It’s hurricane season again. No doubt all of us on the gulf coast, especially in Texas, maintain a longer than usual silence when we hear the weatherman pontificate about what the sea may bring us this year. It’s normal that a person feel some anxiety at the thought that another biblical level event may wash over their lives, especially when so many are still struggling to rebuild, or mourn the dead. That said, if we take a moment to remember the human response to the event, we may be able to dredge a few pleasant memories as well.
A few months after Harvey, a couple of authors died in early 2018: Ursula K. Le Guin and Daniel Quinn. Famous for science and fantasy fiction as a means to critique our modern world, Le Guin pushed her readers to imagine lush alternatives to our daily lives. Quinn, a Houston resident for decades, was known for works that attempted to pull from the reader what they already may have suspected about our current social predicaments. Both their works tended to emphasize a fundamental truth I think important to bring up as we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey: Humans make the world we currently live in, and humans can unmake it and replace it if we wish.
If you had to venture a guess, what would you say was the most impressive act of compassion or humanity you saw in the aftermath of Harvey? This probably wont be difficult for those of us who lived through the Hurricane, but I’m sure even those who watched it unfold from afar could venture something, like seeing the Cajun Navy running and boating around Texas trying to save people from the flood waters, or Houstonians lined up to volunteer, their numbers greater than the capacity of shelters to put them to work. Further from most cameras you could find hordes of people just showing up in neighborhoods to offer food, clothes, and labor to those reeling from the disaster. While volunteering with a friend’s church I found myself turning down cold beer and fresh burgers that were being grilled in the bed of a passing samaritan’s truck. I had already ate too many hotdogs and pbj sandwiches from other samaritans roving around looking for the hungry and weary. But, when I had taken those hotdog and beer breaks, I rested on the street curb and casually watched the hum of countless other people down the street. Crowds of people freely helped and toiled along-side those who were picking apart the wreckage of their lives.
Were I to venture a guess as to some of the more astounding acts of mutual aid I witnessed, I might mention Food Not Bombs seeking out homeless camps to distribute food and supplies (usually the homeless come to a regular distribution point, but all the most mobile and functioning had gone to the big temporary shelters, like The George R. Brown Convention center, which were over-saturated with volunteers and supplies), or the massive mobilization of normal people on social media to collect needed supplies and get them to actual places of need. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t mention the three anarchists I met couch-surfing on the northeast side of Houston by night and tearing out houses in a poor neighborhood by day. In California they had raised money to buy a boat, drove to Texas while living in a van, had the police stop them from entering Port Arthur with their boat, and so landed in Houston looking to help however they could. I know anarchists from Austin who acted similarly. Look where you might, you could find people doing impressive things on the gulf coast during that time.
The Harvey event was distinct. Not just the wild violence of rivers appearing over your day to day life, and not just the media spectacle, but the temporary exit from our everyday lives. It’s hard to overstate the impact of habituated disaster volunteerism that so easily came with forced time-off from work. Stranger still, so much disaster aid was without the local or federal government, or any of the usual institutions of order and power. So much of it was leaderless, stigmergic, and just an expression of brotherly love! It had to be! When the waters are rising it’s unlikely that the cops or your insurance adjuster or your boss are going to save you. Often, it has to be your friends and neighbors. And why the hell not?
When Le Guin and Quinn both died in early 2018, my world was littered with quotes, images, and homages to their works. At a time when I was wondering what to make of what happened after Harvey, a few quotes offered some clarity. From Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” From Quinn: “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world.” I knew they were right. Not just because I could theorize it, but because I had seen it. I saw people just leap into a world that couldn’t have been called totally capitalist or mindlessly lawful anymore. There was, for a moment, a surge in a sort of grassroots mutualism. Gulf Coasters were helping each other because they needed it, because it was cool, because they might be shamed for not, because who else was going to? It felt like an outbreak of human-ness, that for a moment I lived in a society defined by human beings and their needs, not just the demands of our jobs, the threats from police, and the monotonous patterns of toil we take for granted. To paraphrase Quinn, the coin of the revolution was support, and everyone was giving it away freely.
I’m not so deluded as to claim that the hurricane and its aftermath were some sort of actual temporary utopia, or even a net positive. Nor am I claiming the authorities weren’t crucial in saving countless people, I know people they did. What I am claiming is that the response to the hurricane made something undeniable: We can live different lives than we normally do, and those lives can get meaningful work done without being told to do so. In his most famous book ‘Ishmael’, Quinn articulated that much of the frustration and despair we feel in our daily lives is the result of believing a pathological story about who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Given what we saw, I’m confident we could begin to enact a new story about social possibilities.
While Gulf Coasters have tried to move on from Harvey, we need to make a point of recalling that life could be, and clearly was, different for a short time. Even if the current realities of our day to day lives under capitalism largely preclude returning to the mutualism we experienced after Harvey, we don’t have to act like it didn’t happen. As far as I can recall there was a similar situation after Ike, but it seems like social media and personal electronics dramatically amplified the social support and community solidarity we saw after Harvey. I imagine a big part of that may even have been social pressure to signal that one was a part of the aid effort. In any case, there is now recent precedent contradicting what I’ve heard my whole life; that people are inherently selfish and need big brother to get the important things done.
In her book The Dispossessed, Le Guin had the gorgeous line that you can’t buy the revolution and you can’t make the revolution. “You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” Take it from me, the next time you think you could help other people out or get a local project done, right down the street or on the other side of the city, find the time to just go do it. Yes, it can be intimidating to go to sleep the night before knowing you’re going to stumble into an area or a home with people you don’t know, to do things you may not have any experience doing, and have to fumble through until you get a rhythm, but it’ll be worth it. Like jumping on a bike after a decade of going two-footed, the social creature inside you will slowly, but surely, get its footing, and in that community garden or amongst that rotting drywall, you will know in your bones this is the normal way of things.
We all saw lots of terrible shit in the wake of Harvey, plenty of us lived the disaster intimately. But we also saw humans in their natural habitat for a moment. I absolutely think in ways both big and small, next door and eco-region wide, we can be that way again. We can be Harveans and begin to build lives with some sort of new trajectory. Of course it would be imperfect, it would be full of compromises with the world of bills and alarm clocks, and it might fall short of your or my utopia. But don’t bullshit me and tell me it can’t happen. Even before I saw it with my own eyes, Daniel and Ursula told me so.
This would have been my second article for the Houston publication “Free Press Houston”. However, the week it was to be published, the magazine began to collapse under the severe and credible accusations of serial sexual predation by a founder. My contact with FPH, and seemingly all the staff, quit in protest and outrage, for which they deserve the highest praise.
I publish it on my blog close to the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.
Long live a free press in this dirty city on the Texas coast.