Op-ed: The ‘second disaster’ facing the victims of Harvey and Irma

To avoid repeating mistakes made after Hurricane Katrina, equity needs to guide post-hurricane rebuilding.

Melisa Vasquez cries in a stroller as her father Ervin Vasquez digs out from the destruction left when floodwaters from Harvey swept through their mobile home in Crosby, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Melisa Vasquez cries in a stroller as her father Ervin Vasquez digs out from the destruction left when floodwaters from Harvey swept through their mobile home in Crosby, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

In the course of a few weeks, the United States was hit by two “storms of the century.” Images of residents coping with the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma conjured up memories of Hurricane Katrina’s hellish aftermath 12 years ago — parents wading through floodwaters holding children, families seeking shelter in the main convention center, and government officials acting with uncertainty about what the future holds.

Storms of this scale do not discriminate, it is often said, but Katrina taught the nation that natural disasters exacerbate the underlying inequalities communities experience year-round. Such disparities will only worsen as climate change makes disasters of this scale part of the new normal. With local leaders beginning to rebuild their communities in Florida and Texas, it’s imperative that they heed the lessons from New Orleans’ recovery and prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable residents.

Harvey and Irma will undoubtedly take a toll on people of all backgrounds, but low-income, communities of color are particularly vulnerable given their likelihood of living in areas with poor housing and infrastructure, proximity to environmental hazards, and overall economic insecurity, putting their health and livelihoods in peril.

But once the images fade from the news and the conversation around these disasters tapers off, communities risk what some call the “second disaster” — a recovery and rebuilding process that leaves behind those most in need. Following a disaster, local leaders can either use the opportunity to push towards racial inclusion and equitable growth, or deepen systemic inequities that have plagued their city for generations.

Katrina taught the nation that natural disasters exacerbate underlying inequalities.

Today, New Orleans’ population has rebounded, but the recovery has been uneven. The city still has 100,000 fewer black residents than before Katrina, and black residents are less likely to be working than when the storm hit in 2005 and are more likely to be living in poverty. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the city’s poorest and hardest hit community, less than 40 percent of households have returned. This is not surprising considering the State of Louisiana allocated federal aid based on housing values rather than the cost of repairs — leaving the average Lower Ninth Ward resident with a $75,000 gap between damage estimates and assistance awarded.

Despite efforts from philanthropic interests, public sector leaders, advocates (including my own organization) and residents to ensure New Orleans could support as many people as possible after the storm, the recovery process undermined these ambitions.

A number of factors are to blame. The Katrina recovery process largely disregarded input from communities of color; housing assistance favored homeowners over renters; leaders prioritized building the tourism industry and attracting “gentrifying entrepreneurs;” and the city directed the majority of recovery dollars to large-scale, out-of-state contractors, rather than aligning rebuilding efforts with strategies to grow jobs.

New Orleans has prioritized equity in recent years, but the city missed a critical opportunity by not supporting inclusive prosperity immediately following the storm’s devastation, undermining the economic security of residents in the process. The communities hit hardest by Harvey and Irma must take another path and have equity guide recovery from day one.

While Florida managed to escape the worst-case scenario many feared, the flooding in Houston was unlike anything the city had ever seen. So far, estimates suggest that Harvey may have caused as much as $290 billion in damage. What’s more, only a small percentage of households have flood insurance policies, making it likely many homes will not be replaced immediately. Not only is the devastation great, the storm is testing one of the country’s most unique sociopolitical contexts.

As Professor Stephen Kleinberg, an expert on Houston’s demographics, explains, “No city has been transformed as fully, as completely, as suddenly, as irreversibly, as Houston, Texas.” Over the past few decades, Houston has become a corporate hub, one of the strongest economies in the U.S., and the most ethnically diverse region in the country. Given Houston’s economic might, having a young, multilingual, multicultural workforce sets the city up to be a major player on the world stage.

However, a disproportionate number of young people of color are living in poverty, and are relegated to highly segregated, polluted communities with under-resourced schools and few opportunities. Harvey’s destruction has given those residents yet another obstacle to overcome and, looking ahead, their consideration in Houston’s recovery efforts will be a key test for its leaders. It is quite clear that what happens to people of color in Houston will shape the future of the city.

Prior to the storm, Houston already faced a severe shortage of affordable housing that will only intensify now. As federal funding is directed to Harvey recovery efforts, local leaders must ensure fair distribution of housing funds by targeting renters and allocating funding to homeowners based on cost of repairs rather than on the value of homes, to avoid penalizing low-income people who tend to have properties appraised at lower values. In addition, it’s critical that public housing is replaced quickly, and that new developments are mixed income.

The city should also direct development contracts to local workers and firms of color as rebuilding efforts spur job growth, career pathways, and a surge of economic activity that should be widely shared. And in light of the numerous environmental issues exacerbated by the floods, it’s imperative that recovery efforts include  targeted environmental mediation in areas with greatest toxic exposure, particularly in East Houston where communities exist in the shadows of refineries.

As we watch residents grapple with the impacts of  Harvey and Irma, it is hard to ignore the glaring racial disparities plastered across the news. But when the waters recede, and the rebuilding begins, we often accept the underlying disaster of inequality as the norm. Just as the nation was outraged at the failed response to Katrina, we must remain outraged that low-income communities and communities of color continue to face the same neglect in the aftermath of such disasters and demand more from our public officials. Cities must build back smarter and stronger.

Tracey Ross is the associate director of the All-In Cities Initiative at PolicyLink. The All-In Cities initiative equips city officials, community advocates, and civic leaders with policy ideas, data, and strategy support to build equitable, thriving cities for all.