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Where Government Fails, Local Leaders Work To Meet Texans' Basic Needs

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin once again tonight with our focus on the millions of people who are still coping with the devastating effects of extreme winter weather last week. We're focusing on Texas. Yesterday, President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the state, emphasizing the hardest-hit areas. That frees up federal aid for individuals and state officials rushing to repair burst water pipes and other critical infrastructure damaged during the storm.

But those repairs won't be easy or quick, and the hardship continues to take a toll, especially on the most vulnerable. So to begin the program today, we're going to hear from some of those who are trying to help.

KENNY WILSON: Last night, we had about 125 individuals who came in for warm sleeping that have never been here before. Or if they've been here, it's been a long time.

MARTIN: That is Kenny Wilson. He is the CEO of Haven for Hope. That's a shelter that support San Antonio's homeless population. He says it was a frightening moment when the shelter's water supply was cut off last week, making all the bathrooms inoperable.

WILSON: For all the days and nights since, we had one faucet on the entire 22-acre campus that worked. And we filled buckets day and night and shuttled them in the freezing cold and in the snow to all the restrooms on campus so that people could be as comfortable as possible.

MARTIN: In Houston, emergency room doctor Ben Saldana and his colleagues at Houston Methodist were already juggling heart attacks, strokes and COVID patients before the storm hit. Then, Saldana says, they started seeing an influx of patients on dialysis.

BEN SALDANA: One of the challenges was kidney disease. So we have a high rate of kidney disease. And, in fact, end-stage renal kidney patients - 5 out of 6 in the state of Texas had nowhere to go this week because of the lack of water and power, so they flooded ERs all across the state. This week, when you walked into any of our ER's triage areas, you would find patients lined up on ambulance stretchers and patients attempt at socially distanced in the waiting room.

MARTIN: And then, after working with patients all day, most of the Houston Methodist Hospital staff themselves went home to neighborhoods without power and advisories to boil water. In a week when many Texans will have searching for basic necessities, some in the state are frustrated with the lack of government support for the most needy. That includes Katie Drackert with Austin Mutual Aid. Her group was formed during the pandemic but last week focused on helping people in the city find a warm place to sleep.

KATIE DRACKERT: There have been people that have frozen to death on the street in Austin, so I am very much in the realm of, like, this bureaucratic decision-making stuff is not - whatever they're doing isn't working.

MARTIN: The good news is donations to some mutual aid programs have skyrocketed this week. Tammy Chang is an organizer with Mutual Aid Houston.

TAMMY CHANG: I think I started the GoFundMe, and by the time I woke up, we were at $100,000 because Reese Witherspoon and Chrissy Teigen had tweeted us out, and it was just a staggering amount. And with all of the donations that we received, we were able to directly distribute $20,000 to Houstonians who have applied in the form of $100 payments. So this is for immediate needs like food and water.

MARTIN: Chang says the success of their GoFundMe shows how inadequate government support has been for Texans in need.

CHANG: Since the beginning of a pandemic, I think I can say with confidence that our city, county, state and even federal government have been pretty abysmal at the sort of support the everyday American, Texan, Houstonian has been able to receive. It's just interesting to me that we are a group of nine 20-something-year-olds, and we were able to pull together direct payments to Houstonians. We were able to pull together food and water distributions, and we were able to pull together rescues and supply drops when no one else from our government has done anything at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN DU VOYAGE'S "ANITYA")

MARTIN: That was Tammy Chang in Houston. We also heard from Dr. Ben Saldana at Houston Methodist Hospital, Katie Drackert in Austin and Kenny Wilson in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN DU VOYAGE'S "ANITYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.