A Community Forced to Play the Infrastructure Squid Game

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In April 2021, Sara and her family witnessed the arrival of heavy machinery along with over a dozen unfamiliar faces on their street. At first, her son Mateo (age seven) was in awe of the construction vehicles, since up until that point, the closest that he had been able to get near one was by playing with his Bob the Builder toys.

In 2003, Sara’s family moved into the Northeast Houston neighborhood of Lakewood, a traditional African-American community with an increasing number of Spanish-speaking residents. Lakewood sits on the outer banks of two bayous, placing it in a precarious position during hurricane season. Sara recalls how her family navigated the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, one of largest natural disasters in recent American history: “My husband made the call at midnight, when the hurricane hit, to leave the house and seek refuge at a relative’s home. A few days after the hurricane, we came back to our house to find it completely destroyed.”

Despite this, for Sara’s family and most of her neighbors, permanently leaving the neighborhood is not a solution. While the City of Houston and Harris County have bought out a few of their neighbors and extended the offer to buy Sara’s home, the family has chosen to stay. “We know this community floods, but the cost of living in Houston has skyrocketed. There is no way we can buy another house in the city with the amount of money the government is offering,” she says.

Houston and Harris County continue to look for other ways to manage the flooding that this neighborhood encounters each time it rains, but so far have yet to properly address the issue. For example, in 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city, voters overwhelmingly approved a bond referendum that would have allowed Harris County to address flooding associated with the bayous. Unfortunately, in March 2021, Harris County acknowledged that it was short $1.4 billion for flood control projects that were primarily set aside to assist Halls and Greens Bayou, located near Sara’s residency.

Sara’s family and neighbors—who are largely considered low income, elderly, migrant, and working class—were not aware of the issues that Harris County encountered. For this community, which depends heavily on public transportation, it would require a 40-minute walk to the nearest bus stop and an almost two-hour bus ride to reach City Hall and County Chambers, where policies are debated. Many of Sara’s neighbors do not have the flexibility and knowledge to attend the daytime meetings that take place with both government entities. They assumed that the construction crews were there to repair the street and address the constant flooding, and that the project would be completed in a timely manner.

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