi, Caracol and Backstreet Café), State of Grace and several other restaurants headed up their own food relief efforts. A group of Mexican bakers stranded at El Bolillo Bakery spent two straight days baking pan dulce that was eventually given to shelters (another very Houston moment).
The list of restaurants, grocery stores, vendors, farmers, ranchers and suppliers that gave products to the Collective and other relief efforts is pages long (see below for a partial list). I feel guilty not acknowledging the generosity of every person or business who contributed — and that’s just for the efforts to feed people.
It’s not surprising that many in Houston’s professional food and beverage community were leaders in relief efforts. Of course, in a disaster where some have little or no food, those who can procure ingredients and transform them into meals will be in high demand.
But chefs are good in a disaster not just because they can do those two things.
Being a good chef is as much about exciting someone’s palate as it is about crisis management. Chefs have to unclog toilets and drains while they have a restaurant full of guests. They have to repair broken stand mixers and Robot Coupes while making sure sides of beef gets butchered; find a replacement dishwasher at 5 p.m. on Valentine’s Day; sear meat as a plumber fixes a gas line under their feet; and keep cooking in a 120-degree heat when the kitchen AC conks out in August.
They know how to stretch a limited food budget, and they know how to manage a staff with diverse backgrounds and that often speak different languages.
So it was no surprise that when I walked into the Collective on Thursday morning that a familiar, if impromptu, kitchen hierarchy had already developed.
Knight had assumed the role of executive chef; Voutsinas was chef de cuisine; A.J. (I think was his name — this was typical; strangers thrown together helping others while they traded anecdotes, barbs and maybe, later, beers, but whose names you never learned) was sous chef; a handful of pros and amateurs were the cooks and prep cooks.
It was, like most restaurants, managed chaos — just what is needed in the aftermath of a disaster.
Anyone who has observed Houston’s tight-knit restaurant and bar community for the last several years would also not be surprised by their post-Harvey generosity, nor their ability to collaborate in a times of need.
A few years ago, when well-respected bartender Linda Salinas suffered a severe head injury in a scooter accident, the community rallied. They held a series of events and fundraisers to help her cover medical expenses. Salinas paid it forward. Not only did she help serve food to survivors at George R. Brown, but she also helped chop vegetables and mop floors at the Collective.
Members of the community that rallied around Salinas later established the OKRA Charity Saloon, one of the first bars in the country to donate its monthly proceeds to nonprofits, a model that has inspired other such bars throughout the country.
And many of the chefs who cooked for Harvey relief are already contributing to various charity events, just as they were pre-Harvey.
But it wasn’t just the food and beverage community that helped fuel relief efforts. At the Collective, musicians, innovative marketing and public relations professionals and artists also played key roles.
This is also not a surprise. When I lived in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, communities and professions existed primarily in their own silos. But in Houston many of those barriers have been broken down, if they existed at all.
Here there is more free flow and collaboration between people. It’s not that we don’t have barriers. Despite our diversity, there is still segregation and discrimination based on race, ethnicity and economics, and our geographical sprawl creates disconnected pockets. But we lack certain pretenses here and that lack fosters unique, and often strong, bonds not only within communities, but also across them.
These existing social bonds laid a foundation that made these pop-up relief efforts more effective. It’s no accident that churches, with a few notable exceptions in Houston, often have a strong presence during disasters. Service is often built into their mission, and they have the physical space to provide for relief efforts. Just as important, they have preexisting social bonds to draw on.
In Houston, secular communities have also developed strong social and professional bonds that led to effective collaboration before and during Harvey. And what barriers might have still existed pre-Harvey were peeled away by rising waters and people in need.
Disasters might destroy, but they also unite.
Houston’s sprawling, grass-roots response to Harvey rescue, relief and recovery in many ways reflects both the scale of our geography — the greater Houston area is just a little smaller than the state of Massachusetts — and Houston’s decentralized entrepreneurialism.
There’s a danger of turning the later characteristic into a myth, which we sometimes do. It can become an excuse to ignore systematic problems like racism and poverty and to allow unchecked development that could make future flooding even worse.
Nevertheless, these ad hoc organizations that sprang from raw, chaotic empathy embraced that spirit and were nimble enough to step in and fill the many gaps left by larger, more bureaucratic institutions.
As Cat Nguyen said in an interview with Angry Asian Man, these groups “organically began to self-organize.” Systems and basic rules developed not because edicts were issued from on high but out of a desire to operate more efficiently. Some of them were simple things, such as Dimitri Voutsinas taping “In” and “Do Not Enter” signs on the two swinging doors at the Midtown Kitchen Collective to help manage the constant flow of volunteers. Some were more complex, such as the creation of the I Have Food I Need Food website to help better manage food donations and requests for meals.
But none of this would have happened if peopled hadn’t embraced chaotic altruism and decided to do the hard work needed to help others.
In an age of narcissistic reality shows and a constant emphasis on winning as our primary motivator, it’s refreshing to see empathy motivate so many to help others. There are competing theories of human altruism — some based on evolution, some on neurobiology, some on social exchange, some on psychology. Many posit that ultimately there is a selfish reason for our desire to help.
But that does not match what I’ve watched over the last few weeks. Time and time again, people helped strangers with no benefit to themselves. And did it day after day.
I’m sure that the camaraderie of a shared mission helped sustained their efforts. I know it helped me, along with the occasional guilt when I wasn’t helping. So maybe there is some selfishness fueling our motivations, but in the end people were rescued, and people were fed. And there was something more — a compassion drawn from the chaos of the moment.
Going forward, we need to continue to embrace this chaotic compassion. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work toward long-term practical and political solutions to the city’s problems, but we should use that compassion to inform and motivate our actions. There have already been, understandably, many op-eds and articles about how to better manage Houston’s next flood and constant development.
But very little has been written on how to sustain what many justifiably see as one of the core characteristics of Houstonians: our generosity.
Disasters like Harvey strip away our physiological and emotional defenses, force us to live in the present, staying acutely attuned to the needs of others. Monks and ascetics from various religions spend years attempting to attain and sustain the level of awareness that can be thrust upon us when a catastrophe strikes. But living at that level of mindfulness and chaos day after day may not be sustainable practically or emotionally.
As post-Harvey Houston has transitioned from relief to recovery, many of these pop-up organizations have passed the baton to professional nonprofits. Not because people stopped caring, but because most had to return to their regular jobs. Initially, their places of employment were closed, they took vacation days or they tried to do double duty by working and volunteering or running their business and organizing relief efforts.
In addition, these rogue relief efforts organized around fulfilling the immediate needs of people affected by Harvey. As the area moved into the recovery phase, some found themselves encountering the area’s larger, long-term problems such as poverty, food deserts and infrastructure inequality — problems these ad hoc organizations weren’t equipped to solve. Cleaning products, canned foods and hot meals were only necessary Band-Aids.
How we maintain the level of generosity we’ve seen post-Harvey, or at least some portion of it, is a question we need to ask ourselves individually and as a community. It’s as important as questions about urban planning and flood control.
But the answers may be more difficult.
There are some simple, practical steps that could be taken. Area businesses could for 2017 and 2018 (and beyond) grant employees personal service days in addition to their normal sick days and vacation. These days would be used to volunteer at nonprofits throughout the area. Businesses could organize even more team volunteer days, especially during the workweek, when nonprofits are often short on help. Businesses could combine two of Houston’s most touted characteristics and engage in entrepreneurial compassion on a regular, ongoing basis, developing innovative ways to fundraise and staff long-term recovery and improvement efforts.
The irony that I have spent many paragraphs indulging in what Milosz calls “refinement of the mind” (which is being generous to my efforts) to describe and understand “simple acts of kindness” is not lost on me. In some ways, it is a selfish attempt to relive those acts. It’s hard to move past the rawness, the openness and the sense of connection. And maybe that’s an indication we shouldn’t. Maybe being stuck in traffic, looking at downtown Houston, and listening to Robert Ellis’s “The Lights from The Chemical Plant” while fighting back tears because you’re thinking of both the suffering people are going through and the thousands of acts of kindness that you’ve witnessed or heard about is how we should be living our lives.
How we continue to stay in touch with this compassionate chaos on a personal level will be up to each of us. There will be no one solution. Philosophers, religions and cultures have been wrestling with this issue for centuries with varying results. It will take awareness and hard work as we settle into a new normal — there will be no getting back to normal as Midwestern farmers, post-9/11 New Yorkers, post-Katrina New Orleanians, and post-Ike Houstonians have all discovered.
But we will be able to shape that new normal. Since at least Katrina, Houstonians have been proving that the strands of generosity are already woven into the fabric of Houston, but now we have the opportunity to make that generosity the major feature of the city.
All We Need Farms
Avenida Brazil Churrascaria
Brasserie Du Parc
Berryhill Baja Grill
Big Star Bar
Big Time Texas BBQ
Black Hill Meats
Black Sheep Agency
Blue Heron Farm
Blue Oak BBQ
Better Luck Tomorrow
Brennan’s of Houston
Brooklyn Athletic Club
Brooklyn Meatball Company
Brothers Produce Houston
Budget Restaurant Supply
Buttz Gourmet Food Truck
The Convoy Group
Crispy or Grilled Truck
Crowne Plaza NRG
Eight Wonder Brewery
El Big Bad
El Bolillo Bakery
Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors
EurAsia Fusion Sushi
Fluff Bake Bar
Foreign & Domestic
Four Seasons Hotel
G&B Fish and Seafood
Good Dog Houston
Grand Prize Bar
Harlem Road Texas BBQ
Heights Bier Garten
High Fashion Home
Houston Food Finder
Houston Pecan Company
The Houston Wave
Houston Zombie Walk
IWSC Group Atlanta
Jenni’s Noodle House
Johnny’s Gold Brick
La Reyna Tortillas
Laughing Frog Farm
Little Woodrow’s EaDo
Local Houston Magazine
Lopez Negrete Communications
Martin Preferred Foods
My Yard Reaction
Operation BBQ Relief
Oui Banh Mi
Perfect Fit Meals
Peska Cocina Latina
Phoenicia Specialty Foods
Pinkerton’s Poison Girl
Radicle Fresh Juice
Ring of Fire BBQ
Rocking 711 Ranch
Rustika Cafe and Bakery
Saint Arnold Brewing Company
Slow Dough Bread Co
St. John’s Fire Food Truck
State of Grace
Texas Produce Company
The Protein Cookie Company
Three Sisters Farms
Winbern Mess Hall