As the victims of Hurricane Harvey dry out and begin to contemplate the unimaginably huge task ahead of them rebuilding communities devastated by a historic disaster, here is number to keep in mind:
In September 2008, following the one-two punch of Hurricanes Ike and Dolly, Congress allocated $3.1 billion in disaster recovery funds to assist Texans recover from the storms. Thanks to poor administration and a sluggish bureaucracy, $567 million of the money designated to rebuild from those storms remains to be spent nine years on, according to the Texas General Land Office, the agency administering the money.
“We should not be building homes eight and nine years after this disaster,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which has fought to have the relief money flow to hard-hit, low-income victims of the storms. “People deserve better than that.”
Disaster recovery experts say Houston-area officials have a lot going for them as they begin turning their attention from rescue operations to the process of cleaning up and rebuilding. Compared to some coastal communities devastated by powerful Gulf storms, Houston is an economically vibrant community. In Washington, federal officials have already begun pledging money to the recovery. Locally, Texans have a deserved reputation of taking care of their own; on Friday, Houston natives Michael and Susan Dell launched a $100 million rebuilding fund through their foundation.
But, the experts add, the area also has steep challenges ahead of it that will play out in years, not weeks or months. “It’s going to not be pretty and it’s not going to be easy,” said Susan Cutter, director the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, who has spent more than a decade studying the recovery of Louisiana and Mississippi communities flattened by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Some of the anticipated hurdles range from the mundane — where will the millions of cubic yards of debris go? — to the essential infrastructure repairs crucial to tend to an ailing and shell-shocked population. Hospitals, schools, roads must be put back into service as quickly as possible. Infuriating government red tape is a given.
Other anticipated rebuilding tasks will be especially challenging for southeast Texas. Academic studies show that economically disadvantaged victims can take up to four times longer to recover from disasters than those with money. The number of poor neighborhoods in Harris County have grown in recent years; in Port Arthur, more than one in four residents lives below the poverty line.
Houston also has one of the country’s largest populations of immigrants, some of whom experts fear might not qualify for government aid. More than four in ten of the city’s residents are renters, who have limited opportunities to benefit from federal recovery programs, which concentrate on aid for homeowners.
Texas also missed an opportunity to be better prepared for a major post-disaster rebuild. Following a string of devastating natural disasters, a bill introduced in 2015 and again this year would have allowed communities — including those in the Houston area — to prepare recovery plans in anticipation of the next hurricane or flood. Yet state lawmakers declined to pass it both times.
Those who have studied disasters say a successful recovery is not just returning people to their previous lives, but rebuilding in a better way by creating a community less vulnerable to the next powerful storm. For those orchestrating Harris County’s comeback — much of which sits on a floodplain — that presents a fundamental dilemma: residents understandably will want to re-create their previous lives as quickly as possible, but that may not be what is best for the area.
“If you don’t think about making things better,” said Robert Olshansky, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor who studies post-disaster recoveries, “you will be stuck with the same problems as you had before.”
Football stadiums of debris
Houston and surrounding communities may not recognize this equation: Q=HxCxVxBxS. But they will learn its meaning in the coming weeks.
Developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the formula estimates the volume of debris generated by storms. In essence, it says that the more people and businesses an area has, and the bigger and wetter the storm that hits it, the greater mess it makes — “especially when there is a flood,” said Mark Clark, who heads up the agency’s debris removal program. Harvey could be a record-breaker.
A post-Hurricane Ike report by Texas A&M University described “miles of debris piles” following a storm smaller than Harvey. In Mississippi alone, FEMA said it removed enough Hurricane Katrina debris to fill each of the state’s football 280 football fields, eight stories high. In all, the storm produced more than double that and cost billions to clear.
“Once the water goes away people just don’t come back,” Cutter said. “Somebody has to figure out who is going to pick up debris and where it’s going to go.” The southeast Texas coast, with its concentration of chemical industry facilities and hazardous wastes, will provide a particular challenge, she said.
Rebooting communities also requires foundational institutions to begin functioning quickly so people can start getting back on their feet. Roads, schools, hospitals are clear places to start.
Yet experts point out there are many less obvious services that must be restored before a community can move forward. Harris County has 102 nursing homes and 269 assisted care facilities, according to state records. While it’s too early to say how many beds have been lost to the storm, the elderly and sick — and their caretakers — who rely on them will need the services to stabilize their lives.
Open schools, too, are essential for students — but also for their parents who require childcare to return work. In Aransas County, where Rockport absorbed Harvey’s landfall, officials said schools will be closed indefinitely.
They are only part of the equation, though. Harris County alone has just over 3,000 licensed childcare facilities that watch about 181,000 children. Although it’s unknown how many were damaged, a preliminary survey by the Department of Family and Protective Services found all of Kindercare’s 37 facilities, with a capacity of 5,500 children, closed. About 60 other operations, serving about 3,700 kids, also remain shut.
Massive insurance gaps
Home repair and rebuilding will be the primary focus of most residents. Experts warn it will be slow and frustrating — and, for some, impossible.
Officials are directing victims to relief programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While FEMA provides crucial emergency aid for disaster victims — by Friday it had approved $66 million to help more than 100,00 victims — its focus is not long-term recovery.
For those lucky enough to have it, FEMA administers the federal National Flood Insurance Program. Generally, owners with home mortgages living inside what is known as a 100-year floodplain must buy policies.
Even then, payouts are capped. For some, “it’s nowhere near what’s necessary to recover the cost and reconstruct their homes,” said Cutter.
Many don’t carry the insurance, either because they don’t know about it, or don’t want to pay the approximately $550 annual premium. “Many mortgage lenders don’t force it,” said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institution, an industry research organization, which estimates that nationally only about 12 percent of homeowners in flood-prone areas are covered.
Early reports suggest plenty of southeast Texas residents won’t be eligible for reimbursements. An Associated Press report found the number of flood-insured households in Harris and Jefferson counties had dropped in recent years. Much of Harvey’s flooding also occurred in areas where the insurance was considered unnecessary — at least by anyone who hadn’t lived there since 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison, the last once-in-a-lifetime deluge, hit Houston.
That doesn’t even begin to account for renters, about 43 percent of Houston’s population. “Renters don’t have to be told they’re in a floodplain, so they may not even know” they should be insured, said Shannon Van Zandt, a Texas A&M University professor who studies long-term disaster recovery in Texas.
Academic studies of Hurricanes Ike and Andrew also showed multi-family units took longer to be rebuilt, said Michelle Meyer, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, another community recovery expert. In some cases, such as in Miami, owners took the opportunity to upgrade to condominiums; in others, such as in Galveston, they simply decided not to rebuild.
“In many disasters, rental housing is the last priority,” she said.
Low-interest loans from the federal Small Business Association are the next stop for rebuilders, said Olshansky. But that presumes shattered households can make re-payments. For those who can’t, Congress can authorize emergency block grants, typically distributed by local officials.
If Texas’s past experience is any indication, however, that road, too, could be littered with potholes.
A history of re-inventing rebuilding
In July 2008, Hurricane Dolly blasted South Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley. Two months later, as cleanup continued, Hurricane Ike, a massive storm packing 110 mph winds, made landfall in Galveston. Texas officials estimated it would cost $30 billion to rebuild. Congress, grappling with a recession, allocated $3.1 billion in grants.
For 2005’s Hurricane Rita, the rebuilding money had been managed by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, “which took a long, long, long time to set up a program to rebuild houses,” Henneberger recalled. Two years after the storm, the program had completed only 13 homes.
For Ike and Dolly, Gov. Rick Perry decided to shift responsibility to the Department of Rural Community Affairs, a tiny agency with little experience administering such a massive project. The federal money trickled through a tortuous path from the governor’s office, to the rural affairs agency, to regional agencies, and finally to local governments.
Once again, getting it to desperate homeowners was painfully slow. By June 2011, none of the 4,100 homes slated to be rebuilt by then had been completed. Texas was “the worst-performing state in the country on expenditure of funds and disaster money,” a HUD official told the Texas Tribune.
In addition to being unprepared to manage a multi-billion-dollar project, the rural affairs office turned to a controversial “weather report model” to determine which areas received funding. Critics said it shortchanged urban victims, where more distressed people needed the help.
“A half-billion dollars was shifted away from areas where tens of thousands of households had lost their homes, to areas where cows got wet in a pasture,” Henneberger said.
Advocates filed a complaint with HUD. The two sides settled in May 2010, with more money going to Ike’s urban victims. The following year, Perry moved administration of the program to the General Land Office. Five years after the hurricanes, only 40 percent of damaged homes had been replaced or fixed.
While the pace has since increased — the land office said about 20,000 homes and rental units damaged by Ike have been constructed or repaired — officials missed their goal of distributing all the money by 2015. Houston and Galveston still have pending Hurricane Ike projects. While the agency had hoped to spent down the rest of the Ike money by the end of 2018, that goal may need to be extended because of Harvey, said Heather Lagrone, disaster program manager for the land office.
To those who study it, Texas’s experience is common.
“I feel like there’s very little learning taking place,” said A&M’s Van Zandt. “I see the same issues coming up again and again. Every disaster and community is different. But it does feel like we’re not learning from our past mistakes.”
Texas had opportunities. Last year, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, introduced a new version of a bill he’d tried and failed to pass in 2015.
“For the past 12 years, the State of Texas has struggled after each disaster to react and develop the right program to undertake the necessary rebuilding of the homes of victims of such disasters,” it began. SB 1673 would have permitted local governments to pre-plan how to rebuild their communities in anticipation of the inevitable next natural disaster, rather than scrambling, again, to react in its chaotic aftermath.
But the measure died again. So with Hurricane Harvey, “we are back to Square One,” Henneberger said. “We are going to re-invent disaster rebuilding all over again.”