How the state should evaluate the needs of survivors after a disaster

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

When the State of Texas prioritizes geographies, projects, and communities to benefit from federal disaster recovery dollars, it is answering a key question: Who is this recovery for?

The goal of Community Development Blog Grants-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) is to benefit low- and moderate-income people and to help communities rebuild equitably. The design of the program means that when executed well, funds go to communities and individuals that often have little or no recourse after a disaster and thus have a hard time rebuilding a stable life without the help of federal grants.

The state is responsible for carrying out the mission of CDBG-DR and its key tool for designing a process that will serve the most vulnerable survivors of disaster is with a needs assessment that captures the needs and experiences of the most vulnerable.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides a Disaster Impact and Unmet Needs Assessment Kit to help get the State of Texas there.

We wrote not long ago about the deficiencies of the GLO’s needs assessment for this initial $57.8 billion federal allocation. Chief among them is that survivors’ experiences on the ground after the storm and in the aftermath is not mentioned.

Here are some key points about what HUD suggests makes a sufficient needs assessment.

  • Collect and update pre-disaster baseline data, post-disaster impact and data on assistance provided. The keyword here is “update.” At the time this $57.8 million draft plan was written, the GLO used data updated Dec. 7, when 54 percent of valid registrations had been inspected. One month later, the inspection rate rose to 65 percent. The most current data is what decisions should be based on. Recovery is a moving target in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, so when talking about millions or billions of dollars, using anything other than the most current data is unacceptable. Additionally, we at Texas Housers advocate that even after an action plan is adopted, the state continue to conduct data analysis to ensure that they are directing their attention and plans in the appropriate way.
  • Analyze data collected in light of the impact of short-term recovery efforts. Data from FEMA-funded activities will be the minimum for this analysis. The GLO should also engage citizens to hear about the needs of the public that are not being captured in local officials’ communication to the GLO or in the official data sources. HUD also recommends that the state incorporate local and regional planning in their analysis, as well as comprehensive mapping that can help present need and current conditions to the public. This can help communities see how short-term programs have or have not served survivors and the amount of need that the state must still address with federal long-term rebuilding dollars.
  •  Estimate unmet need. The impacts of a disaster only tell you half of the story. There were likely many problems that made some communities and households more susceptible to disaster than others even before the hurricane hit. A needs assessment would not paint a thorough understanding of the needs on the ground without examining what makes communities vulnerable — whether it’s a history of insufficient infrastructure or a gap in affordable, decent housing. The goal of CDBG-DR funds is to ensure that things are better off for communities than they were when disaster hit, and often the places that are most vulnerable are the places that have been neglected, even before the disaster. It’s time to pay attention to them. This is essential to ensuring equitable recovery.
  • Prioritize needs. There will likely be many localities vying for funds to rebuild. Finite funds means that the State must prioritize. As the action plan moves forward, the State must ask whether the prioritization or selection of some projects exacerbate those pre-disaster conditions. For example, if pre-disaster, Houston experienced a shortfall in affordable housing for low-income people, building housing using CDBG-DR funds that is far more costly than what low-income people can afford means that this project may worsen conditions for the most vulnerable.

HUD describes the importance of assessing needs as follows:  “The ultimate goal is to enable the grantee to better design recovery programs that are responsive to the types and locations of actual needs on the ground.”

A good needs assessment first and foremost keeps in mind the goal of CDBG-DR funds — assisting those with the most need. When considering how communities have long been-overlooked for infrastructure investments and families’ need for affordable housing has been dependent on market conditions, the most in need are people and communities with few resources. Assessing unmet needs should start with families, not politicians looking to fund roads and bridges, or expansions of ports.

We see the unmet needs when we visit with families still trying to reassemble a normal life, almost six months after Hurricane Harvey. The State of Texas’ greatest responsibility is to them, and a plan rooted in their needs is the only option for an equitable recovery.

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