Harvey Recovery Local issues State issues

Disaster Recovery in Houston is a tangled mess. This is what I learned that needs to change in my first six months.

Julia Orduña is Texas Housers’ Community Navigator in the greater Houston area. She is sharing her initial impressions of working in these communities, the people she has met, and the hurdles she has faced in her first months in this role

My path with Texas Housers begins with the opportunity to put my passion for people in the forefront and advocate one of Maslow’s basic physiological needs. In my first few months in Houston, I have had the pleasure of meeting many people fighting for change on all sides of the disaster recovery spectrum; residents, case managers, and advocates alike are coming to the aid of those still in need while the government trudges through bureaucratic requirements to try to make a dent in the devastation.

Every day, Texans face the inevitable circumstances that come with surviving a natural disaster: dealing with the immediate aftermath, finding a way to rebuild their home and piece together lives after a catastrophic event, and creating resilience against the next emergency. The unfortunate truth about disaster recovery in the United States is that it is a patchwork at best, and the system is not set up to help those who do not have the safety net needed to manage through these strenuous situations. Here is what I have learned over the past half year.

Disaster recovery is difficult to access

Let’s start at the beginning of a disaster. In order to effectively evacuate, residents must have proper channels of communication and speak the language to hear evacuation orders, a car that fits their entire household, and a full tank of gas. If they cannot find an open shelter, they can try to find a hotel, but this requires a credit card. Many low-income households with whom I have interacted do not have access to all five of these necessities.

After the president declares a national disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers survivors temporary housing assistance to pay for lodging in hotels, motels, vacant apartments, and stationary FEMA trailers. However, this assistance is scarce, arduous to get, often delayed, and eventually pushes people into homelessness. Even if survivors receive temporary assistance, 18 months from the date of the disaster, survivors are forced to pay rent or vacate the temporary lodging no matter the outstanding situation. Upon moving out, survivors are left with few options: return to their flooded and molding house, find a family member or friend who will take them and their entire household in, or cobbling together at nonprofit shelters, in cars, or on the street.

Wealth is prioritized over people

My time at Texas Housers has shown that low-income households are less likely to have expendable incomes for things like home insurance, which does not cover floods. Flood insurance is an additional expense. To top it off, insurance companies quantify payouts through the amount of property lost to the disaster. In other words, a low-income household will receive significantly lower claim payments due to a smaller, older house and appliances as compared to affluent households with houses and property of higher value.

FEMA’s program for survivors hardly fills the gap left by private insurance; only a small portion of the aid helps survivors who need help most. FEMA’s Individual Assistance program offers funds for partial home repairs to homeowners and personal property loss to all residents. However, it does not pay low-income households nearly enough assistance to recover. FEMA Verified Loss is calculated by the newly-trained contractors who note the visual damage to property. When the payout is determined based on the value of the property and not the severity of the damage, a house that is severely damaged with a low appraised value might not receive as much assistance as a moderately damaged home appraised at a high value. Thus, a devastated house that has been cleaned and emptied immediately by low-income homeowners to try to diminish greater property loss may not appear as bad as it truly is when the damage assessment is finally done.

All of these barriers and intricate practices disproportionately impact low-income residents, while those with wealth reap extra benefits, further widening the pre-disaster existing gap.

Stretching the dollars 

Survivors I have met are trying to make the money they have work to the fullest extent. Those with any type of savings usually exhaust those funds trying to make repairs themselves. And survivors who are fortunate enough to have the resources to pay an independent contractor may get price-gouged or have the contractor disappear with the cash before completing the work; both commonly occurred after Harvey. Those who do not have extra income for repairs must endure moldy or deteriorating conditions in houses they can’t afford to repair as local governments take from months to years to stand up repair programs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — the federal entity charged with facilitation of housing, infrastructure, and economic recovery through the administration of the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) — states in their 2018-2020 Strategic Plan that “the Department’s priority is to ‘fill the gap’ of housing recovery assistance.” They also published a presentation that states that the purpose of CDBG-DR funds is to “supplement and fill remaining gaps” and “cannot supplant other federal funds.” This is a clear indicator that disaster recovery funds were not meant to rebuild and cannot stretch to help everyone; they were only meant to partially assist in the rebuilding process post-disaster. Where does that leave the residents? How are states, municipalities, and communities going to support the survivors that are so disproportionately disadvantaged already?

The reality we’re seeing on the ground is different from the recovery process the government is painting. Too many residents are being left behind as disasters and their subsequent recovery exacerbate historical segregation practices and policies that perpetuate without a changing system. Continue to watch this space in 2020 and beyond as I trudge through the dysfunctionalities of the disaster recovery process, meet survivors fighting for a chance to save their home, and become a part of the cause working against the strong tide of inequality to mend the future.

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