BY LOU CHIBBARO JR., WASHINGTON BLADE
Houston’s LGBT community center on Monday launched a special relief fund to help LGBT people who are among the thousands of people in Houston and surrounding jurisdictions who have lost their homes over the past few days to catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.
“The catastrophic and historic impact of Hurricane Harvey will be felt by the LGBTQ community of Houston, Texas, for days, months, and potentially years to come,” the Montrose Center said in a statement.
“Help our LGBTQ community members displaced by the storm today by giving to the LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund, managed by the Montrose Center — Houston’s LGBTQ counseling and community center serving Houston for 39 years,” the statement stays.
According to the statement released on Aug. 28, money raised through the relief fund would be used to help individuals and families “begin to rebuild their lives through counseling, case management, direct assistance with shelf stable food, furniture, housing and more.”
In a related development, the Transgender Foundation of America, a Houston-based transgender services and advocacy organization founded in 1998, announced it had organized a separate disaster relief fund to “assist Gulf Coast trans, intersex, and genderqueer survivors recover” from Harvey and its related flooding.
“The Transgender Foundation of America created this disaster relief fund because trans, intersex, and genderqueer individuals have historically experienced significant difficulties in natural disaster situations,” a statement released by the group says. “This fund will be used to help our historically underserved community recover from this catastrophic event,” it says.
The creation of the two disaster relief funds came at a time when officials in Houston and many other areas of southeast Texas reported that a never-before-seen volume of rainfall rather than the usual high winds associated with a hurricane caused massive damage from flooding in high population centers, especially those in Houston.
The nation’s fourth largest city, Houston has been accustomed to flooding of its numerous waterways, including bayous, but officials said the “historic” flooding over the past several days resulted in serious damage and total destruction of thousands of homes and businesses unlike any previous flooding incidents.
“Houston is really bad off right now,” said Houston LGBT rights advocate Lou Weaver, who said he was stranded this week in Dallas after learning, during a visit there, that all main roads leading to Houston were impassible.
“Many of my friends have lost everything they own,” he told the Washington Blade. “Some are stranded in their homes.”
He said that in addition to the creation of the LGBT disaster funds many from Houston’s LGBT community were volunteering their help at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the city’s largest convention hall that has been converted into an emergency shelter.
A Houston city spokesperson told the Washington Post more than 1,500 people had been taken to the convention center Sunday night. Many of them had been rescued by boat from the roofs of their homes as flood waters rose to the height of their first floor ceilings, disaster relief officials said.
Officials said the convention center has the capacity to take in a total of 4,000 people displaced from their homes by the flooding.
One of the buildings hit hard by the flooding was Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, a mostly LGBT congregation located in Houston’s Inner Loop near White Oak Bayou. The bayou surged over its banks during the heavy rainfall on Saturday night, putting one to one-and-a-half feet of water into the church.
Rev. Troy Treash, the church’s senior pastor, said church members were ripping up carpeting and shoveling out mud from the church as he spoke to the Blade on Monday.
“We’re just part of a city where everything is crazy at the moment,” he said. “We’re a bit awash in feelings at the moment.”
Treash said the congregation moved into its current space in 2000, a year before Tropical Storm Allison flooded Houston in 2001.
“This is the second flood in this space. We thought it wouldn’t happen again,” he said. “We definitely need prayers.”
The congregation is looking for ways to help families forced out of their homes by the flooding, he told the Blade.
“We’re looking for ways to put them up,” he said. “We’re trying to find spaces that are safe for them. We’re a progressive LGBT congregation that has a voice in a part of the world that is sorely missing it right now.”
Veteran gay rights advocate Ray Hill, a longtime resident of Houston’s Montrose neighborhood long known for its high concentration of LGBT people, said he is lucky that his street and the street on which the Montrose Center is located four blocks away are on higher ground and had not been hit by flooding as of Monday afternoon.
Hill noted that the section of Montrose where he lives and where the Montrose Center and a number of popular gay bars and clubs are located are on the opposite side of Montrose’s southern boundary, which consists of the Buffalo Bayou, a body of water that often floods during storms far less severe than Harvey.
He said that section of Montrose was hit by flooding over the past few days, forcing many residents to seek refuge elsewhere.
The Montrose Center initially had planned to serve as a place where people displaced by the storm could to come for support — both LGBT and straight, Hill told the Blade. But he said the severe flooding in other parts of the city prevented most of the center’s staff from getting to the center to organize the relief effort.
Instead, according to Hill, the few staff people able to make to the center set up a makeshift information and referral center in the center’s first floor garage providing cover from the rain, which was continuing on Monday.
“They are giving directions to other emergency sites,” Hill said. “So our community is being responsive. If you live in a place like Houston part of being a good citizen is sharing and caring.”
Trans rights advocate Monica Roberts, a longtime Houston resident, said she too is fortunate to live in a section near downtown Houston that was not hit by flooding and retained its electric power service.
But she said he was worried about additional flooding expected when the city releases a large quantity of water from a reservoir behind a dam that has filled to capacity from the massive rainfall caused by Harvey. City officials have said not releasing the water, which will cause additional but modest flooding, could result in the dam bursting, a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions.
Roberts said she is aware of concern within the trans community of possible discrimination against trans people at city and private shelters for those forced from their homes due to flooding.
“As of now I have not heard of any cases where LGBT people were turned away from a shelter,” she said.
Roberts and other LGBT activists say a separate matter raising concern is what they see as the politicization of the flooding by some Texas Republican Party leaders. Among other things, some of the GOP activists were attacking Houston’s LGBT-supportive mayor, Sylvester Turner, for deciding not to order most residents to evacuate the city in the days before the hurricane hit.
Roberts and others supportive of the mayor point to the attempt to evacuate the city in 2005 as Hurricane Rita approached, when 100 or more people died after being stranded in traffic backed up for miles as 2.5 million people fled the city at the same time.
“It was 95-plus degree temperatures,” Roberts said. “People ran out of gas. Some suffered from heat stroke and emergency responders couldn’t get to them,” she said. Roberts noted that had an evacuation attempt been made this time the fleeing motorists would have been trapped in flood waters that currently have submerged nearly all highways and roads leading out of Houston.
Among those initially calling for an evacuation was Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Even if an evacuation order hasn’t been issued by your local official, if you’re in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating,” Abbott said at a news conference last Friday.
Turner succeeded two-term Democratic Mayor Annise Parker, a prominent lesbian activist and longtime LGBT rights advocate before becoming mayor. A term limits law prevented Parker from running for a third term. Roberts and Hill said Turner is a strong supporter of the LGBT community.
Gay activist Ryan Wilson said he and his husband moved to Houston in March after his husband took a new job there. He said the severe flooding caused by Harvey wasn’t something he and his husband expected.
“We’re kind of like living on an island right now surrounded by water,” he said, noting that his neighborhood in the city’s midtown section had so far been spared from flooding. “The further out from the city center you go, the worse it gets.”
Information about the Hurricane Harvey LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund, the Transgender Disaster Relief Fund and the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church can be accessed here:
Michael K. Lavers contributed to this story.