The toll from Hurricane Dolly is not in and we’re not prepared for a low income housing disaster

Hurricane Dolly cut through counties with 1,348 colonias.
Hurricane Dolly cut through counties with 1,348 colonias.

At this hour we still don’t have a full account of damage from Hurricane Dolly which hit Brownsville and the Texas Rio Grande Valley head on.  Regardless of the final damage tally Dolly should be a wake up call and a warning.  We are not prepared to deal with rebuilding housing of the poor after a hurricane.

When a hurricane hits an area of our state where lots of the houses are old or poorly constructed and where a large number of very poor families are homeowners we are faced with a special rebuilding challenge. Unfortunately, these impoverished conditions characterize much of the Texas Gulf Coast and especially the Rio Grande Valley that Dolly hit head on. Thank God Dolly did not turn out to be a Category 3 or larger hurricane.  If it had, the devastation of low-income families could have easily eclipsed the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In South Texas more than 80,000 poorly constructed homes of low-income families are a risk.  Hurricane Dolly slammed South Texas counties containing more than 1,500 colonias.  Many of the colonias are located in low lying areas that easily flood in mild rains.  In the wake of a large hurricanes these areas would be completely inundated.  The homes are usually build by homeowners, not in conformance with building codes and don’t comply with windstorm standards.  These houses can simply blow away in the wake of a strong hurricane.

Consider the size of the population at risk in these South Texas counties.  There are 1,348 colonias in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties, the three counties located closest to the Gulf.  238,480 people live in these colonias and Hurricane Dolly swept directly over this area.

Hurricane Katrina flooded impoverished neighborhoods in New Orleans where lots of poor families owned their homes.  Hurricane Rita hit Port Arthur and East Texas communities neighborhoods filled with low-income families.  Most low-income families lacked homeowner’s insurance. Few had savings.  Many were elderly and lived on very limited social security. Federal programs are designed to help middle income families with good paying jobs and with significant homeowners insurance to help them rebuild.  These programs are completely unequipped to effective aid low-income families to rebuild their homes.

Hurricane Dolly followed a track very similar to Hurricane Buelah, a Category 3 storm that in 1967 produced gusts of over 100 miles per hour as far inland as the towns of McAllen, Edinburg, Mission, and Pharr, some 50 miles from the gulf coast. Beulah spawned a record 115 tornadoes which destroyed homes and commercial property. This was before the explosive population growth of the region and before the large number of colonias were established.  A hurricane of Buelah’s magnitude would easily destroy the same or more low-income houses as Hurricane Katrina.

Three years after Katrina the federal government still does not have a plan to address the housing needs of low income disaster victims.  With Dolly bearing down on Texas, a draft National Disaster Housing Strategy process was finally released for public comment by FEMA. The strategy calls for “a National Disaster Housing Task Force, which is jointly led by FEMA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National American Red Cross and includes experts from all levels of government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. The Task Force will focus full time attention on disaster housing, developing operational plans, building disaster housing capabilities, and achieving the vision and goals of the Strategy.”

It does not appear that FEMA recognizes that the disaster housing strategy for low-income families needs to be specially tailored to meet those special needs.  For this reason I believe that Texas should immediately move to produce a strategy of its own.  We have proposed a starting point for such a policy.

Let’s pray that when the damage for Dolly is calculated it will not prove to be a major disaster.  If that is the case we can count ourselves lucky.  We are not ready to deal with the consequences of a major disaster in a low income community.