Dispatches from the independent press in Houston
“We’re still running and gunning here with some really tired people—some of whom still can’t get through the floodwaters to get into the office and are working remotely.”
–Houston Press Editor Margaret Downing, from an email last week to editors of other alternative weeklies across the country
If coverage of the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon taught news consumers in these parts anything, it’s that the national press is hamfisted at best when reporting outside of New York or DC. If you want to know what’s really happening when any kind of chaos breaks out, you should always turn to local sources. And if you want to get as close as possible to people who endure the most horrendous suffering in order to hear more about their personal experiences than 20-second TV sound bites have to offer, it’s best to check out independent outlets, where writers tend to come from the communities they cover, or at least have tighter ground-level sources than most mainstream shops.
For reporting on the horrors wrought by Harvey, the independent newspaper of note is the Houston Press, whose editors we heard from last week. Though just a small sample of the remarkable work that the team at the Press has done on the nightmare they’re living through, the excerpted scenes below speak to the heart of what a stalwart alternative with strong native roots can manage on small budgets in such awful situations. The pieces are informative, offering crucial information that Houstonians who may be in distress can use (the Press even dedicated real estate on its home page to run ads which helped lead hungry folks to open food stores), and they are also colorful enough to bring the reader deep into the flood zone where disgusting odors overwhelm, as well as critically investigative, in this case searching for the source of stenches while already slammed with ongoing crisis coverage.
We encourage people from all over to consider donating to the Houston Press GoFundMe campaign, from which “100 percent of the proceeds are going to benefit employees and their families affected by Harvey.” Also check out their intensive hurricane reporting at houstonpress.com, including the articles highlighted below…
BY DIANNA WRAY (8.28.17)
Foul smells are nothing new in Manchester—air pollution has laced the fence line community so steadily for so many years that most longtime residents don’t even notice it anymore, as we’ve reported—and even in the face of Hurricane Harvey and a catastrophic flood in Houston, the main issue is once again something unknown in the air.
So far, Nayeli Olmos and most of the residents of Manchester, a community pressed up against the refineries and works of the Houston Ship Channel, have made it through Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent torrential rains from the tropical storm system, without any significant flooding. The community is lined with deep ditches and being close to the Ship Channel means the water tends to quickly drain off. They were surrounded by flooding but relatively lucky, she says.
But just before midnight on Saturday night, Olmos, who has lived a few blocks from the massive Valero Refinery for years, noticed a strange odor in the house, as if someone had turned on a gas burner on the stove in the kitchen and blown out the pilot light. Olmos and her family thought it was coming from inside the house until she stepped outside where the smell was even stronger…
BY MEAGAN FLYNN (8.30.17)
It was 2:30 am, but Samwa David and her husband, Richard, couldn’t sleep, not with the water pouring into their house. They sat at the dining-room table, with their feet propped up on chairs to avoid the growing pool of water in their one-story home in the southwest Houston neighborhood of Westbury. They sat for hours, tuned into the live coverage of Tropical Storm Harvey’s ongoing destruction across Houston, until the TV stopped working. Before the floodwaters had risen over their knees, the couple, ages 66 and 81, had tried to save what they could.
“We were sure it was gonna happen,” Samwa David said of the house flooding, “because we were flooded in 2015. But this time it was much worse. We tried to save our stuff, because we just cleaned the water up two years ago, but we couldn’t. The water was too high.”
It was the story that played out across the Houston area as thousands of people awaited rescue from their own homes. If the empty shelves at the grocery stores and the lines at the gas stations were any indication, Houstonians had been prepared for this outcome, a card in a deck of possible worst-case scenarios. They had seen this before: The Tax Day floods of 2016, Memorial Day floods of 2015, Ike in ’08, Allison in ’01.
Still, even as the rain began falling in Houston well before Hurricane Harvey slammed into the mid-Texas coast late Friday night—boasting winds upwards of 130 miles an hour—a long, deceiving lull between rainstorms Saturday afternoon had many thinking perhaps Harvey wasn’t all it was hyped up to be.
Then they woke up…
BY DIANNA WRAY (8.30.17)
Residents in Manchester and across east Houston complained of a strange, unexplained smell starting on Saturday night, long before the worst of Hurricane Harvey had even hit. There’s still no official explanation of the odor, which lingered for more than two days, but a slew of reports filed by various area refineries certainly provide some clues as to where it came from.
Essentially, it could have come from any of the dozens of refineries along the Houston Ship Channel, or possibly from all of them.
On Tuesday ExxonMobil, the owner of one of the many refineries along the Houston Ship Channel, filed a regulatory report with the state environmental regulatory agency acknowledging that its Baytown refinery had been damaged during Hurricane Harvey.
The floating roof of one of the tanks at the refinery sank during the storm, unsealing the oil or other materials kept in the massive storage unit, which allowed particularly large amounts of emissions to escape the tank, including volatile organic compounds, chemicals that tend to morph into gases, some of which can have both short-term and long-term negative health effects, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The company also reportedly filed a report with the National Response Center disclosing that the Baytown refinery would release about 15 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen, into the air…
BY MEAGAN FLYNN (9.1.17)
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, the county medical examiner’s office, has released the circumstances detailing briefly how 25 people in Harris County died during Hurricane Harvey.
The 25 are part of at least 44 total deaths reported in Texas so far, from Orange and Jefferson Counties in Beaumont, where at least three died, down to Aransas County in Rockport, where one died after the hurricane first hit. At least three died in Galveston County, two in Montgomery County and two in Fort Bend County, in Fulshear.
The number is only expected to rise as floodwaters continue to recede and first responders begin going block to block, door to door, searching for anyone left behind. Below, we recount how Harvey took each flood victim confirmed in Harris County and who they were, based on any information about them available so far. Identifying information is not available for all of them yet, but we will continue to update this story as recovery continues. On Friday, the Institute of Forensic Sciences is investigating at least seven additional flood-related deaths [including]:
- Belia Rojas Saldivar, age 81; Manuel Q. Saldivar, age 84; Xavier Adam Saldivar, age 8; Daisy Saldivar, age 6; Devorah Saldivar, age 16; Dominic Saldivar, age 14: The elderly couple’s son was driving a white van, with the couple’s four great-grandchildren in the back, over a bridge at Greens River Drive when the Greens Bayou began to take the van under, ultimately sweeping it away. The driver, Sammy Saldivar, was able to escape through the driver’s side window, and Harris County sheriff’s deputies would find him hanging onto a tree for his life. Deputies retrieved the van on Wednesday, August 31 on the banks of the Greens Bayou, with the six family members found inside.
- Unidentified man: A man was found floating in high waters on Claiborne, residential street in a neighborhood just north of Tidwell Road and right behind the Halls Bayou. He was discovered at 10:53 am on Tuesday, August 29.