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Hurricane Harvey

Dreaming With Our Hands: On Autonomy, In(ter)dependence, and the Regaining of the Commons

By Mutual Aid Disaster Relief - It's Going Down, January 9, 2018

“It was like an atomic bomb went off” a local Boricua, as people born in Puerto Rico are often called, is saying about the view of the mountains the day after Maria passed. “Every branch, and every tree, was torn apart and broken, and scattered everywhere. Every green area was gray and brown.” The view now, almost three months after las tormentas, is eerie. The greenery is back, but the forests are very bare compared to how they were. Things can appear to be normal, except for the 60 foot telephone pole hanging over the edge of a cliff here, or leaned over at 45 degree angles onto a building there. As long as they still carry power to their destinations they’re left alone, even doubled over, to triage the other downed poles that are actually causing disruptions in the grid. These remnants of devastation can be seen everywhere, and everywhere there are people getting by and adapting to the changes Irma and Maria left behind with whatever limited tools are at their disposal.

I, a Brooklyn born Puerto Rican, arrive in Puerto Rico, or as the native Taíno people call it, Boriké, and meet up with a small team of two traveling partners. Our visits to Caguas on my first week were breathtaking, getting to know people, and watching the amazing projects that communities here are putting together. The town itself is very old, largely abandoned and magnificently beautiful. The streets in the pueblo are narrow and the buildings made of cement, painted bright pastel colors, with old Spanish architectures. Everywhere lay murals with sayings of hope, independence and resistance. In our short visits, we were able to glimpse how people here have begun rebuilding their lives, coming together to reimagine the kind of world they want to create.

Since before the hurricanes, the downtown neighborhoods were losing their small shops and local markets to the incurring large chain stores that sprouted up less than a mile away. Still, one immediately gets the sense that this town is full of cultural life and spirit much different from that felt in wealthier neighborhoods, like the gated community in Guaynabo we stayed in. In traveling to different parts of the island, we can see houses on the coast of Aguadilla that were cut in half by mini landslides, and traffic lights and highway signs stashed beside the roads with the piles of detritus and branches.

We’re on the northwestern part of the main highway that encircles the island now, and traffic comes to a halt for a half hour. It was raining for only 20 minutes, but it left a 4 foot deep puddle along a large stretch of the often overcrowded road. As we finally reach the end of the bottleneck, we see the flooding is being manually fixed by a single worker in swamp boots unclogging the drainage holes with a broomstick. I get the sense this is an example of how the municipalities in Puerto Rico aren’t equipped to properly handle the crisis.

In speaking with people, it comes as no surprise to them either that the government isn’t doing much to resolve the problems here. As many non-Boricuas are only now discovering, the island’s government has been suffocated with public debts, issued and purchased by predatory Wall Street hedge funds. Aligning with what has now become a global custom with these kinds of debts, Puerto Rico’s creditors are forcing the island’s government to enact austerity measures on the population, with help from the US and its Fiscal Oversight and Management Board. This Board is an unelected entity established by the US Congress to decide how Puerto Rico spends the tax revenue collected from its people.

“They don’t serve the interests of Puerto Ricans,” Maritza, a local community organizer says, “They serve the interests of Wall Street.” She explains how the Board members assign themselves their own salaries. “The chair of the Board decided to make $625k this year, and overall the Board costs $300 million to operate, paid for by Puerto Rican tax dollars.” It’s their job to make sure Wall Street hedge funds can keep getting payments from Puerto Rico’s unquenchable debt, and in the process, ensure that Puerto Rico never has a prosperous and self-sufficient economy. By gutting funding for healthcare, education, food assistance, public sector jobs and critical infrastructure development, this policy instead ensures a continually collapsing economy. Maritza describes the Board as wanting “to keep us like a banana republic, a place with only low-wage jobs for corporations to profit off of,” and I believe her. FEMA and the Puerto Rican government failed in meeting people’s basic needs after the storms, but in their absence, I’m told old and new community organizations took the lead and saved many lives.

Audio Report: Autonomous Relief In Houston Post-Harvey

By the collective - It's Going Down, December 6, 2017

Listen Here - link

In this audio report with Solidarity Houston, we talk with anarchists doing autonomous disaster relief in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While the waters have receded, in the aftermath of the storm many people have been made homeless, while others still in their homes have been unable to put their lives back together. Meanwhile, disaster capitalists have swooped in an attempt to flip houses for a profit and police have come down on those who now are forced to live on the streets.

In this interview, we talk about the kinds of ongoing programs and projects anarchists are engaged in, such as gardening and food programs, childcare, and more. We also discuss what life is like now that the storm has passed, such as the effect of pollution from superfund sites, how those who were taking shelter with the Red Cross are now living on the streets, and how various areas still lack basic services.

We end by talking about where people hope this organizing, infrastructure building, and activity can grow towards, as well as the need for people to come to Houston and take part in on the ground efforts. Towards this end, the group has also just released a call for people to come to Houston and plug into ongoing autonomous relief efforts.

Watchdogs Say US Chemical Safety Board Is "Flying Blind"

By Mike Ludwig - Truthout, December 8, 2017

In the early hours of August 31, explosions erupted at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, where floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey had cut off the power supply to refrigerated containers containing organic peroxide. Residences in a 1.5-mile radius had been evacuated, and deputies manning barricades began falling ill in the middle of the road one by one. Medics were called, but no further warning was given as columns of black smoke filled the air.

Arkema knew the fires were coming -- organic peroxides burst into flames unless they are kept cool -- but company officials had insisted in a press conference prior to the explosions that the chemicals were not toxic or harmful to people, according to a lawsuit filed in September by emergency workers injured at the scene.

The lawsuit describes the scene near the plant as "nothing less than chaos," with police officers doubled over vomiting and medics gasping for air on their way to assist them. At least 15 people were hospitalized. Arkema initially told authorities the victims had inhaled a "non-toxic irritant," but residues obtained from nearby residences tested positive for dangerous toxins, such as dioxins and heavy metals, according to a separate lawsuit filed by people living nearby.

What else is Arkema hiding? For answers to that question, the public is turning to the US Chemical Safety Board, where an investigation of the Arkema incident is ongoing. However, the federal agency has failed to implement a rule requiring chemical plant operators to report dangerous releases during accidents to its investigators. Congress mandated this provision back in 1990.

Had Arkema been required to report the looming chemical fires to the Chemical Safety Board, the government and emergency workers would have had more to go on than the "vague" disclosure offered by the company during the storm, according to Adam Carlesco, a staff attorney at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The watchdog group filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging the chemical board's inaction on the reporting rule. Other plaintiffs include the Memorial for Workplace Fatalities and two Gulf South environmental groups.

"America's sole industrial safety monitor is currently flying blind and placing the health of the public at risk," Carlesco said.

Stay Warm this Winter! Come to Houston and Volunteer with Autonomous Disaster Relief!

By an anonymous contributor - It's Going Down, December 5, 2017

We need…

anti-oppressive people skilled in construction, childcare, squatting, media, cooking, growing food, fundraising, medics, healers, birthworkers, herbalists, artists, musicians, and Spanish speakers.

Houston is the 4th largest city in the US and the heart of the oil industry in terms of both corporate headquarters and industrial infrastructure, but most of the city’s people have always been considered expendable by those powers.

In the days immediately after the storm, disaster communism naturally took hold as neighbors took it upon themselves to organize boat rescues in the absence of any help from the state. For a few weeks, its influence extended beyond the hardest hit neighborhoods and we found ourselves as a small part of a large mobilization. Neighbors helping each other were the biggest force, church groups and liberals were out in large numbers, and even the local fascists were playing at relief work (in their own neighborhoods). Many businesses shared resources, including restaurant kitchens which were used to mass-produce free meals for distribution.

Fourteen weeks after Harvey, those free meals are a distant memory. Thousands of people are newly homeless, or living in unsafe conditions, or crowded in with family – and it’s starting to get cold here at night.

This is a critical time for anarchists to intervene against the return to normalcy – we do not want to rebuild the old Houston of hyper-individualism and slow death under capitalism. We want to take space opened by the storm and build new ways of supporting each other and relating to each other.

If you can help with that, and you don’t mind camping (with bathrooms/showers, kitchen etc) in a communal setting, get in touch with us at htxautonomy@protonmail.com

Workers’ rights are being abused as they rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

By Casey Quinlan - ThinkProgress, November 27, 2017

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, are reportedly being exploited as they rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, and their health and economic well-being are are stake.

According to a report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers, 26 percent of workers have experienced wage theft in their post-Harvey work and 85 percent did not receive health and safety training. Sixty-one percent of workers did not have the necessary respiratory equipment to protect them from mold and chemicals, 40 percent did not have protective eyewear, and 87 percent were not informed about the risks of working in these unsafe buildings.

Workers have been exposed to mold and contamination on a regular basis, and regardless of whether workers are undocumented, they often aren’t aware of their legal protections, according to the report. To make matters worse, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of workers’ compensation for work injuries.

Advocates for different labor groups focusing on undocumented laborers have been speaking out on the issue of exploitation and visiting work sites to survey workers and pass out flyers with information on labor rights. There is tension between these advocates in Houston and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on how the federal funds for hurricane recovery should be distributed. According to the Guardian, worker groups would prefer the money be distributed through the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), since the mayor is seen as a progressive ally. They’re afraid that if the money is instead distributed through the general land office run by George P. Bush, as Abbott wants, immigrant and worker groups won’t receive the aid they need.

The Associated Press interviewed workers hired by individual homeowners, subcontractors working on residential and commercial buildings, and work crews from outside of Texas about the working conditions. Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston in 1995, told the AP that the demand for labor attracted people who don’t usually do this kind of work and don’t know how to do it safely. He gave the example of a pregnant woman working without gloves in an apartment building that had flooded.

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project wrote in the Guardian, “One woman contacted us when she and her crew, after spending more than 90 hours clearing out a Holiday Inn, were turned away without pay.”

Advocates for undocumented workers in Houston are also concerned about Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a Texas law that lets local law enforcement ask people they detain or arrest about their immigration status and hits local government officials with jail time and large financial penalties if they refuse to comply with federal detainer requests. The law is currently being held up in the courts, but that hasn’t completely erased fears among immigrant communities in Texas.

In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help...

This is Caguas: “Centro de Apoyo Mutuo”

By Mutual Aid Disaster Relief - It's Going Down, November 26, 2017

The rest is Puerto Rico.

Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, Centers for Mutual Aid, exist as raised fists across the island landscape of post hurricane Irma, post hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.

In the narrow, colorful streets of Caguas, a building seized and defended by community is being painted by Centro organizers and a Mutual Aid Disaster Relief medical and systems crew from the main land.

Outside, a tuff tank 400 gallon buffalo awaits the systems teams’ erection of the high volume modular water filtration system and pump which will fill it with potable water for the community, creating a resource on lands reclaimed by autonomous Apoyo Mutuo community members.

By 2pm it is pumping heavily, spilling treated water from the mouth of a hose until long after sunset.

Apoyo Mutuo seized the space a month and a half ago. A month ago they defended it from policia who demanded to know their individual names.

“We just kept responding that our name is Centro de Apoyo Mutuo.”

At 8, a crowd fills the parking lot sharing donuts cut in halves with the opening scenes of a documentary on a history of direct action occupations in Puerto Rico playing on the concrete wall of the lot in front of the building.

Community members spend the following two hours taking turns at the pump and watching the buffalo fill. An Apoyo Mutuo comrade laid out their mission for us at the community kitchen where solidarity work and mutual aid feeds 300 people every day.
“We are changing the way we relate to each other. Thats what we want. To change the behaviors we have learned through capitalism.”

We parted with the crew of community members from Centro de Apoyo Mutuo late in the night after helping paint the new community kitchen space, building a compost toilet and pumping hundreds of gallons of potable drinking water into a common tank.

This is the work of actualization.

This is the dream of a new Puerto Rico being manifested by autonomous direct action.

Will Houston’s Post-Harvey Recovery Exacerbate Inequities or Build a More Just City?

Robert Bullard interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, November 24, 2017

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are just back from COP23, the U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany, where the Trump administration tried to derail the conference by pushing coal, nuclear and gas as solutions to climate change. Well, on this Democracy Now! special, we’re looking at the ways climate change is already affecting the United States.

We turn now to Houston, which was devastated by massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey. The storm shattered all past U.S. rainfall records, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the fourth-largest city in the United States. Some call it the “Petro Metro,” Houston, because it’s home to the country’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. The storm also caused massive environmental and public health impacts. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, more than a million pounds of air pollution have been released into the air as petrochemical plants were forced to shut down by the storm.

Well, over Labor Day weekend, just as the floodwaters were receding, Democracy Now! traveled to Houston, where we spoke with Professor Robert Bullard, among others. Dr. Bullard is a professor at Texas Southern University, a historically black college and university. He’s considered the father of environmental justice. We spoke with Professor Bullard at his home, which he had just returned to after evacuating. I began by asking him about his experiences of the flood.

In Puerto Rico, Unions Lead in Hurricane Relief Efforts

By Stephanie Basile - Labor Notes, November 7, 2017

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as Puerto Rico faces government neglect, unions’ relief efforts have been critical.

Teachers and students across the island have cleared debris off the roads and delivered medical supplies. On the outskirts of San Juan, communications and transport workers cooked and distributed hot meals. Union volunteers on Isla Verde drove door to door with water and supplies. And these are just a handful of stories among hundreds.

On September 26, less than a week after the storm barreled through the island, Puerto Rico’s storied teachers union, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), sprang into action. FMPR teamed up with the island’s labor federation (CGT) to set up “brigades.” Teams of teachers, retirees, and students were dispatched to remove fallen trees, clear roads, and put up tents in roofless houses.

Such large-scale efforts require cross-union coordination. The teachers have worked hand in hand with other Puerto Rican unions through the CGT, and with mainland unions such as the New York State Nurses.

Members of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 501—the union of ground service and baggage handling workers at American Airlines in New York and San Juan—and Communications Workers (CWA) Local 3140, which represents American Airlines passenger service workers in Puerto Rico and Florida, teamed up to cook and distribute 400 meals of rice, beans, and chicken in the outskirts of San Juan.

They chose neighborhoods that hadn’t received much attention. “These were the forgotten areas,” said Local 3140 Vice President Georgina Felix. “Everybody’s focusing on San Juan and forgetting everywhere else.”

“Without labor down there right now, half the things that are getting done wouldn’t be getting done,” said Local 501 Executive Vice President Angelo Cucuzza. “Besides being a feel good story, it’s an important story.”

Viewpoint: A Union Plan for Hurricane Repair: Local Hire, Prevailing Wage

By Gordon Lafer - Labor Notes, November 1, 2017

After Harvey, Irma, and Maria, many thousands of homes have been lost and lives wrecked. People in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico need decent paying jobs while they try to put their lives back together, and the one industry that will be booming is construction.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Trump, Shock Doctrine & “Disaster Capitalism” in Puerto Rico

By Amy Goodman - Democracy Now, October 31, 2017

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn right now to my interview with the Puerto Rican mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor I spoke with on Friday. We sat down together in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, where the entire mayoral staff is now living. I began by asking her how Hurricane Maria has changed Puerto Rico since it struck the island September 20th.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: I think September 20th changed the Puerto Rican reality forever. We live in a different San Juan and a different Puerto Rico, not because of what we’re lacking. The majority of the island is still without any power. Only about 40 to 60 percent of the population has water. That doesn’t mean that it’s good water. We still have to boil it or put chlorine in it to be able to drink it. Medical services are really, really bad because of the lack of electricity. The supplies in the supermarkets are not there yet, so people are having a lot of trouble getting the supplies that they need. But still, the fierce determination of people has not dwindled. And to me, that’s been a very—I would say, a big lesson to learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this public power company, the largest in the United States? Do you think there’s an effort in this time, in the aftermath of the hurricane of—an effort to just privatize it?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: For it totally to fail?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think has to be done about that?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: It cannot be privatized. I am—and a lot of people—totally against, because we are a hundred miles long by 35 miles wide. That’s a monopoly. It doesn’t matter how you want to disguise it. It’s a monopoly. And what we’re doing is we’re putting in private hands the decision as to where our economic development is spread, where the sense of equality or inequality will happen. So, power isn’t just about the power grid. It’s also about the ability that the Puerto Rican people may have in the years to come to ensure that there is appropriate economic development and equally divided amongst all the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: Disaster capitalism, what does that term mean to you? And do you think that’s happening here, using a crisis to accomplish something that couldn’t be accomplished otherwise?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: You know, I wish I had never been introduced to that term. Also the shock, shock treatment, right? Using the chaos to strip employees of their bargaining rights, rights that took 40, 50 years for the unions to be able to determine. That is something very important. And it just means taking advantage of people when they are in a life-or-death situation. It is the most—an absolute mistreatment of human rights. It means that the strongest really feed off the weakest, until everything that’s left is the carcass.

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