Hurricane Harvey devastated a large portion of southeast Texas, leaving thousands homeless and a toxic stew of chemicals in communities across the region. Dramatic images of the immediate effects of the storm — from the emergency evacuation of a nursing home to the explosions at a chemical plant — were seen across the United States.
More than three months after Harvey made landfall, though, residents are still experiencing major impacts from the storm. Thirteen boil-water notices, for example, remain in effect for drinking water systems across Harvey’s affected areas, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported last Friday. It will likely take months, if not years, for officials to understand the scope of the damage and the health effects from the historic flooding.
Two-thirds of residents across 24 southeastern Texas counties report that they suffered property damage, employment disruptions, or lost income due to Hurricane Harvey, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation/Episcopal Health Foundation survey, released Tuesday. One in nine residents in the hardest-hit counties remains displaced from their homes three months after the storm.
The survey found that Hurricane Harvey disproportionately affected African-American and Hispanic residents, low-income residents, and people living in an area of Texas known as the “Golden Triangle” area — Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange, Texas — as well as residents in the coastal area that includes Rockport and Corpus Christi.
“The conventional wisdom that Texans hit by Hurricane Harvey have recovered is wrong,” Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a statement Tuesday. “The people in the hardest-hit areas are telling us that they still face major hurdles before their lives return to normal.”
Hurricane Harvey’s center of circulation stalled over south Texas on August 26 and then moved slowly east into the Gulf of Mexico before making a final landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, on August 30. The top rainfall totals from the storm were 60.58 inches in Nederland, Texas, and 60.54 inches in Groves, Texas — two towns located near Port Arthur — from August 24 to September 1, the two greatest single-storm rainfall totals on record in the United States.
In the survey, local, county, and state governments received high marks from residents for their response to Hurricane Harvey. Residents were more mixed in their views of how the U.S. Congress has responded to the storm, and responses “tilt negative” when it comes to President Donald Trump’s response, according an executive summary of the survey results. Four in 10 affected residents are not confident relief funds will benefit those most in need.
The Kaiser Family Foundation survey was conducted by telephone October 17 to November 20 among a random representative sample of 1,635 adults age 18 and older living in 24 counties along the Texas Gulf Coast. The counties were chosen based on a mapping analysis of Harvey property damage developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The margin of sampling error, including the design effect for the full sample, is plus or minus three percentage points.
During the storm, Port Arthur, home to the largest oil refinery in the United States, became a focal point after its mayor told the press, “Our whole city is under water.” Police also are investigating a Port Arthur nursing home where dozens of elderly people had to be rescued during Harvey as floodwaters rose.
Only a few days after Harvey hit the city, landlords started sending eviction notices to residents who were unable to return to their apartments to pay their September rent. In some cases, landlords removed all the belongings of their tenants within a week of the biggest flooding event in the city’s history. In Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, about 15,000 homes — nearly a fifth of the county’s total — received major damage.
Nearly half of the residents in southeast Texas surveyed said they or someone else in their household lost job-related income as a result of the storm. These income disruptions affected a greater share of Hispanic (65 percent) and African-American (46 percent) residents compared to white residents (31 percent), the survey said.
The flooding damaged or destroyed a significant amount of housing in Port Arthur, a city of 55,000 people, leaving thousands of city residents homeless. The government installed large, temporary tents for groups of residents to stay in while more permanent arrangements could be made.
After Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans and the surrounding region, many of them resettled in Texas, including in Port Arthur. The Louisiana residents may have been oil and gas company workers, so Port Arthur seemed like the perfect place to find a job in the same kind of industry and call home, Leslie Fields, director of environmental justice and community partnerships for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress.
But after Hurricane Harvey struck, many residents of Port Arthur relocated to other cities in Texas. City officials are hoping residents return to the city. They fear that if Port Arthur’s population, which dipped by a combined 5,000 after Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, drops below 50,000, it will lose certain eligibility for state and federal grants.
At least one Katrina survivor who moved to Port Arthur was forced again to leave her home when Harvey came ashore, Hilton Kelley, a community activist in Port Arthur, said in an interview. This time, the person is living in temporary housing in Dallas. As with New Orleans, Kelley fears many Port Arthur residents forced to flee the floodwaters may never return to the city. “They have nothing to come back to,” Kelley said.
One in six affected residents in southeast Texas say someone in their household has a health condition that is new or worse as a result of Harvey, and nearly two in 10 feel that their own mental health is worse because of the storm, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Survey. Health conditions of residents who waded into contaminated water could get worse in the months and years to come, according to Winifred Hamilton, director of the Environmental Health Service at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, residents developed coughs and headaches that experts believe were related to harmful conditions created by the storm, Hamilton said in October at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress.)
Two years after Katrina, mental health issues became more pronounced. Post-traumatic stress disorder “seemed to be higher than it was in the first six months” for residents of New Orleans, Hamilton said.
Hurricane Harvey also is taking a toll on people’s mental and physical health. Overall, 13 percent of residents say someone in their household has a new or worsening health condition due to the hurricane, rising to 17 percent among those who suffered property or income losses, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey.