PolitiFact: Harvey’s homeless count uncertain (but it’s not 12 million)

A Texas official’s guest editorial, shared on his campaign website, made us wonder about the whopping impact of Hurricane Harvey.

Ryan Sitton, a Houston Republican on the Texas Railroad Commission, opened his article on the Drilling Contractor site: “Earlier this year, Hurricane Harvey left more than 12 million people in Texas and Louisiana without homes. The devastation of this storm was more far-reaching than anyone imagined.”

That many people left homeless? That breaks out to an improbable 38 percent of the states’ combined populations.

We sought Sitton’s elaboration; a state aide, Katie McKee, said that she’d typed the 12 million figure when she intended to write 1 million. McKee said that we’d brought the error to Sitton’s attention and a correction would be sought. Before we completed this fact-check, the version of his editorial on his campaign site had been amended to say 1 million; Drilling Contractor’s post still said 12 million.

McKee told us Sitton intended to say the hurricane left more than 1 million people without homes, per a Sept. 8 CNN news story stating that after Harvey swirled over Southeast Texas for several days, the “storm and subsequent flooding left more than 70 people dead and ravaged nearly 300 miles of the Texas coast and parts of Louisiana, flooding homes and displacing more than a million people.”

That story doesn’t say how CNN got to its million-plus figure. For our part, we fruitlessly hunted other news and official accounts estimating the number of Texas and Louisiana residents left homeless.

On Sept. 22, 2017, FEMA summed up Harvey’s punch: “More than 19 trillion gallons of rainwater fell on parts of Texas, causing widespread, catastrophic flooding. Nearly 80,000 homes had at least 18 inches of floodwater, 23,000 of those with more than 5 feet.”

That release further said: “Nearly 780,000 Texans evacuated their homes. In the days after the storm, more than 42,000 Texans were housed temporarily in 692 shelters. Local, state and federal first responders rescued 122,331 people and 5,234 pets.” Also, the release said: “The volume of applications for disaster assistance was one of the highest in FEMA history. To date, 792,000 households have applied for assistance.” (That figure was approaching 900,000 as of early December.)

So, per FEMA, nearly 780,000 Texas residents evacuated homes.

Might that mean that many people were left without homes?

A FEMA spokeswoman, Deanna Frazier, initially told us that the agency had “no data on those left homeless as a result of the hurricane.” Frazier otherwise said the 792,000 figure in FEMA’s release reflected the number of Texas households that had filed requests by late September 2017 to receive grants for rental assistance, home repair, personal property replacement or direct housing (manufactured housing units or travel trailers).

Meantime, we noticed a Texas General Land Office press release, issued in December, quoting the Texas land commissioner, George P. Bush, saying, “Hurricane Harvey affected nearly 50,000 square miles of Texas and damaged or destroyed more than a million homes.”

By email, Bush spokeswoman Brittany Eck attributed Bush’s “more than a million homes” to an earlier estimate of damaged or destroyed homes made by Gordon Wells, a research associate with the University of Texas Center for Space Research. Eck advised that when Harvey came ashore, Wells was “embedded with the GLO for hurricane response at the State Operations Center run by the Texas Department of Emergency Management.”

Wells told us he didn’t have an estimate of Texas residents left without homes by Harvey.

But Wells said he estimated the extent of Harvey-caused flooding initially by geo-locating homes for which 338,829 flood insurance claims had been filed by early October 2017.

Wells said that far more homes were hit, however, considering that some 80-plus percent of homeowners and renters lacked flood coverage. “If the figure of 339,829 affected structures represents the insured population of homeowners,” Wells wrote, “then the total number of impacted structures in the region would rise by a factor of five to nearly 1.7 million, including a large number with only minor water damage,” Wells said. “This is higher than my original estimate of 1 to 1.1 million affected structures estimated from the insurance data available in early September.”

Sharon Karr, a Louisiana-based FEMA spokeswoman, said the federal government issued a major disaster declaration in October for 20 of the state’s Harvey-affected parishes. We noticed that Louisiana’s request for the disaster declaration said 312 residences in the state were “impacted” by the hurricane, including 19 “destroyed” residences and 48 with “major damage.”

Our ruling:

Sitton wrote: “Earlier this year, Hurricane Harvey left more than 12 million people in Texas and Louisiana without homes.”

This figure, attributed to a typo, is improbably high. We also didn’t spot an authoritative alternate count, though it seems reasonable to say — based on requests for help through FEMA and a state expert’s review rooted in flood insurance claims — that more than a million Texas residents sustained home damage. It looks to us as if the hurricane left far fewer Louisianans without homes.

We rate Sitton’s published claim False.

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