For Washington climate activists, Houston is a thousand miles away. But on Thursday evening, local organizer Anthony Torres sought to take his fight for climate justice to the doorstep of the man he deemed complicit in Harvey's devastation: Rex Tillerson.
For Torres and other activists, a steady decay in environmental regulation culminated in a perfect storm combining warming sea surface temperatures with a man-made concoction of toxic floodwaters, chemical plant explosions, and noxious haze. They held that the onus for storms like Harvey lay in no small part with Big Oil, lobbying for years to loosen emissions standards and cut back on environmental safety regulations. Through his role leading the world's largest oil and gas company for ten years, Tillerson was liable. It was time to pay him a visit.
"Tillerson made his millions by poisoning entire fenceline communities in Houston and across the world," Torres explained. "Rex Tillerson profited off of climate denial and climate disaster. He secured his position by pursuing a lie, and by threatening each and every one of us. Rex Tillerson needs to be held responsible, and we're here because we say: no more."
Torres is an organizer with the Washington chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots effort empowering youth to take action on climate change. Almost a week after Hurricane Harvey's Category 4 landfall on the southeast Texas coast, Torres and other area climate activists coordinated a vigil and fundraiser aimed at lending a hand to Harvey's impoverished and marginalized victims - all within earshot of the current Secretary of State.
About 50 people huddled into Mitchell Park in Kalorama, one of Washington's wealthiest neighborhoods and a recent hotspot for area activists seeking to make themselves heard by taking their message to the homes of powerful figures. "Light is returning, even though this is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn," they sang, in a short march to Tillerson's 24th Street home on a quiet late summer night. They lit their candles in the waning evening light and led a speak-out on climate change, hoping he'd be home to hear their testimonials on the impact of extreme weather and their commitment to accountability.
Torres and other organizers were confident they could benefit lives in Houston from across the country. But rather than raise for national charities, Sunrise sought to split their aid between five local organizations contributing to relief efforts in the Houston area, especially to marginalized communities in the path of the storm. Among them were LatinaTransTexas, a coalition of transgender women vouching for trans equality in Texas, and the South Texas Human Rights Center, working to end migrant deaths in the border region. The vigil managed to raise almost $800, Torres announced on Instagram.
Members of Jewish activist group IfNotNow and indigenous group Rising Hearts led song and prayer for about an hour. In between, they heard from speakers including Hip Hop Caucus's Mustafa Ali and Sunrise's Rachel Goldstein. All were heavily critical of a system they saw as underprepared and unwilling to aid minority communities suffering from disaster including Harvey and beyond.
"Once again, those least responsible for the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of the burden, and we need to remember that nature is not racist, nature doesn't discriminate," Goldstein said, "so when we see disparate impacts in the wake of a storm, we need to look at the human-made power structures that are causing those impacts. We need to hold these people accountable as they gut out health and environmental safeguards."
Although Congress is likely to approve a multi-billion dollar emergency relief package similar to the one it passed after Hurricane Sandy, the Trump administration is touting budget cuts on safeguards designed to protect coastal communities from precisely the form of threat brought on by powerful storms like Harvey. The Department of Homeland Security, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would see roughly 9 percent cuts from disaster-relief programs implemented after Hurricane Katrina's impacts on New Orleans in 2005.
"Trump rolled back critical flood protections for infrastructure facing disasters like Harvey, he's allowed for a fossil fuel build-out that's continuing to put people in Houston at risk of more and more climate, and he's actually proposed that money be cut from FEMA's budget in order to pay for his racist border wall," Torres said. "This does not provide confidence that an administration full of culprits is going to show up for Houston and for the Gulf."
As of Thursday, 44 deaths have been attributed directly to Harvey's winds and record-breaking deluge. That number is expected to rise even further as the city's waterways finally recede after cresting at levels not seen in that area for hundreds of years. Moving on from Harvey, hurricane season is only half over - and storm-battered eyes are nervously glancing at the next possible threat churning across the Atlantic.