Two Months After Hurricane Harvey, HIV Services Are Still Recovering
About 90 miles east of Houston, near the Louisiana border, sits Beaumont, a small port town home to nearly 120,000 Texans. The Neches River snakes along the city's outskirts, feeding into Sabine Lake, a saltwater estuary cradled by Texas and Louisiana. On an average day, residents and tourists can be found kayaking along the lower Neches, paddling past the Bluffs and the oxbow lakes.
But in late August, the river known for its beauty and solitude became a source of despair after Hurricane Harvey barreled into the Texas Gulf Coast. The catastrophic storm dumped up to five feet of rain and triggered life-threatened floods in Houston and its surrounding areas, including Beaumont. As a result, over 60,000 Texans were displaced and more than 75 people died, according to state officials.
Two months later, Texas residents -- including people living with HIV and their families -- are still reeling from the disaster left in Harvey's wake.
"When you drove by the landscapes of these rural counties, you saw beautiful acres of land with beautiful little houses in the middle," said Dena Hughes, executive director of the Triangle Area Network (TAN), a southeast Texas community health center. "You drive by now, and you're driving by home after home of completely destroyed belongings."
Hurricane Harvey, Two Months Later
The storm shuttered many HIV clinics along the Gulf Coast in the immediate aftermath. The catastrophic floods blocked most roadways, making it difficult for advocates to connect with and help people in need. But, despite facing obstacles, the HIV community in Texas and across the country quickly mobilized to help displaced survivors living with HIV access antiretroviral medications, as well as basic everyday supplies.
AIDS Foundation Houston, Inc. (AFH), for example, collected emergency donations as part of a relief fund benefiting its more than 200 clients living with HIV/AIDS that live in its six housing programs. The nonprofit also reopened its food pantry in mid-September, making it available to all of Houston, not just people living with HIV.
"The first week, we had 400 people come through our doors," AFH's CEO Kelly Young told TheBody.com. "Normally, we do about 100 people a month." The food pantry, she said, will stay open to the whole community as long as they "see a need."
Over in Beaumont, the Triangle Area Network took care of people living with HIV, as well as other survivors, during Hurricane Harvey and immediately after it hit. According to Hughes, the Beaumont location was largely spared by the storm, allowing the nonprofit to use the center as a base for collecting and distributing emergency supplies.
TAN has another location in Orange, a small town of about 19,000 people that straddles the Louisiana border and was hit harder by Hurricane Harvey. Both locations, Hughes said, are now fully operational.
The Road to Recovery Is Not Equal
Slowly but surely, life on the Texas Gulf Coast is returning to normal. Businesses are reopening, clinics are starting to see patients again and, for the most part, water has subsided. But the damage caused by Harvey is vast and uneven, meaning recovery times will differ among affected areas.
In a well-resourced city like Houston, advocates said, recovery will be quicker. But somewhere like Orange, which had already recently lost its only hospital and emergency room, supplies, transportation and services are far more limited.
"It will probably be six months from now still trying to get back to as much of a normal as they can see, as opposed to people in Houston, who are already back on the road," said Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, a Dallas-based reproductive justice organization serving black women and girls.
Recovery will look different among populations, too. For transgender, intersex and genderqueer survivors, including those living with HIV, accessing care and safe services after a catastrophic storm comes with a unique set of challenges.
Bias and discrimination put trans people at particular risk in dislocating disasters, advocates say. So, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston-based services and advocacy group Transgender Foundation of America launched the Trans Disaster Relief Fund "to help this historically underserved community recover from this catastrophic event," the foundation said in a statement. (TFA did not return multiple requests for comment.)
Since launching, the Trans Disaster Relief Fund has helped transgender, intersex and genderqueer Texans to access health services, medication, shelter, and housing, as well as to cover some disaster-related expenses and replace lost ID cards and paperwork.
Similarly, Montrose Center, a long-standing support and advocacy nonprofit serving Houston's LGBTQ community, set up the LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund to help displaced Texans access counseling, case management and other direct services. The donation goal was set at $500,000, but over $700,000 has been raised to date.
A Nation Comes Together
National advocacy organizations and HIV activists living outside Texas also came together to pool together donations and supplies that could be distributed to storm survivors.
For example, AIDS United, in collaboration with the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), created the HIV Hurricane Relief Effort to help fund the immediate and urgent needs of HIV groups impacted by Harvey and other storms, and the first $1 million donation to the fund was made by Gilead Sciences.
Updating TheBody.com on his efforts, Bryan Jones, a peer educator, HIV activist and long-term HIV survivor based in Cleveland, Ohio, said he worked with a local barbershop to dispatch at least two trucks full of emergency supplies and basic everyday items to the affected area to distribute to evacuees. He also used the power of social media to connect a few displaced Texans with local services.
Within days of the storm, HIV advocate Monica Charleston reached out to Jones on behalf of her 24-year-old pregnant daughter, Monika Charleston, who had moved to Houston from Virginia Beach about a week before Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas Gulf Coast. Monika, Charleston told TheBody.com, had lost most of what she owned in the storm, and recently lost her job, so she was in desperate need of shelter, supplies and clothing.
"I know she needs everything," said Charleston, founder of the Kaleidoscope International, an advocacy group for victims of human trafficking, in early October. "I know that for a fact."
Jones helped facilitate contact among Charleston, Monika and the Afiya Center. But Charleston was unsure whether Monika connected with the group because her daughter is not in a stable place.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, that's a common story. No matter whether it's been a week or two months, survivors are still working through their trauma and figuring out how to move forward, Marsha Jones of the Afiya Center told TheBody.com.
"People are still just trying to piece things together and get their care system back in place as best they can," she said.