Eyewitness Harvey: Toxic chemicals, biased coverage and prisons

By Gloria Rubac
August 29, 2017

An oil refinery flare, right, continues to burn through wind and rain as Hurricane Harvey moves into Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017.

Houston, Aug. 28 — I grew up in Oklahoma’s “tornado alley.” I’ve lived on the Texas Gulf Coast for almost 50 years. I survived Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which caused what was then called “unprecedented historic flooding.” Lost my house to Hurricane Ike in 2008, and still see blue FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] tarps on roofs in the Fifth Ward’s African-American community.

But nothing has prepared me for Harvey. I hear the facts on TV: 9 trillion gallons of water dumped on Houston; 56,000 911 calls in 15 hours; 12 people dead from drowning.

But I think, does this mean anything to the family stuck on top of their apartment complex trying to be rescued with their three kids and two dogs?  What about the pregnant young woman whose due date just passed but whose car flooded out? What about the 9,000 prisoners in downtown Houston, locked up in one of the largest county jail complexes in the country?

Texas accounts for about a quarter of the country’s oil refining capacity, with 27 refineries. Texas also leads the country in the number of high-risk chemical plants that store and use highly hazardous chemicals with the potential to injure or kill thousands of workers and community residents.

One of the country’s largest conglomeration of oil, gas and chemical refineries is on the east side of Houston. The toxic air has intensified during the storm.

Juan Parras, an environmental campaigner in east Houston with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, said he was worried that severe flooding or a storm surge could cause leaks or dislodge chemical tanks. This happened today. There’s an emergency siren going off in La Porte now. A shelter-in-place order was issued after a pipe leak occurred at a chemical plant in the city.

The Aug. 28 Houston Chronicle writes, “La Porte firefighters and a Harris County hazmat team have contained a chemical spill Monday after a pipeline ruptured on the northeast side of La Porte in the petrochemical district about 20 miles east of downtown Houston.” But no mention of the cancer-causing chemicals being released on the mainly Latinx neighbors of these plants.

Bryan Parras, an organizer of the “Beyond Dirty Fuels” campaign with the Sierra Club in Houston, spoke on “Democracy Now” this morning about the dangers of refineries near Houston.

“My concern is where I live on the east side, because of the many, many petrochemical facilities, storage tanks, and other hazardous sites that line that same bayou for 30 or 40 miles. In normal rain events, these facilities, which are decades old, have situations where they have to shut down to prevent and avoid these catastrophic explosions and events. …

“So Friday, … at Texas Petrochemical, I believe, there was a flare event. And later that night, there were for hours really, really strong chemical odors from East Houston all the way to even the downtown area. This was discussed and talked about on social media, and not talked about, not discussed on the news here in Houston.

“We did hear later that all of the refineries went into voluntary shutdown mode. When that happens, they often have to go through the process of burning off these excess chemicals. But it is a dirty burn … that adds thousands of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals to the air.”

Media don’t cover Black and Brown neighborhoods, prisons

The media coverage is extensive and intense on Harvey. Yet my African-American friends on Facebook are wondering why their neighborhoods are not being looked at. Cynthia said, “Anyone seen any media coverage of 3rd Ward, 5th Ward, Sunnyside, Settegast, Acres Homes or any other areas media doesn’t seem to be concerned with? OR MAYBE I’M BEING EMOTIONAL AND EVERYTHING IS ALRIGHT IN THOSE AREAS?! MAYBE?”

Perri replied: “No, everything is not alright. CNN went to Dickinson, saw the lake in front of the elders’ medical center, but no pictures of 288 and 59, where the homeless were under the viaduct.”

We all see the tragedy on TV of this hurricane. But I haven’t heard one word about the incredible mental anguish, the emotional toll, fear, anxiety, stress that even on a good day plague people of color, the poor, the workers barely able to eke out money for rent and food, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, the prisoners, the undocumented.

So now with flooding terrorizing Houston and its 6.5 million people, these mental conditions are exacerbated. Not only will people need help rebuilding homes or finding places they can afford to rent, fixing cars, getting clothes to replace what they’ve lost, buying personal hygiene items, they will need treatment for their mental health issues from all this water. I wonder if this will happen. Will FEMA provide this?

If the Texas prison population were a city, it would be the 20th largest in our state, according to the Dallas Morning News. Texas locks up a lot of people. Near Houston, both north and south, there are dozens of prisons. And there is flooding.

On Friday, activists spoke with friends at prisons just 45 minutes south of Houston and found out water was beginning to enter the prisons. We made a few phone calls and realized that officials were lying when they told us there was no flooding there. We got a phone campaign going, and the next day the prisons began evacuation.

A prisoner friend on Saturday told me he had a minute to call and to thank everyone who had demanded evacuations for prisoners. I could hear the guard yelling at him to get off the phone. He said they were chaining prisoners up and putting them on buses at that moment. Guards wouldn’t tell them where they were going, but they were finally getting out. My friend said the bottom tier at the Ramsey Unit had water on the floor.

There’s 9,000 people in our Harris County Jail. Not one word on TV. Not one word in the press. Where are they? Did they get evacuated?

According to the National Institute of Corrections, there are almost 164,000 state prisoners in Texas and another 66,000 in county jails. The vast majority are in the area that’s flooding right now. Yet no evacuation plans are being made public, families are not being notified, and the media aren’t asking about or reporting on these prisoners.

I got word and photos showing that it is flooding in Livingston, 70 miles north of Houston where the Polunsky Unit and its death row are located. I spoke to staff there and was told there are no plans to evacuate, and they, in fact, have taken prisoners evacuated from two units south of Houston. Emotions are high; people are depressed, scared and worried about themselves, family and friends. It’s exhausting watching the 24-hour news about the horror.

One thing that stands out from all the continual news coverage is that the people in Houston are a generous bunch.

It’s amazing how many have taken their own boats to rescue people. How folks have helped people they don’t know find shelter, diapers, wheelchairs.

Houston’s African-American mayor was asked at a press conference today about the undocumented people being fearful of asking for help. He vehemently said anyone who needs help should ask. If any people are taken in for their immigration status, that should NOT happen. “I will personally represent them in court!”