Why many Texans couldn’t leave during the hurricane

How poverty is affecting people's decisions to leave their homes.

Sam Speights tries to hold back tears while holding his dogs and surveying the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. CREDIT: AP/Eric Gay
Sam Speights tries to hold back tears while holding his dogs and surveying the damage to his home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. CREDIT: AP/Eric Gay

Hurricane Harvey has devastated many areas of Texas. It hit Corpus Christi, Texas on Friday before moving on to Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Over the weekend, many wondered why some Texans didn’t leave before the hurricane hit, choosing instead to remain in their homes, despite the damaging winds and floodwaters. The answer to that question is complicated, but one obvious reason that’s often overlooked is the impoverished state in which many of those people live.

The BBC recently interviewed residents in Rockport, Texas about why they decided to stay. One man said he wanted to be with his property and did not have insurance. One woman, Judie, said she stayed because she had nowhere to go and didn’t have the money to leave.

“I had some problems getting out of town, a little broke and stuff, so I had to come home and, you know, tough it out. We’re all the working class people,” Judie told the BBC.

The poor face major challenges leaving their homes during extreme weather events. It’s a lesson the country should have learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. In 2008, when Hurricane Gustav was about to bear down on New Orleans, residents told CNN they couldn’t afford to leave. One of the people interviewed, Sidney William, said he couldn’t afford to leave when Katrina hit and he couldn’t afford to leave before Gustav. He was rejected for disability subsidies and relied on his daughter for financial support.

“I wish I had the money to go,” William told CNN.

A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that African American residents in particular gave a number of reasons for not evacuating during Hurricane Katrina: people who had experiencing riding out previous hurricanes were optimistic that they would make it. Participants in the study were also confused about what they should do during the hurricane because of “confusing recommendations from different authorities” and “inappropriate timing of mandatory evacuation orders.” Some stayed to take care of elderly and disabled family members and others said they did not trust the police to protect their property.

But one of the major reasons people gave for staying in the area was money: Although many of the participants had cars, they did not have cash to evacuate, since they would have had to evacuate before their next paycheck.

“The hurricane came at the wrong time,” some said. “We were waiting for our pay-day.” Other participants noted that they had “no money for gas” or that “money was hard to come by at the time.”

Cathleen Kelly, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, said that these themes—impoverished people staying in their homes during hurricanes and other natural disasters—have emerged repeatedly over the years.

“People of color and people in low-income areas that are most prone to flooding, are often the least equipped to prepare for the storm to get to higher ground or withstand those impacts,” Kelly said. “This is part of the legacy of historic inequities and discriminatory housing and other policies that have pushed low-income people and communities of color to low-lying areas that are highly vulnerable to flooding and are sources of pollution and landfills that make conditions particularly hazardous.”

It doesn’t always occur to emergency responders that these communities lack the resources to move during a weather event either, Kelly said.

“We saw this during Hurricane Sandy. Emergency responders were really surprised that very few people from low-income communities showed up to shelters and later people realized that they were not able to reach those shelters because they did not have access to public transportation,” she said. “It was closed in most cases and damaged and in other cases. And some families did not have a car.”

Many low-income people are also unable to afford a hotel room and don’t know anyone who can help them find a place to stay. In some cases, people stay to protect their property, especially their houses.

“I think in some cases, people they want to protect what they have and if they do own a home, it may be their only asset. It could be something they inherited from family, and they want to protect that,” Kelly said.

The Trump administration’s actions could make it more difficult for vulnerable populations to make it through these weather events in the future. Proposed budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and programs that would mitigate some of these environmental inequities have complicated the matter. In the Trump budget, for instance, the EPA program that cleans up toxic chemical spill sites, Superfund, would be cut by 25 percent.

The budget also proposes killing the EPA’s environmental justice program, which helps low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color access clean air and clean water. Obama-era flood standards that were meant to ensure infrastructure—such as roads and bridges—would be protected were rescinded weeks before Harvey hit. The standards, which Trump said would slow down the permitting process, had not gone into effect yet.

Low-income Texans who live in the most severely affected areas of the state will likely suffer the worst consequences following Hurricane Harvey, which was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Lon estimated 450,000 people had already been directly affected and that the hurricane would leave 30,000 people homeless. A research team for The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet, examined natural disaster trends and found that poverty rates increased by one percentage point in areas hit by very severe disasters. The team’s research also suggested that “the rich may have the resources to move away from areas facing natural disasters, leaving behind a population that is disproportionately poor.”

“Water pollution risks in low-income areas and limited availability of affordable and safe housing — these are problems that already exist and in the wake of a storm, they are exacerbated,” Kelly said. “And then we see people who are already struggling to make ends meet coping with economic devastation of losing their home or their income during the storm. Communities of color and low-income communities are on the front lines of extreme weather.”