Sandbranch, Texas, a small unincorporated community in Dallas County, has been fighting for over 30 years to have access to clean running water, but between the machinations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Dallas County officials, the community continues to go without this most basic and critical of human rights.
Sandbranch is located 14 miles southeast of Dallas, the fifth-wealthiest city in the United States of America. Established in 1878 by the Rev. Allen Hawthorne, a formerly enslaved black man from Louisiana, along with 11 other freedmen, the community grew around its beating heart, Mount Zion Baptist Church. The church continues to be the core of this tight-knit community to this very day.
At its peak, Sandbranch's population numbered approximately 500 people, but today about 80 people remain, loving and supporting one another through a humanitarian crisis that exists beneath the radar of most people in the United States.
According to a 2014 report from the Hunger Center of North Texas, 87 percent of Sandbranch residents are black, 10 percent are Latinx and 3 percent are white. The average age in Sandbranch is 68. All residents live below the federal poverty threshold, with the average income for lifelong residents holding at $721 per month and $1,426 for longtime residents.
Sandbranch is also in a food desert, which means that residents—many without transportation—must find a way to travel more than 7 miles to the nearest grocery story for healthy food options.
Sandbranch has never had running water in the entire 138 years of its existence, but up until the 1980s, people in the community used well water, which has now either run dry or is too contaminated to drink.
Dallas County officials claim that bacteria from hogs and other livestock is the reason for the contamination—and they've killed off the farm animals in an unsuccessful attempt to solve the problem. However, the residents lay the blame fully on the Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant, a high-tech, state-of-the-art water-treatment facility approximately 50 feet away from Sandbranch. If you speak to residents in the community, they will tell you that they've always had hogs but their water issues didn't arise until the wastewater facility was built next door.
Today residents depend on donated water or water purchased in nearby cities and then hauled to Sandbranch, or they share water with their neighbors. This may seem inconceivable, but to understand how things got this way requires a long, winding trip through the red tape of bureaucracy, and a recognition of the devaluation of black lives.
A Community in Crisis
In 1985 Dallas County began efforts to provide water to Sandbranch. It was determined then that a grant-funded system operated by the Dallas County Water Control Improvement District would be the best option, but Dallas County allegedly was unable to obtain the funding necessary, so the plan to bring water to Sandbranch was left dormant.
In 1991 the city of Dallas refused to annex Sandbranch, citing high cost—$6.8 million for flood protection, $4.2 million for water/sewer service, with an estimated $24,000 revenue for the city. According to the document "Dallas County and Sandbranch: Efforts to Improve an Unincorporated Community (1985-2008)," the sporadic off and on efforts to bring water to Sandbranch continued until a discovery in 2003 derailed all plans entirely.
In January 2003, FEMA declared Sandbranch to be in the Trinity River floodplain (pdf). Residents were given 30 days to bring their homes in compliance with FEMA regulations. The options they were given included 1) building a levee around the community, 2) elevating structures above flood levels, 3) moving their homes to another location or 4) demolishing their homes.
This task proved difficult for many residents, so in 2005, Dallas County devised a buyout plan that would pay Sandbranch residents for their property and help them relocate. Formally called the “Dallas County Optional Sandbranch Relocation Assistance Program," the initiative involved Dallas County deducting the cost of demolishing property, leaving residents with an estimated $350.
Attorney Mark McPherson, who is representing Mount Zion Baptist Church and the citizens of Sandbranch pro bono, called the move “nothing short of a government housing grab that duped vulnerable citizens into giving up their mortgage-free homes for a pittance.”
To add insult to injury, as all of this was occurring, the mostly elderly residents of Sandbranch remained without water. And with more and more residents being forced from their homes, Dallas County decided that it was no longer economically feasible to bring clean running water to the small community that remained.
Since 2014, Project DreamHaus, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 by the Rev. Eugene and Deanna Keahey with a mission to "help the underserved become self-sufficient through education, economic awareness and strong community development," has been pivotal in helping the residents of Sandbranch maintain a decent quality of life.
Keahey, who became pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in 2013, spearheaded the "Sandbranch … Everybody’s Community!" grassroots effort organized by Project DreamHaus to bring water, sewage and social services to Sandbranch. Keahey has been on the front line since his arrival in Sandbranch and has made local headlines this year as Dallas County intensifies its push to relocate Sandbranch residents instead of providing water for them.
"Flint[, Mich.,] has brown water and Sandbranch has no water," Keahey told The Root. "We have kids with no water. We're like a Third World country, and I don't say that loosely.
"The floodplain is a weapon that has been used against this community. We're in what they call the 1 percent floodplain, and that is the lowest floodplain in existence," Keahey continued. "What that means is Sandbranch will potentially flood once every 100 years.
"Houston is in the 80 percent flood zone," he added. "New Orleans is in the 80 percent zone. Both cities have water. Sandbranch has never had a flood in the 138 years in existence, but we don't have water. So the county is using the floodplain as a tool to destroy the community."
Carrying Water and Passing the Buck
On April 27, 2016, during a meeting of state, federal and local agencies, Sandra Keefe, regional director of FEMA's Mitigation Division, said the agency was willing to help Sandbranch residents come into compliance so that Dallas County's participation in the National Flood Insurance Program would not be jeopardized, DallasNews.com reports.
“FEMA does not stand in the way, by any means, to bringing water to Sandbranch,” Keefe said. “We stand by ready to answer questions.”
This was echoed by FEMA public affairs specialist Earl Armstrong when we spoke Monday morning.
"The local folks are the ones you need to talk to," Armstrong said. "The Dallas County judge [Clay Jenkins, a vocal advocate for Sandbranch] and the Dallas County flood plan administrators."
So, despite Dallas County's claims to the contrary, FEMA is not stopping Sandbranch from getting water?
"No, not at all," Armstrong said.
"Keefe said that Dallas County is misinterpreting that whole [flood insurance] plan," Keahey said. "But because FEMA does not manage the plan, they can't do anything about it. They write it, but the government body interprets the plan themselves. That's Dallas County."
And by “Dallas County,” Keahey means Dallas County District 3 Commissioner John Wiley Price.
Price, who has held his commissioner position since 1985, is considered by many to be Dallas County's most powerful politician and a staunch advocate for civil rights. Still, he is no stranger to negative headlines.
The feared and beloved politician was indicted in 2014 on an array of bribery and corruption charges. According to WFAA.com, Price is "accused of taking more than $900,000 in bribes from mostly technology firms seeking Dallas County contracts," but his larger-than-life presence remains intact.
"There are churches in Dallas County that won't help us because [Price's] political pull is strong," Keahey told The Root. "I don't know what he has to gain from not helping us. This guy will stand up in the court and tell white folks to 'Go to hell.' He'd get in front of them and say, 'How dare you mess with my people.’
"His whole platform is our man downtown," Keahey continued, the confusion evident in his voice. "But he's not Sandbranch's man downtown."
"Yeah, OK, whatever," Price said derisively when I called and asked him about Keahey's efforts to bring water to Sandbranch. "I listen to nothing he says. He's pimping as far as I'm concerned. They can play all the games they want to, but I've been doing this for 31 years.
"I understand he went down there and found a little church with 30 or 40 people there," Price continued. "I got it. That's, you know, that's where he is. They found a guy that, you know, needs some points in heaven and that's OK. But it's only 80 people. I'd relocate them in a minute, but they're not interested, according to their spokesperson, Keahey."
It was immediately clear that although Price became frustrated talking about Sandbranch, he also wanted to set the record straight.
"The only reason this thing has come up is because of Flint, but it ain't the same," Price told The Root. "Sandbranch has never had water. Now, we're talking about 80 people—80. Sandbranch is one-half square mile, four streets and 80 individuals. Unincorporated area. Over 15 years ago, I tried to bring water when there were 400 people living there.
"I didn't have any pressure," Price continued. "It's because I had heard about Sandbranch when I was a kid. And I drove over there and saw it. I saw the conditions were deplorable. I began to work on it. Community Development, block-grant money; whatever I could try, I did. I went to the Texas Water Development Board and got minimal funding. I was going down the road, I was trying to bring water. And then FEMA stepped in and said, 'No. You're in violation, you can't do it.' That's why we've been on hold ever since."
While it appears to many residents in Sandbranch as just another case of a politician not keeping his word, Price said that isn't the case.
"No good deed goes unpunished. In the process of trying to bring water to the area, I found out not only was I not going to be able to bring water, I was going to have to vacate everyone who was in violation of the floodplain regulations," Price said. "So basically, I had to go in there and fashion a plan and remove 150 individuals out of that community. And I did that."
The residents not forced to relocate or find a way to become compliant with FEMA regulations were "grandfathered in," meaning that their property, which was built prior to 1980, was thus not subject to the same regulations.
Price claims some residents got as much as $39,000 to relocate; he doesn't mention that Dallas County deducted demolition expenses from that total.
"They gave them $350 and told them, 'Bye, we'll see you later. Enjoy the rest of your life,’” Keahey told The Root.
Despite Sandbranch community leaders insisting that Price has turned his back on the community—and FEMA insisting that the ball is in his court—he is adamant that FEMA is the reason Sandbranch doesn't have water, not him.
"The last meeting we were at with FEMA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the USDA," Price said. "And when we were with all of these individuals, I asked them to produce their floodplain map. Now, keep in mind, the floodplain map has to flow through Dallas County. I have asked them to generate something that shows me that the floodplain map has changed. They haven't."
Maybe they haven't, but FEMA still claims that it would help bring residents of Sandbranch into compliance, paving the way for Dallas County to provide water to the community without losing its flood insurance. So, what reason, then, would Dallas County have for pushing people out of the community instead?
"Sand and gravel," Keahey told me emphatically. "We've been told that it's enough sand and gravel in Sandbranch to rebuild downtown Dallas at least 35 times. You just basically wait and kill [residents] off and you devalue their land so they can't make a profit.
"Dallas County has prohibited property improvement to the point where Dallas will attempt to tear your house down if you exceed the value of your house by 50 percent," he continued. "We have houses down here—three bedrooms, two baths, sitting on over a acre lot. The land and the house is valued at $1,500, so you can't improve your house beyond $750. And it's not just the homes; the church needs repairs, and we can't do those, either."
When I asked Price to respond to Keahey's claim that Dallas County is a resources vulture, he scoffed at the mere mention.
"It's Sandbranch; the whole area is sand and gravel," Price said. "We've relocated them and would relocate more if they wanted to go. And we've compensated them for relocating them. But guess what? They kept their land. Let me say that again: They kept their land.
"Not one mining expedition is happening on any of that open land, because it's strictly in their mind that it has value," Price continued. "Sandbranch has been a dumping ground. Now, most people in Sandbranch are seniors. I know if it was my mom or dad, I would want to relocate them to what I considered to be safe and sanitary conditions."
It is a huge assumption that the elderly residents of Sandbranch have somewhere else to go. Most importantly, the value of the community to its residents cannot be measured in dollars and cents. But where residents see love and home, Dallas County sees the bottom line. And that, Keahey said, is a clear case of economic discrimination.
"Dallas County has plenty of money, but they don't want to spend money in this community," he told The Root. "All we’re talking about $2 million to bring water to Sandbranch. We pay taxes, but we have to fight the government to get a water bill."
Price insists that, at this point, spending millions of dollars bringing water to Sandbranch just doesn't make sense.
"We're talking about millions of dollars to bring water to an unincorporated area of 80 people where the houses won't sustain water pressure," Price said. "They are grandfathered in, so I can't make them move, and if they don't want to move, I can't force them to. So they are trying to create a rural cooperative and fashion some other way to, I guess, bring water into the area."
Sandbranch community leaders aren't just "trying." They have already taken steps to bring life-sustaining water to their beloved home.
Sandbranch Fights the Tides of Bureaucracy
On March, 16, 2016, the Sandbranch Development and Water Supply Corp., a five-member board made up of members of the community and property owners, was formed to ensure water, sewer and trash-pickup services for Sandbranch became a reality. The corporation's first order of business was obtaining a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to commission a study that would determine the most feasible way to bring water into Sandbranch.
Mary Nash, 60, is president of the corporation.
"I grew up in Sandbranch all my life," Nash told The Root. "We still have our family home there. My mother, Ms. Pauline Parker, and people of her era also fought for water for Sandbranch. And they were always turned down. They would always go to the [Dallas] County meetings, and even if they got on the docket, they were always turned down. They were really mean toward the elderly people at that time during those meetings.
"We've never had running water, but we had well water that we would pump," Nash continued. "Sandbranch had some of the best-tasting water; it was like spring water. We had people that would come down and fill up jugs and stuff of our water and take it back to Dallas. That's how good the water was."
Nash also expressed her disappointment in Commissioner Price.
"I remember when he came to Sandbranch in the ’80s," Nash said. "He was a force to be reckoned with at one time. I don't know what transpired, I don't know exactly what happened, but everything came to a stop."
Still, Dallas County's lack of action has not deterred Nash, and she says she has full faith in her community.
"We will have water next year," Nash continued. "I am confident of that. Sandbranch will get water. Sandbranch will receive homes from HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. Sandbranch will receive all the things they should have had all these years. So many towns and communities had an opportunity to help Sandbranch, but they choose not to. Now Sandbranch is helping themselves."
Carol Francois, a straightforward, no-nonsense woman whom Mary Nash calls the brains behind the "Sandbranch … Everybody's Community!" advisory board, says that Price may have turned his back on Sandbranch but the community is unbowed.
"Once the community leaders and members realized that the county leadership was really not supporting them and did not have their best interests at heart, they took it upon themselves to look for different ways to bring water to their community," Francois told The Root. "They just decided to empower themselves to get water in their communities and that's important to know."
"It's really sad that Commissioner Price, who is himself an African American, has really fought this tooth and nail," Francois continued. "And what gives me strength to fight for this community is that the community has said, 'OK, county, you said you can't provide water for us and you won't. In spite of all of that, we think this community is valuable enough that we want to fight for life-sustaining water in a community that for some reason people want to stamp out.'
"I commend them for that. And whatever I can do, whatever we can do, we're going to fight as long and as hard as we can until we get that water," Francois added. "I may not live there, but I'm a part of Sandbranch. Whatever happens to them is part of what happens to me."
Black Lives Are Sacred and Water Is Life
The community of Sandbranch matters. The people, their shared histories and their collective futures are more valuable than any dubious budget restraints—which means providing water for them is not optional; it is critical. The absence of it comes with an extremely high price.
High blood pressure, diabetes and work injuries are rampant in the community. Though 75 percent of residents have health insurance, primarily through Medicaid, the nearest health care facility is about 35 miles away at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. And with many Sandbranch residents not having access to transportation, basic health care is a luxury.
"We've partnered with Texas Woman's University and their nursing department to do health screenings every Saturday just to get blood pressure checks, diabetes checked," Keahey told The Root. "We can't do a lot yet because we don't have the facilities. We don't have sewers or running water."
In a 1985 D Magazine article titled, “The Lost Community of Sandbranch,” Sallie Mae Smith, then 70 years old, said, “We are too weak, too poor and too black for folks to care."
She died at the age of 91 without ever experiencing clean running water in Sandbranch—and without Dallas County, neighboring communities and the country proving her wrong.
Smith was Mary Nash's aunt.
"Sandbranch is just so near and dear to my heart, I get emotional when I think about it," Nash told The Root. "It's not a big city or big town, just a small neighborhood, a place where everyone knows everyone and everyone will help everyone. If the county or FEMA, whomever was responsible for it, hadn't come in and destroyed Sandbranch, there are so many people that would love to move back, and I'm one. I would love to go back home and enjoy the rest of my life with my eight grandchildren running around or just sitting out on the porch.
"Our land to us is sacred because our parents worked hard in the cotton fields, chopped cotton, picked cotton, and so did we in order to pay for that land," Nash continued. "So, to us, Pauline Parker's seven children, it is sacred. And to Pauline's generation thereafter, we also teach them that Sandbranch is sacred land and to always keep it that a way."
We cannot sit by and allow a community of our elders, our children and our most vulnerable to go without water. We can, and we must, amplify their stories, raise our voices and fight beside them. Go to the "Sandbranch … Everybody's community!" GoFundMe page to donate to the Sandbranch community.
Editor’s note: Calls to U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D-Texas), who serves Sandbranch; EPA Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry, who serves Sandbranch; and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who serves Sandbranch, were unanswered at the time this article was published.