After catastrophic floods—like those after Hurricane Harvey dumped several feet of rain on the Houston area four years ago—survivors generally have two options: rebuild, perhaps with the help of flood insurance or federal reimbursement programs, or relocate, perhaps by selling a damaged home or waiting for a government buyout program. A new study has found that the route people choose might have more to do with their pre-flood plans rather than the scale of the disaster itself. This has implications for how policies are designed to encourage resiliency and managed retreat. 

Chachi: My sons are going, “Mom, please, just leave. Sell the house. Take what it’s worth and walk away.”

Interviewer: Why not? Why not walk away?

Chachi: I can’t. This is my home. This is my home. My husband worked very, very hard … to make sure that that house was going to be paid for, for me. So … this is my house. Yes, it’s a nightmare. It’s been a nightmare, but stupid Harvey is not going to run me out.

This was one of many voices captured in a new study by Rice sociologist Anna Rhodes and Max Besbris at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose work explored how and why some people who endure disasters return to their homes and communities despite the potential for increased flooding risks long-term.

“We wanted to understand how families make decisions about their future, how those plans shape their response to a devastating event like a flood, and how those plans change as a result of a disaster and the prolonged process of recovery,” Rhodes said.

When Hurricane Harvey overpowered the Houston area with 50-plus inches of rain, it shook the foundations of thousands of households—literally in some cases—and upended a sense of security, particularly for residents who had never experienced flooding before.

In the face of a record-setting storm, one might expect flood-affected households to consider moving away from damaged properties, perhaps especially among middle-class and more affluent households who have the financial resources to make a residential move. But for the most part, that has not happened, at least not in Friendswood, a Houston suburb in the Clear Creek watershed where over 3,000 homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

The community of 40,000 people, many of whom are middle-class, offers a window to explore the decision-making process of people who have more options available to them after a disaster.

“From other work, we have a very clear sense that risk is not equally distributed and that disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected. However, we know much less about how middle-class households perceive risk and plan for their futures,” Rhodes said. “Knowing more will tell us how we should think about disaster recovery policies, such as buyouts and home repair programs.”

The research team interviewed 59 households over two years, returning around the first and second anniversaries of Hurricane Harvey. The households in this study, like Friendswood overall, were predominantly white, college educated and had a median household income of $100,000. Among these households, 50 chose to rebuild and return to their homes after Hurricane Harvey, while only nine relocated.

What Rhodes and her team found was that people were unlikely to move unless they had started imagining or planning a move prior to Harvey. The flood simply created an opportunity to relocate for people were already primed for that decision. 

Each household had varying circumstances and different specific reasons for staying, but some themes emerged. Several households with children cited the desire to maintain ties to their schools and social relationships. People like Luis, who wanted to remain in Friendswood until his grandson graduated from high school:

When we asked Luis and his daughter where they thought they would be in ten years he told us, “I’m gonna be here. It’ll be 10 years ...he’ll be graduating. Yeah. Next few years will be here, making sure he goes to school. So I got a 10-year plan.” The interviewer followed up by asking, “Did this flood change how you think about that future plan at all?” Luis’s daughter responded, “No” and Luis agreed saying, “No, just thinking about [being] more prepared.

Despite staying, participants in the study did acknowledge they had to reassess their risks.

“The choice to stay is not happening with blinders on. Residents will say, ‘Well we flooded, so we’re rebuilding with tile instead of hardwood floor so there’s less damage if it happens again,”’ Rhodes said.

When people make decisions about whether to return and rebuild or sell and move, they are often doing so with a narrow focus on their own household plans. Few residents made these decisions with specific consideration of broader mitigation efforts by the local government that may affect future flood risk.

“While there are a small number of very active citizens engaging with local government about flood mitigation, for the most part as residents made the decision to stay or leave, these flood projects were not top of mind,” Rhodes said. “Most people are not factoring that into their decision to stay.”

For example, most participants in the study were not closely watching or factoring in potential government interventions, such as the Army Corps of Engineers’ stalled project to improve drainage along Clear Creek. (The $337.4 million project has since picked up steam, and in 2019, Friendswood voters approved $41 million in bonds for flood mitigation.)

The decision to remain was tested not only by the trauma of the flood itself, but also the frustration of navigating insurance companies, contractors, repair costs and delays. Chachi, the woman who wanted to remain in the house despite the urging of her children, lived in a trailer in her driveway for over a year while her home was rebuilt.

“These long-term plans, and the desire for stability, are highly durable. The flood and a long recovery were not enough to disrupt these plans. A lot of people watching from the outside might think, ‘Why don’t you just move?’ My takeaway is that, without a pre-existing idea about where you would go – an attractive alternative that can meet your family’s needs – it isn’t easy to walk away,” Rhodes said.

On top of that, the structures we have in place to facilitate recovery also tend to reinforce repairing damaged homes, she points out. For example, the federally subsidized National Flood Insurance Program provides funds to repair damaged properties, and will only deny coverage without steps to mitigate risk if the damage assessment is more than 50% of the home’s value. Even FEMA aid for uninsured households is intended to cover the cost of some repairs. This orients flood-affected residents towards rebuilding, and can fund costly repairs in areas that are potentially more likely to flood in the future. In contrast, buyouts remain a relatively small program that still face considerable bureaucratic hurdles. In other words, there are few structures for supporting mobility in the aftermath of disaster.

After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Friendswood was the site of a hallmark example of effective flood buyouts, when 136 properties were acquired. Even though flooding during Hurricane Harvey was more widespread across Friendswood, there were fewer applications for buyouts and more residents returned to flooded-affected homes. (Across Harris County and Houston, an estimated 130,000 homes flooded; only around 4,000 households have applied for buyouts.)

This study highlights that in the absence of plans for mobility before a storm hits, few residents in middle-class communities are likely to seek out options for moving away, even as they acknowledge future flood risk. Understand how residents make decisions in the aftermath of a flood is key to designing effective policies for the future in the face of a changing climate.

“It brings up questions about equity—how disaster recovery programs tend to protect or even build wealth for some while others are left behind—but it also raises questions about how people assess their risk, especially as we know that climate change is going to change what that future risk looks like,” Rhodes said.

The study is forthcoming in Social Problems and can be accessed in advance here