A Just Recovery for Texas
As we enter the 2018 holiday season, we should take the time to remember survivors and those lost from natural disasters that seem to occur with greater and greater regularity. In 2018, we marked both the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey and the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Ike, two of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history. And even more recently, we’ve witnessed other natural disasters wreak havoc in other parts of the U.S., from catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas due to Hurricane Florence to wildfires in California. Over a year after Hurricane Harvey, we know that many families have yet to recover — particularly low-income families whose homes were in historically neglected neighborhoods. This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Even 10 years after Hurricane Ike, public housing has yet to be rebuilt in Galveston and Houston. Too many Texans are still waiting for a just recovery.
But what does a just recovery mean for Texas? The harsh reality is that there are never enough federal disaster recovery resources to make all disaster victims whole. The even harsher reality is that the families that are the most devastated and have fewer resources to recover are often the least likely to get those federal resources. As former FEMA Director Craig Fugate admitted, “the system is really designed for the middle class.”
Because of the history of segregation and inequality in this country, the disaster recovery system also disproportionately leaves out people of color and other vulnerable communities. Segregation often forced communities of color into more geographically vulnerable areas, and made it easy for local governments to locate factories and other environmental hazards in those areas. The racial wealth gap, and inequality generally, leave out or underfund families and communities simply because their losses are worth less monetarily. A new study by the University of Pittsburgh and Rice University found that disaster damage and recovery in fact increase wealth inequality based on race, homeownership, and education level: In Harris County for example, the disaster-related increase in the Black-White wealth gap was $87,000, on average. The more FEMA aid an area received, the greater the wealth gap grew, suggesting that wealthier areas were more likely to receive both individual assistance for housing repair and public assistance to rebuild infrastructure.
This research shows that without a deliberate focus on equity and access, we could see federal funds for long-term recovery reinforce inequality rather than address it despite their intended purposes of providing relief for low- and moderate-income families and historically neglected communities. The law demands that recovery be administered in a way that does not discriminate. A just recovery demands that we prioritize the most vulnerable: families unfairly denied FEMA assistance who are now taking their children to the hospital on a regular basis because their unrepaired homes are filled with mold; people who live in areas that have been flooded three years in a row that can’t afford to move without additional help; and communities made vulnerable by substandard infrastructure and proximity to environmental hazards. Without a recovery that considers the most vulnerable and takes the need for mitigation and resilience seriously, Texas will continue a vicious cycle of disaster, while a flawed disaster recovery system pushes Texas families deeper into poverty and makes it less likely that they can recover from the next storms. Natural disasters are expected to worsen over time, but it is up to us whether natural disasters will be compounded by the man-made disaster of an inequitable recovery.