Amid record-low temperatures, freak snowfall, and widespread utility outages, what happened during Winter Storm Uri is a cautionary tale of failures and successes. As the state’s power grid and local water supplies became overwhelmed, leaving millions of Texans in the bitter cold and without clean drinking water, an ad-hoc network of mutual aid organizations and community activists leapt into action to feed their neighbors and offer warm shelter.
At its core, mutual aid sounds a little hokey. The mere concept of a loosely organized collective of people, bound only by their commitment to each other, agreeing to help each other when times are tough has always sounded good in theory. But in the days that followed this storm, Texas mutual aid organizations proved that they are a critical part of the state’s disaster relief infrastructure. It is not hyperbole to suggest that, over the past week, these groups saved lives, kept children and seniors from going hungry, and proved the power of mutual aid in times of crisis. It was a stunning thing to watch, especially as the state and federal governments flailed.
These organizations, like Mutual Aid Houston, have been laying the groundwork for months. Formed in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that followed the killing of native Houstonian George Floyd, the group has distributed food to protesters and volunteers, bailed people out of jail, and helped people find housing. In doing that work, it prepared itself for what would come during Uri — an onslaught of requests from people who needed immediate assistance to eat, stay warm, and buy clean drinking water.
In just 24 hours, after mobile payment platform Venmo lifted the sending limit on Mutual Aid Houston’s account over the weekend, the organization was able to send out more than $75,000 in direct assistance payments that went to people in the greater Houston area in the form of $100 grants to buy food and water. By Sunday night, the group had distributed $145,000. In a recent Instagram post, Mutual Aid Houston’s organizers wrote that it is “nowhere close to stopping,” and is already making plans to continue this work well after this winter is over.
The same goes for the city’s community fridges, placed at businesses and community centers across Houston as pandemic-related job losses intensified food insecurity. Volunteers began filling these fridges — which provide free, accessible food to anyone who needs it — before the storm began, then continued to brave the ice and snow to make sure that they stayed stocked with milk, eggs, produce, and other essentials.
It’s important to remember that the members of mutual aid groups are, generally, doing the work out of their own personal belief that it should be done. They are rarely paid, and during the storm, organizers were out in the streets helping others while dealing with their own power outages and burst pipes. “We are a small, but dedicated group of organizers,” the Houston Community Fridges collective tweeted this weekend. “We have personal responsibilities, jobs, and are currently taking care of ourselves and our loved ones.”
The work of these groups has not gone unnoticed, either. Celebrities like Beyonce, Bun B, and Reese Witherspoon have all supported and encouraged their millions of fans to donate to Texas mutual aid groups during this crisis. As a result, many mutual aid groups were overwhelmed by donations, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in just the span of a few days.
It wasn’t just happening in Houston, either. Across Texas, in both rural areas and cities like San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin, mutual aid organizations were collecting baby formula, food, and other supplies, preparing hot meals for people hunkering down in warming shelters and unhoused encampments, and distributing cash directly to those who needed it most.
This success stands in stark contrast to the abysmal failure of state and local officials in Texas to protect vulnerable populations. While Congress continued bickering over the COVID-19 relief package, organizers got money into the hands of those who needed it immediately. Working more efficiently than the Internal Revenue Service could ever dream of, these mutual aid organizations are the ones out here really providing stimulus checks in the form of Venmo transactions and cases of bottled water.
That becomes especially important considering that Texans are facing some pretty epic bills right now. From home repairs to sky-high utility bills, the coming months will be tough for many of us, and it’s fortunate that mutual aid organizations are already prepared and mobilized to meet the need that is inevitably coming. Even food is going to be much more expensive in the coming months, due to significant crop and livestock loss across the state’s most prolific agricultural regions.
What this crisis has taught is that when it comes to compassion, when it comes to taking care of those who are vulnerable, our government might fail us, but our people won’t. While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was flying to Mexico to escape the cold and Gov. Greg Abbott was appearing on Fox News to complain about the Green New Deal, people across the country watched in awe as Texans banded together to give money, boil water for their neighbors, and prepare hot meals.
Ultimately, that’s something that people in Houston have always understood. Mutual aid has always been a fixture of this city, even if that’s not what it’s always been called. From hurricanes to freak water main breaks and an ongoing pandemic, the region’s inhabitants always step up and do what needs to be done. It happens even when the hurricane doesn’t hit here: In 2020, when Hurricane Laura devastated Southeast Texas and Louisiana, the city’s chefs joined together to raise money, deliver supplies, and of course, cook for those who needed it.
As the city moves forward after this storm, mutual aid collectives will be a critical part of its recovery. Once the storm is a distant memory, these groups will still be on the ground, distributing money and working to ensure the safety and dignity of everyone who lives in their communities. And for anyone who might have been skeptical of what these groups, comprised mostly of devoted volunteers, are capable of, this past week proved that they can do damn near anything.