Hurricane season begins in June, but thousands of people across the country still haven’t recovered from the record-breaking storms of the past two years.
While disaster recovery is inherently a long process, under the Trump administration those impacted say the process has become untenable. The issue has been exacerbated through a combination of staffing shortages at key agencies, a maze of bureaucratic red tape, and political fights over disaster relief aid. At the center of this brewing crisis are the vulnerable hurricane survivors who say they aren’t getting the help they need.
Many of those on the ground argue that all of this is made worse by an administration that fails to recognize or address the threat of climate change — even as scientists directly link global warming to more intense disasters. And while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted a “near normal” hurricane season in 2019, officials and experts have cautioned that even one storm could be enough to upend entire areas.
That scenario could be a nightmare for those who have lived through recent record-breaking storms. From Puerto Ricans living in darkness to Texans sitting on their roofs awaiting rescue, the imagery accompanying deadly hurricanes has only grown bleaker as storms have become more common and destructive. But as national attention fades with receding waters, impacted communities are left without a spotlight on their struggles.
No two disasters are the same, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told ThinkProgress, and recovery functions differently every time. The resources available to survivors, and how those survivors respond, range dramatically.
In parts of Texas, low-income communities and people of color are still struggling with housing access post-Hurricane Harvey. Meanwhile, residents fighting for their future across Puerto Rico are still reeling from Hurricane Maria nearly two years later as they grapple with a widespread sense of abandonment by the federal government.
In North Carolina, the saturated land left by Hurricanes Florence and Michael has put farmers in a precarious position, while the devastated Florida Panhandle is still waiting on desperately-needed aid to recover from Michael.
“I think in sort of a general sense, these four disasters have some very serious similarities and some very key differences,” said Mark Smith, advisory services manager with the disaster relief group SBP USA, whose organization has worked in all four locations.
But the prolonged recovery — and concern for what future storms may bring — is what unites survivors’ experiences, community members and disaster relief workers told ThinkProgress. Despite their differences, communities say the same thing: Recovery is years away and the system is not working.
The most vulnerable survivors are grappling with a housing crisis
While the Trump administration has touted the recovery effort following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, those working on the ground tell a different story — one of low-income communities and people of color still searching for stable housing.
As of this month, thousands of Texans are still seeking housing assistance. In April, the Houston City Council approved contract documents for a program that will reimburse homeowners for costs incurred from Harvey, a decision that has heartened advocates. But they say far more needs to be done to help those still struggling.
“The people that need it [aid] most aren’t getting it… recovery really hasn’t started happening for them yet,” said Zoe Middleton, who leads the Houston office for the nonprofit organization Texas Housers.
When Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm, it devastated the Texas coast, including Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country. More than 100 deaths are associated with Harvey and the storm left behind 13 million cubic feet of debris in what is now considered the worst rainstorm in U.S. history.
In the year and a half since the storm, billions of dollars in federal aid have gone to Texas and many aid organizations have devoted significant time to helping locals recover. Once buried by an onslaught of water, Houston is now recognizable again as a sprawling metropolis. But some say that’s only part of the story.
“Those who are a bit more stable and have some more resources were able to regroup,” said Thomas Tighe, CEO for the aid organization Direct Relief, which has assisted in disaster recovery in Texas since Harvey.
But Tighe, who visited Houston in May, added that many communities are still years away from a full recovery. Some 80% of all households impacted by Harvey lacked flood insurance, according to FEMA, with more vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted. Many Harvey victims say the government never told them they were living in areas designated as flood zones and did not realize they would need insurance.
“The status quo prior to the storms was very fragile for a lot of people,” Tighe said. “Now, it’s worse.”
As the months pass, that doesn’t seem to be changing. Data provided by the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission shows that majority-white cities impacted by Harvey received most of the disaster funding divvied up by both Texas and officials in the state’s southeastern region.
And in areas like Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, built in a flood zone where two thirds of the population is black and the median income is less than $25,000 a year, residents have said they feel completely abandoned. Some blame FEMA, which repeatedly denied aid because of a lack of flood insurance despite the area’s flood zone distinction, but they say the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has also been challenging to deal with.
HUD offers funds through its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is meant to go to low-income communities — but the money can take more than a year to reach those who need it most. Moreover, housing advocates say Congress doesn’t put enough money into the program, and that renters are also at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving the funds.
Those issues have come together to form the perfect storm for Texans stuck in recovery limbo. Natural disasters have been found to widen the wealth gap between white communities and communities of color, something Middleton worries has been the case since Harvey. Her organization, which works on low-income housing access issues, has focused on one of the biggest issues to emerge in the aftermath of Harvey: Many people are still without permanent homes.
Data collected in the time since Harvey has repeatedly found that low-income communities and people of color are not recovering at the same rate as their whiter, wealthier counterparts. A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation in August 2018 found that 33% of impacted white Texans said they were not getting the aid they needed — this increased to 40% for Latinx Texans and 60% for black Texans. Half of all low-income residents similarly reported that they were struggling to get by.
“The most impacted are those least able to recover — low-income folks, our black and brown populations,” Middleton said, recounting stories of families who have been forced to live since the hurricane in trailer parks, where they have lost faith that aid will eventually come through. “There’s so much stigma attached to them, they’re not able to recover.”
Texas Housers filed a discrimination complaint last year over concern that low-income black and Latinx Texans would be left out of coveted disaster recovery funds allocated by HUD. The move came as FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program in the state ended and almost 1,000 people were left without housing. Prior to the program’s end, Texas Housers had also expressed concern that 69% of low-income homes had been rejected for FEMA aid.
“The way we recover people is totally insufficient,” said Middleton, noting that bureaucracy and governmental red tape has weighed down the recovery process, thereby slowing down funds. Staffing is also an issue. HUD, like many federal agencies and departments, is suffering from a shortage of personnel under the Trump administration.
“Because of its leadership under this administration and how the department has been run… that hinders how effective it can be,” Middleton explained.
And even as recovery efforts slowly inch along, other hurdles loom. For one, Middleton said, the longer it takes to recover, the more likely disaster victims are to be in a weakened position if another storm comes, still living in trailers or with reduced access to resilient housing. That likelihood is weighing on the Texas coast, which is predicted to see increasing hurricanes in coming years as global temperatures rise.
“We know we’re going to have more of these climate disasters, as climate change intensifies,” Middleton said.
At least one Texas lawmaker has also complicated access to aid for the state. After months of sparring, Congress was finally set to pass a $19 billion disaster aid package at the end of May, including more than $4 billion in post-Harvey housing aid. But with many lawmakers home for Memorial Day recess, Republicans were able to stall the bill several times, with an initial assist by Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX). Now, Texans will have to wait for help — again.
Failed by the government, locals rely on each other as they rebuild
In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria’s legacy is one of abandonment by officials at virtually every level. Survivors say the Trump administration in particular has failed to help them. In the weeks following Maria, President Donald Trump argued that the storm was not a “real catastrophe like [Hurricane] Katrina,” which hit more than a decade ago. And that feeling of injustice has only been compounded by current political tensions over disaster aid.
With the federal government largely reduced to pariah status on the island, Puerto Ricans have turned to each other, rebuilding their homes, pushing for renewable energy, and seeking accountability. But the island’s slow recovery process, coupled with a long history of economic decline, has left the area even more vulnerable to a future storm, which Puerto Ricans say is inevitable.
In May 2017, Puerto Rico filed for a form of bankruptcy, with the island around $123 billion in debt following years of recession and economic unease. That crisis left the island in an extremely vulnerable position that would only get worse. Hurricane Maria hit the island on September 20, 2017, effectively obliterating Puerto Rico’s weak electrical grid and plunging the U.S. territory into darkness. The blackout would go on to be the longest in U.S. history.
Almost 3,000 people are officially believed to have died in Puerto Rico as a result of Maria. Census data shows that at least 130,000 people left the island after the hurricane and many have not returned, worried about job security and quality of life.
Anger on the island has been directed at every level, including at local officials — many residents say Puerto Rico’s government failed to act swiftly in requesting help after Maria, in addition to stalling when it came to distributing aid funds. But the Trump administration’s role in the crisis has repeatedly emerged as a main point of contention. A March 2018 investigation by Politico found that the government consistently favored Texas over Puerto Rico in relief efforts, an approach reflected through everything from the president’s Twitter feed to oversight of FEMA.
The disaster agency admitted through an internal 2018 report that understaffing and a lack of coordination left the agency unequipped to deal with the scale of Maria’s devastation; FEMA’s staff was around 5,000 people short when the hurricane hit. Puerto Ricans also say the agency failed to adequately account for language issues, with many aid workers unable to converse in Spanish and a large percentage of the island less than fluent in English.
Despite the acknowledgment of those failings, aid has been hard to come by for Puerto Rico. Trump has repeatedly declared, falsely, that the island has received $91 billion in recovery funds. But a May 2019 report from the Puerto Rico-based Center for a New Economy (CNE) found that the island has been allocated $42.30 billion through 17 different U.S. agencies. Of that, $20.37 billion has been obligated and only $12.62 billion has actually been distributed.
And earlier this month, the president ordered Republicans to vote against the $19 billion aid bill that would not just help the victims of hurricanes across the country but also areas impacted by wildfires, flooding, and other crises. That package contains some $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, which Trump has objected to. Despite finally signaling his willingness to sign the bill, however, the last-minute hold-ups in the House while many lawmakers were away on holiday means that aid will not be approved until June at the earliest.
Amid all this Beltway back-and-forth, survivors say their situation on the ground has remained largely stagnant since the storm.
“We saw a lot of self-help,” said Ruth Santiago, an attorney who lives and works on the island, referencing the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.
Despite “severe damages to thousands of homes,” Arturo Massol-Deyá, a biologist and executive director of the Puerto Rican nonprofit group Casa Pueblo, said government aid “arrived late in the mountainous area” where he lives. His home, the municipality of Adjuntas, didn’t see energy services restored for months, he said, while even more rural parts of the island waited a year.
Casa Pueblo advocates for renewable energy for Puerto Rico; after Maria, the small solar-powered organization took it upon itself to help nearby residents as they desperately sought electricity. As of May 2019, Casa Pueblo has worked on more than 150 community projects, touching on energy security, entertainment, food access, education, and more. Massol-Deyá says the area is “not the same,” but his organization will continue to provide aid and assistance as Puerto Rico rebuilds and reevaluates its future.
But as residents tirelessly continue to drive recovery efforts, many are quick to point out that Puerto Rico struggled long before Maria. “The hurricane just blew off the mask of colonialism and now we can see all the problems,” said Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, co-founder of the multimedia project Defend Puerto Rico, which works to deepen ties between the island and the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Jacobs-Fantauzzi was based in New York when Maria hit, but he returned to the island to document the hurricane’s impact, ultimately deciding to stay and help recovery efforts. “FEMA was nowhere to be found” after the hurricane hit, he said, and “no government [representative] was present.”
Well over a year after Maria, Jacobs-Fantauzzi said residents have banded together to rebuild homes, but trust in officials is minimal at every level. “I know people are still living with black mold,” he said. “I know people are still dying.”
The prospect of another hurricane is also daunting. Puerto Rico endured the 2018 hurricane season without a severe storm, but few islanders feel that reality is tenable long-term. “The question about recovery would be, what is different now if Hurricane Maria were to pass through Puerto Rico today, how different would our reality be to 2017?” asked Massol-Deyá. “Possibly very similar, because they have not made systemic changes.”
And the longer the status quo is maintained, Puerto Ricans say, the more likely the island is to suffer. A lack of faith in leadership is having a chilling effect, Santiago, the attorney, said, pointing to Census data. “I think the numbers speak to that,” she said. “The reason why so many people have left is that they feel there won’t be investment in recovery.”
Farmers fear for their present — along with their future
Hurricane Florence is largely synonymous with rain — lots of it. The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, but reduced wind force meant little to residents after accounting for water. A maximum of nearly 36 inches of rain fell over one North Carolina town, drenching the state, overflowing hog lagoons, and drowning crops.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), North Carolina is among the country’s top 10 highest producing agriculture states. And Florence made landfall as many workers began to harvest crops. Farmers lost billions of dollars in damages, with crops like sweet potatoes largely destroyed. As they move now into another growing season, optimism is in short supply.
“A lot of areas still haven’t dried out pretty much since the hurricane,” explained Scott Marlow, a senior policy specialist with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI), which is based in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
RAFI has worked in the wake of Florence to help farmers, educating them about disaster recovery and connecting them with resources as they seek aid. Marlow has assisted the state’s farmers with recovering from 18 different hurricanes. And like many of those involved in post-disaster relief in North Carolina, Marlow has watched as farmers have faced grief and devastation following major storms.
“Their lives are falling apart,” he said grimly, noting that “the experience of disasters is really personal.”
Last December, the state approved $240 million for agriculture disaster relief, but even at the time state lawmakers expressed concerns that more would be needed to truly address the scope of the crisis. Farmers and fishermen are estimated to have lost more than $8 billion following the storms. Organizations like the North Carolina Farm Bureau have created fundraisers to support those impacted, but even so, experts say it will take years to recover from the damage.
Rick Larson, the North Carolina-based senior vice president for the Natural Capital Investment Fund, has worked extensively with farmers seeking loans in the wake of Florence. Funding from USDA and FEMA has helped many farmers suffering damage to crops, livestock, and facilities, but Larson said his organization has served as a backstop for the smaller group of farmers who have fallen through the cracks.
Even as he has seen some recover, however, an ominous sense of foreboding has lingered. “What farmers refer to as a ‘bad year,’ that’s the new normal,” Larson said. “My opinion is, and I’m not a climate scientist, but we’ve seen the last of the years where the weather is predictable.”
Climate scientists have shown that warming ocean waters spur larger hurricanes that stall over land, dumping buckets of water on the ground — something that occurred with both Harvey and Florence. And current predictions indicate that as climate impacts worsen, such storms will become more common for areas like eastern North Carolina.
Farming season, meanwhile, is precarious and at the mercy of the weather, with any major event capable of setting back an operation years. Marlow, of RAFI, feels that a lack of diversity in crops has bettered efficiency in agriculture, but it has hurt resilience. As disasters worsen and become more common, he said, small and mid-size farms are increasingly unable to recover. Those farms are more vulnerable to market changes in addition to taking a longer time to bounce back from a disaster before another arrives.
“How we choose to continue disaster recovery is going to have an enormous impact for the future of agriculture,” he said.
Options to help those struggling are limited, especially with aid money repeatedly stalled in Congress. But Larson seconded Marlow in offering that farmers diversifying their crops might stand a better chance. He also underscored that for those in North Carolina’s agriculture sector, ignoring climate change is not an option.
“We’re very concerned about climate change and the effect it has on places like eastern North Carolina,” he said. “We won’t fund commodity farmers anymore unless they’re actively moving towards a more diversified kind of production.”
That approach is becoming more and more common as farmers work to become resilient in the face of climate impacts. Other tactics include changing harvest dates to account for both weather and warming temperatures. But even with those adaptations underway, it may already be too late for many farmers in North Carolina, who may never recover from last year’s storms.
Caught between stalled government aid and post-disaster apathy
Those who have seen the damage wrought on the Florida Panhandle by Hurricane Michael describe it as nothing short of a catastrophe.
“It’s hard to process even for someone who does this work all year round,” said Smith of SBP USA.
But after an onslaught of disasters nationwide, aid workers have encountered a fatigue — public interest has dropped and with it so has fundraising. And with money from the government also tied up due largely to political fights over disaster aid, survivors say they feel abandoned.
Hurricanes are rare in the Panhandle; Michael was the first hurricane of its strength to strike the area in recorded history. It also struck in the rural South, a region often overlooked nationally, and did so with incredible swiftness. Michael hit the Panhandle with tornado-force winds roughly 73 hours after it first became a tropical storm.
Relief workers have described the resulting damage as similar in scale to what occurred in Puerto Rico after Maria, especially in areas like Mexico Beach where Hurricane Michael made landfall; the town has been virtually wiped off the map. Nearby Panama City is also far from recovery, but residents across the region have been largely reliant on help from aid groups as the government’s response has stalled.
Michael was upgraded from a Category 4 storm to a Category 5 in April, a distinction that residents hoped might bring the region more aid. Officials in the Panhandle, including Republicans, have begged Washington lawmakers for help. During a rally earlier this month, Trump pledged $448 million for the area, but it’s unclear how or when that money might actually become available without the president’s signature on a disaster bill.
“Federal dollars take a long time to get to communities. [It] can take any time between 18 and 24 months. That’s what we expect. We work to accelerate that role,” said Smith. “[And] that is a huge problem.”
But the relief organizations that typically fill the void as the government works toward action are running into problems. Aid workers say that along with North Carolina, Florida has not benefited from the influx of aid that followed disasters in Texas and Puerto Rico.
It's been 225 days since #HurricaneMichael devastated the Panhandle.
Americans remain living in tents, schools are closing, and millions of tons of debris are causing extreme wildfire risk.
Hurricane season starts in 8 days. Stop the political games and get to work.
— Commissioner Nikki Fried (@NikkiFriedFL) May 23, 2019
Smith said that in the aftermath of Harvey and Maria, donations and national support flowed quickly to impacted areas. Such trends are critical — bureaucracy tends to weigh down government relief efforts, leaving aid organizations to serve as first responders following FEMA’s immediate efforts. But Florence bucked that relief trend, followed by Michael. “We haven’t seen that influx,” Smith said.
Why those storms received less attention is unclear. Smith speculated that it could be due to disaster fatigue, with so many crises so close together, including deadly wildfires in California.
That, Smith said, puts organizations like his “in a difficult position,” because “repairing homes is not cheap.”
Some 4 million cubic feet of debris covered Panama City after Michael, leaving the city with a bill of around $150 million, almost twice its annual operating budget. And while the federal government has said it will cover 90% of recovery costs for the storm, the area is still lacking in badly-needed donations. Contributions in the wake of Harvey totaled well over $500 million, a contrast to the estimated $35 million raised following Michael. Aid industry executives say the time period immediately following a disaster is critical for fundraising; once that time elapses, donations slow to a trickle.
With that window long since closed, groups working in the Panhandle say they are trying to make do with what they have, but they are struggling to meet the scale of the disaster.
“At a high level, when’s the last time that a town has been completely wiped off the map?” asked Tighe, of Direct Relief.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had to build a city in such a short amount of time,” he said, listing the various challenges relief organizations face, from the permitting and reimbursement process to insurance claims.
But while aid groups work, people are leaving. The city manager, Mark McQueen, recently said that post-hurricane, 14,278 people have filed for a change of address, according to post office records. A quarter of elementary school children are believed to have left the area, with more people likely to relocate if the situation does not improve.
Michael is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten storm,” a moniker that has only grown more imbued with meaning as the months have dragged on. For its part, FEMA argues that the agency has done its best to meet the demands posed by Michael in Florida. As of April, FEMA was still sending tens of millions of dollars to northwest Florida for recovery efforts.
But local officials argue the agency’s bureaucracy has created unnecessary hurdles, while Floridians pay the price. They also say many requests for aid have been denied, including in Bay County, home to Panama City, which has seen more than 30,000 claims turned down.
Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wrote in a May op-ed that FEMA’s “inexplicably and unacceptably slow response” has left thousands of Michael survivors without housing and at risk of long-term homelessness. Dozens of residents are also still living in tents following the hurricane.
That enduring reality has left survivors in a precarious position. Relief workers expressed concern about the mental health problems associated with stalled disaster recovery, something several said is happening in Florida. Young children in particular have reported nightmares and PTSD-like symptoms in response to the hurricane’s impacts.
And while people like Smith argue that bouncing back from a disaster hinges on morale, worry is growing as the process drags on post-Michael. “Not seeing recovery really puts a lot of stress on people,” he said. “Their fortitude, their resilience, their hope really starts to run out.”
An uncertain future
Hurricane recovery has long been an intensive and drawn-out process. Multiple organizations, relief workers, and others involved in hurricane relief emphasized to ThinkProgress that such efforts often take years, even decades, a timeline confirmed by FEMA. In New Orleans, for example, relief work is still underway following Hurricane Katrina, which hit in 2005.
But the halting nature of recovery offers a cautionary tale as hurricanes become a more prevalent threat to coastal regions — especially as the process has grown even slower and more fraught under the Trump administration. With long-term prospects reliant on an unpredictable White House and Congress as much as on aid organizations, impacted communities are likely to find themselves competing for limited resources in the aftermath of disasters. And as global temperatures rise, storms are only set to worsen and become more frequent — heightening the need for an effective approach to recovery.
“The system has become unwieldy and unresponsive to the needs of the people,” said Tighe.
Still, those that have been involved in recovery efforts say the story isn’t solely a negative one. As time passes, many people are able to rebuild their lives and return to some sense of normalcy. And people like Smith and Tighe spoke of “building back better,” an approach to recovery echoed by Marlow and Larson, for instance, who are encouraging farmers to diversify their crops and plan with future storms in mind.
“Each time, we’re learning a little bit more,” said Middleton of disaster recovery. “But it’s still unacceptable.”