Photo: Flickr user Tim Pruitt.

Much of the attention around the storm’s anniversary will focus on megaprojects, but, efforts to create equitable human recovery, especially for the most vulnerable, cannot be lost in the shuffle.

Last year, Alejandro Martinez* wanted to leave his trailer as the floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rose around his home in North Houston. Martinez is disabled and has limited mobility, so he called for help. “I called 911, no answer. I called 211, they said that I needed to be registered in STEAR [the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry],so they couldn’t help. 311 said only if it was urgent. I needed to leave.” But Martinez was unable to get out. He used What’s App to communicate with friends and fellow members of the Living Hope Wheelchair Association (LHWA), a group that advocates for Houstonians with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. Many of the group’s members are immigrants whose first language is not English. As the flood waters receded, volunteers from LHWA arrived with food—the group delivered supplies and needed medical equipment to members and non-members alike across the region—and brought with them what Martinez recalled as an accompanying “sense of relief.” 

Hurricane Harvey laid bare many vulnerabilities and inequities—both individual and structural—at play in the greater Houston region. The region is still grappling with how to address most of those inequities as we near the one-year anniversary of the storm. Martinez, and other members of LHWA, represent a slice of a larger population for whom a storm like Harvey can be debilitating. Martinez’s experience was similar to countless others that played out during the storm. Each reflected the strain a shock as large as Harvey can place on existing social service and emergency preparedness systems. For communities and individuals forced to live on the margins of society, such shocks are felt hardest of all. 

Much of the attention around the storm’s anniversary will focus on megaprojects, the county’s important bond proposal, and the billions of dollars in federal funding that will reshape our region. But, efforts to create meaningful and equitable human recovery, especially for the most vulnerable, cannot be lost in the shuffle. 

People with disabilities and other specific functional needs are among the most vulnerable residents during a storm event and in recovery. The challenges of navigating recovery are compounded for disabled people of color, those with low-incomes, or with undocumented status. Questions remain about whether the city, region and state have done enough to help these residents ahead of the next storm. Ensuring that people with disabilities are accounted for and supported during a crisis like Harvey is a major undertaking, but is an effort that can benefit the entire region. 

Undertaking such an approach requires immense coordination. Serving populations with specific care needs means having both a bird’s eye view of the situation and addressing the details of individual cases. Federal and state agencies will need to work with local officials, non-profits, service providers and residents to identify and address needs. Coordination will be required to install and test systems as they are created. Further, it is clear that multiple storms in a short period of time taxed the region’s limited resources. To prepare for future storms we need systems that are operating before crises and that remain flexible during them. Plans for resource sharing, data agreements that can help identify issue areas and unmet needs and new approaches to funding resilience and recovery can all help us create a more effective system. These arrangements should be pursued now. Not amidst the next crisis.

Multiple needs, multiple responses

"Harvey was a meteorological event, but [Harvey] was as much a policy-related disaster as a physical one," said Pancho Argüelles, the executive director of LHWA.

Working to reduce the impact that future disasters have on people with disabilities means an effort to address a wide range of issues and needs. Problems arise, Argüelles pointed out, both from the limitations of existing policies and from the gaps which emerge from a lack of policy in other areas.  

For people with disabilities, storms like Harvey mean confronting difficult evacuations, stays in shelters that are unlikely to be able to accommodate particular needs, and a long road to recovery. 

Start with evacuation. There remains a basic need for authorities to have a complete picture of the needs of people with disabilities. Harvey made it clear that the state’s STEAR list, the registry meant to identify people with disabilities and coordinate evacuation, was far from perfect. “The position of the state is that there is no guarantee that people will be called if they register for STEAR,” said Richard Petty, a member of the City of Houston’s Commission on Disabilities and Director of the National Center for Aging and Disability at the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in the Texas Medical Center. “They [the state and local authorities] certainly lived up to that guarantee during Harvey,” he said. “Given the issues with the list during Harvey, I'm doubtful people will register in the coming months and even years." 

The list, according to Marcie Roth, CEO of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies and a former FEMA official, represents a “check-the-box” perspective. "From a preparedness perspective we do an abysmal job of giving people tools and resources they can actually use," said Roth. Having a registry is different from being able to adequately respond to the needs of those on it. “First responders didn’t stop at a computer to say ‘who’s on this list’ and if I register all you have is my address. That doesn’t mean I’m there," said Roth. 

Simply signing up for evacuation and recovery assistance is made all the more complicated by immigration status and other barriers such as language or verbal communication challenges, explained Argüelles. “Lots of people didn’t even try to access the recovery system, because for years the government has been saying we don’t want you here,” he said. “And those who did often experienced rejection.” According to Argüelles, doubts about assistance and fears about immigration drive many undocumented or non-English speaking people to stay in damaged and unsafe homes rather than to seek help. And this issue persists. 

To improve this system, Roth and Maria Town, the director of Houston’s Office for People with Disabilities, point out that there are several existing systems that may work as better proxies for locating people with disabilities during a crises. Roth highlighted “naturally existing registries…every person who uses paratransit is registered, for example. Not only does paratransit have the same info [as STEAR] but also the last place they dropped you off. Home health agencies, oxygen delivery agencies. These groups interact with people on a daily basis and giving them the resources to contribute to preparedness is a smart investment.” Supporting those organizations with funding and technical help could allow for them to be scaled up and maintained. Using such existing lists, Town argued, puts the responsibility to keep records up-to-date on agencies and service providers and removes a logistical hurdle from individuals.

After evacuation, the myriad needs of people with disabilities present a major challenge to first responders, emergency shelters and long-term recovery efforts. Identifying those needs ahead of the next storm and planning to address them can help streamline response and reduce the challenges confronted by these residents. 

Most of the issues residents with disabilities confronted during Harvey recovery boiled down to ensuring that resources and support they needed to shelter in comfort were available. For many this meant access to specialized support staff. During Harvey there were no official plans in place to provide either American Sign Language interpreters to victims or to ensure that personal attendant care was available for residents who needed help. While cadres of volunteers with expertise in both realms aided selflessly during recover, those resources were strained and not evenly available. Building contracts and funding to ensure networks of such specialized professionals are available would alleviate the need for massive volunteer efforts and provide better service to residents. 

During Harvey both official and unofficial shelters opened. Official shelters usually meet more accessibility requirements and are more likely to be able to accommodate a wider range of needs. Churches and community spaces that are made into shelters, on the other hand, are often far less prepared for the gamut of needs or equipment people with disabilities may need. Such limitations strain support systems, volunteers, and affected individuals alike. And even official shelters experienced major issues during the storm. Accessible showers were slow to come, people with sensory sensitivities found it difficult to locate quiet spaces. Again, such challenges are even more difficult to address in ad hoc shelters with limited resources. 

The issues so apparent during evacuation and sheltering stages continued into the longer-term recovery and rebuilding. 

Effective planning and preparation requires appropriate information and data. Even something as simple as identifying how many people with disabilities were affected by Harvey proved to be a challenge due to lack of data immediately after the storm. The FEMA application for individual assistance, for example, does not include a space to easily describe disabilities or other functional needs. Service providers and case management professionals, therefore, had to work harder to flag needs, which often created delays on getting essential equipment to residents. For storm victims without professional case management, specific needs often went completely unaddressed. Improving our data collection systems to ensure we have accurate information about who is impacted is essential to creating an effective response during the next crisis.

Likewise, seemingly innocuous choices made in our neighborhoods about how to rebuild from damage or mitigate risk can also drastically impact people with accessibility needs. Elevating homes, for example, can make it hard for people in wheelchairs to maintain social ties with neighbors whose homes they can no longer access. This does not mean that we should not elevate homes, rather it suggests that we have to deeply consider the outcomes of all our decisions and work to mitigate their sometimes unexpected outcomes. 

Participation as key

Perhaps the best way to ensure these challenges are addressed is to include people with disabilities in the process of addressing them.

Roth points out that people with disabilities have a great deal to offer to the preparedness and resilience efforts of a city. “I have to solve complicated issues with emergencies all the time and can be an asset at the emergency management table,” Roth said. “People with disabilities shouldn’t be viewed as liability.” 

One of the more promising developments since Harvey has been the movement toward neighborhood-informed planning. This has happened in the form of local non-profits cropping up to organize the response of particular neighborhoods and can be seen in the city’s neighborhood recovery hubs as both long-term assets and disaster rallying points. Additional work in this area should be done to help shape mitigation responses and the allocation of recovery funds. Allowing for community input brings specific issues—such as elevation leading to social isolation—to the fore. As Roth suggested, when people with a wider range of experiences are included at the planning table, outcomes are far more likely to account for those experiences. 

Community-led planning is not a panacea, though, and must be carried out thoughtfully. For undocumented immigrants and other populations who may be wary of official meetings because of fears of deportation, arrest, or harassment, participation is particularly difficult. Richard Petty, of the Commission on Disabilities, reflected that the hope with community-based planning is that “people would be better connected in their communities and be able to depend on one another in a disaster.” But for people with disabilities or others who are more likely to be isolated from communities, “there will need to be concerted efforts to connect” and to plan for their needs. “A community may be hard pressed to assist a person who needs a special vehicle to evacuate,” Petty said. Members of the LHWA reflected Petty’s concern, highlighting feelings of abandonment, neglect and powerlessness when they described their interactions with public agencies and plans during and after Harvey. Such challenges do not mean community approaches should be abandoned, but rather that they become more inclusive and expansive. 

Agencies must set up processes that are accessible and relevant to residents. Community groups and residents often lack the same level of technical expertise as the officials they are meeting with. Moreover, they feel their needs are largely ignored in final products, even when they have provided feedback. Sharing information in digestible ways and creating spaces for participation that welcome all forms of input is key to overcoming these disconnects.

LHWA's Argüelles reflected on this challenge, saying "infrastructure pressure is hard because you can go to [organizations like] METRO or Harris Health and get some small victories, but the overall process can feel like being a hamster on the wheel.” Officials, who have undertaken admirable input processes around Harvey recovery projects and funding, should continue to include education campaigns and robust participation mechanisms within these efforts. A reporting mechanism to show how community input has been incorporated could also help build trust among residents.

Moving forward

The ultimate goal of the recovery process is a city and region better prepared to respond to the next disaster. “Houston has an unbelievably good opportunity to commit to universal design standards,” and accessible planning as it rebuilds, Roth said. Such an approach “will make it possible for as many people as possible to be able to access services and resources. It doesn’t mean one size fits all, but it helps reduce the number of people who need extra help. You can then right-size your resources,” and devote those that remain to be in the most extreme of situations. 

Ensuring that the needs of every community are heard and included to the greatest extent possible helps to close gaps in other areas and makes resources go further. A year after Harvey, the Houston region continues to face an uphill climb toward becoming a more resilient place. Enlisting all its residents in the effort, taking advantage of their skills and ideas, will benefit the region in the long-run. 

*Disclosure: A pseudonym has been used to protect the privacy of the individual.