Hurricane Harvey: Looking Back and Moving Forward


Five years ago, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast. Five years later, too many Texans have not recovered; they are still living in storm-damaged houses, without infrastructure that protects them from flooding, and dealing with the trauma of multiple disasters that make every rainstorm a source of anxiety. Texas Appleseed has worked in disaster recovery for more than 15 years; it is increasingly painful to mark yet another storm anniversary knowing people will continue to suffer if all levels of government don’t make the necessary changes to fix our broken disaster recovery system and start planning for a future of increasingly destructive disasters. 

Texas Appleseed’s disaster recovery work began in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused both incredible damage and mass displacement, laying bare the deficiencies and inequities in America’s disaster recovery system in a way that could not be ignored. Working with community, nonprofit, legal, and governments, our disaster recovery work has included:

  • With the help of pro bono law firms and our partners across the Appleseed Network, producing a comprehensive study of the status of more than one million Katrina evacuees in six cities across the country, identifying the barriers and gaps in the system when disasters result in long-term displacement.
  • Successfully challenging barriers to short-term disaster assistance including FEMA’s failure to provide access to disaster survivors with hearing impairments and co-counseling a class action case that prevented FEMA from cutting off emergency housing assistance to more than 50,000 Katrina evacuees.
  • Obtaining policy and program changes in Texas’ long-term disaster recovery programs, including rewriting the application for the Hurricane Rita homeowner assistance program to make the program more accessible to lower-income homeowners.
  • Helping pass HB 2450 in 2009, which allowed families to qualify for home repair assistance with alternative documentation of ownership.
  • With partner Texas Housers, negotiating a landmark 2010 Conciliation Agreement that settled our administrative complaint to HUD which alleged violations of civil rights laws in Texas’ plan to distribute $3 billion in long-term federal disaster recovery funds for Hurricanes Ike and Dolly in 2008. The Agreement redirected $200 million to the hardest hit areas of the Gulf Coast, allocated an additional $150 million to directly meeting the needs of low- and moderate-income Texans, and ensured rebuilt single-family and rental housing would serve low- and moderate-income Texans in proportion to the level of damage they experienced.
  • Supporting our community partners in Houston, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Southeast Texas and Galveston to move $30 million in disaster recovery funding to repair single-family homes in Houston, designate $14 million for drainage projects in the colonias, move damaged and high-risk affordable housing to safer areas, and guarantee the one-for-one rebuilding of public housing in Galveston. 
  • Publishing Lessons from Texas: 10 Years of Disaster Recovery Examined in 2015, evaluating disaster recovery in Texas and the failings of the American disaster recovery system. Too many of the problems we identified have still not been addressed and too few of our recommendations have been implemented.

Our work is driven by the understanding that flaws in disaster recovery are systemic, and that the history of segregation and disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color makes these communities more vulnerable to disaster, prevents them from recovering, and leaves them less able to withstand subsequent disasters. Disaster recovery in America is broken, and ineffective, leaving all of us more vulnerable.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the same issues have emerged. FEMA overwhelmingly denied assistance to lower-income families and communities of color, and the State is again using allocation formulas that HUD has found violate civil rights requirements and pull funding away from the most devastated and vulnerable areas on the Gulf Coast. The State continues to prioritize suballocating critical disaster funding to as many jurisdictions as possible rather than  funding the most urgent and effective large-scale projects.

What’s different after Harvey is that communities and advocates have recognized that disaster recovery is an ongoing and systemic issue that implicates housing, jobs, environmental justice, and infrastructure. The Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME), for example, has brought together community organizers, environmental, labor, and housing groups to advocate for the most impacted families and communities.

Looking forward, we are working with a national coalition to develop a GIS analysis of disaster recovery spending across six study sites, and collaborating with academics and community partners to design a qualitative study with home buyout recipients in Harris County to inform how climate adaptation through buyouts can best meet the needs of families and communities.

As another record rainfall causes disaster-level flooding in the Dallas region, we can no longer pretend that disasters are discrete events; we are in an ongoing and constant state of disaster. The need to fix our broken disaster recovery system and plan for the future, instead of reacting storm by storm, has never been more urgent.

Project Association: 
Disaster Recovery & Fair Housing