Doris Brown was folding laundry when she heard the boom. It came, she says, from the back of the house, so she stood up from the couch beneath her front window and began walking to the other side of the house to investigate.
It had been several days since Hurricane Harvey started dropping unprecedented amounts of rain on the northeast Houston house she’s called home for 56 years – since she moved in with her parents at the age of 17. Several days since the ditches had started overflowing. Several days since the roof was asked to stand up against relentless rain.
She didn’t make it to the back of the house. Halfway there, she says, she heard a second boom behind her. She turned to face the couch where she’d just been sitting.
Only now, that couch was covered in debris: Her old and tired roof had given in and collapsed.
You don’t have to dig too deep to find a metaphor for the way so many of us across Houston felt by day two or three of Harvey – let alone day five. I know for certain I can identify with that roof.
Not Brown. She has a way of digging in and coming alive when others feel like they might collapse. Recently, Brown and her house have become a cornerstone in what she hopes will become a model for future community resilience. Brown’s home is one of 10 across the city of Houston chosen to have solar panels installed as part of a grant from the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, which aims to create “community resilience hubs” at houses across the city. Her home is also one of three equipped with a Tesla battery to store its power for use during disasters. When the power goes, Brown’s neighbors now know they have a safe space to go, where they can warm up or cool down, and recharge. It’s about being a good neighbor, says Brown, who has worked her whole life to be just that.
Brown was 13 when her mother figured out she had been skipping school to sit on stools along breakfast counters in protest, along with other young Black women, men, girls and boys as part of the Civil Rights Movement, she told me on a recent Friday morning as she sat in the space where her roof had once caved in under that insurmountable pressure.
“After chastisement, my mother took me to school, and she agreed, along with the principal, that if I kept a “B” average, I could go and be – what’d they call me? – a rebel,” she recalled.
“I’m 13, and they’re calling me a rebel,” she laughed. “But I just said, ‘Yes, ma’am. Yes ma’am.’ And I did that.”
Brown kept her “B” average. And she kept on being a “rebel.”
Though that’s not what she would call it, really. Her mantra has always been, “If it’s not right, I’m going to fight.”
And honestly, is it really being a rebel if you’re just trying to make life better for yourself and your neighbors?
Brown’s roof was just one of several problems her home experienced during Hurricane Harvey. At one point the standing water was so high that Brown could no longer walk. At another point – Brown isn’t sure exactly when – a small fire sparked among her electrical wires.
“I’d never experienced anything like this,” she said. “I went through (Hurricane) Carla, you know, all the other floods, and Harvey was the worst. I thought I was going to die.”
She refused to leave her house. And after about two weeks, a FEMA inspector came. She showed him the damage – where the sheetrock in the bathroom had fallen into the tub; the hole in her roof through which she could see the sky; where the ceiling had crumbled into her kitchen. They sat at the table, Brown says, and the FEMA inspector prayed with her.
“Before he even walked out the door, I got a text that he’d denied me,” she said.
After decades of helping everyone around her, Brown wondered: Who would help her?
Then came “the Millennials,” as Brown affectionately refers to the folks behind West Street Recovery, a disaster-recovery nonprofit that sprung to life in Harvey’s wake. Many of West Street’s members are closer in age to Brown’s great grandchildren – the oldest of whom is 13 – than they are to Brown. But as “the Millennials” started patching up Brown’s roof, she realized she had a lot in common with her young neighbors: They were all frustrated by the government’s slow disaster response; and they all wanted to become part of a process that could help others in a more efficient and beneficial way.
She continued volunteering with the organization even after her home was repaired. In 2020, she joined its staff. Now, her home is one of the 10 community hubs.
During a rainstorm this July, Brown looked out her window and saw that in the dark of the storm, the only lights in the neighborhood were coming from her house. So she opened her doors. (Or, she opened them wider anyway – most of Brown’s neighbors know the garage door is always open, and there’s usually an empty lawn chair waiting for someone to come sit for a spell talk over coffee.)
“We had a good time,” said Brown, who became a figurative and literal light in the kitchen for her neighbors that night. “We popped popcorn. We watched TV. We talked. People charged their phones, and those who had to go to work were able to shower.”
She grabbed sleeping bags from her stash in the garage, and a load of quilts to lay on the floor.
“Everyone settled down by about 12:30, 1 o’clock, and we went to bed,” she said. When the morning came, the neighbors who’d slept on the newly installed, post-Harvey floors in her living room beat Brown to the kitchen to brew her morning coffee.
As power was restored, Brown’s neighbors trickled on home, and Brown thanked the heavens that she never had to bust out that dreaded kayak she keeps in her garage for true water-logged emergencies. There’s plenty of other just-in-case necessities in there, some that can help in a freeze – like hand and foot warmers – and others that are better suited for blackouts caused by extreme heat like solar-powered fans.
“Climate change is exacerbating everything, and we don’t know what’s liable to hit at any given time,” Brown said. “So we’re updating and adding more stuff all the time.”
A scalable solution
Brown has a lot to say about the lack of systemwide help she and her neighbors have received from government agencies in the wake of recent disasters.
“No one comes in and asks the neighborhood what they want,” she said. “They sit in their ivory-covered tower and look at data from 10 or 15 years ago, and tell you what you might have needed 10 or 15 years ago.”
But this hub program works for now, she said. And while they’re currently funded through the Hive Fund grant, there appears to be a pathway to create even more hubs in neighborhoods across Houston.
“This is something that the city and the county are applying to the federal government under the Inflation Reduction Act to bring hundreds of millions of dollars down into the state to build out these more resilient grid infrastructure systems,” said Hive Fund’s co-leader Erin Rogers, a Houston native. That includes a $5 million carve-out in Harris County’s application to the federal government, which was filed just last week, to “scale up the hub homes idea to make sure it’s not just growing in northeast Houston, but across the whole county.”
That’s an exciting idea for Brown, who has always wanted her endeavors to shape her world in ways both small and big.
Frankly, it’s an exciting idea for all of us who have lived with anxiety since our grid collapsed in 2021, leaving us to fend for ourselves in a brutal – and fatal – freeze.
Just imagine if, the next time you’re asked to conserve energy during a heatwave or a freeze, you could spot a light in the kitchen at a hub house in your neighborhood.
Brown thinks that having open doors to a safe space is just the right thing for a neighbor to do. And so she’s fighting for a city that can support hundreds of these havens. Because as a 13-year-old, “B” student branded a rebel once said: “If it’s not right, I’m going to fight.”