How inequalities made Harvey recovery harder for many nonwhite Houstonians


Photo source: US Department of Defense

When Stephen Klineberg was conducting the Kinder Houston Area Survey in February 2017, he asked Houston-area residents to name the biggest problem facing the region. At the time, only 1% of participants thought flooding and storms were the most important issue.

In August of that year, Hurricane Harvey happened. When the survey was conducted in February 2018, opinions had changed, and 16% of residents responded that flooding was the No. 1 problem. That year, concerns about flooding were No. 2 only to traffic. But a year later, the issue of storms and resiliency had declined to just 7% — the sixth greatest concern. In 2020, the survey showed 11% thought flooding was the No. 1 problem.

“Area residents have evidently not forgotten,” Klineberg wrote in his 2020 report, “even two and a half years after the big storm, how vulnerable the region is and remains in the face of severe rain events and sea-level rises.”

From 2018–2020, Houston Areas Survey respondents overwhelmingly agreed (76, 75 and 77%, respectively) that the Houston region will be hit by more severe storms in the next 10 years compared to the past 10. All of which indicates that residents are very much aware of the Houston area’s ongoing vulnerability. When the 2021 Kinder Houston Area Survey is released next Tuesday, we’ll learn if concerns about flooding and storms remained top of mind for residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been three and a half years since Hurricane Harvey dropped its 35 trillion gallons of water over the Gulf Coast. That’s enough to cover Arizona 12 inches deep. More than 100 people died as a result of the worst rainfall event in U.S. history, and it cost somewhere between $85 and $108 billion. By comparison, the damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008 cost $34.8 billion.

But the most recent in what seems like a continuous string of extreme weather events to upend life in Houston overshadowed Harvey and Ike in deaths and damage. It wasn’t a hurricane or tropical storm, but February’s brutal winter storm, which left millions in Texas without power, heat and water and has been linked to more than 150 deaths in the state — 41 of those were in Harris County — mostly from hypothermia. The financial cost is still unknown, but it’s been estimated at more than $200 billion. There was no high water in the streets accompanied by warnings to “turn around; don’t drown;” and this time, instead of homes being damaged or destroyed by floodwaters coming in, they were damaged by the waters from within walls and attics as water pipes froze and burst, then thawed.

By itself, the winter storm’s devastation is remarkable and tragic. But when its effects are layered on top of the pandemic of the past year and recovery efforts still ongoing following other storms in the past five years, it graduates to mind-boggling.

It’s been 13 years since Hurricane Ike leveled a direct hit on Galveston, scraping much of Bolivar Peninsula clean before moving north across Galveston Bay toward the Houston Ship Channel. As terrible as Ike was, it could have been much worse had it taken a slightly different path and gone straight up the Ship Channel, sending a huge storm surge (up to 25 feet) into Houston’s petrochemical complexes. The result could be an environmental disaster unlike any seen — what some have called “America’s Chernobyl.”

Experts say it’s a matter of when, not if, a storm the strength of Ike or greater runs full bore up the Ship Channel, yet efforts and investments to safeguard the coast and prevent the devastating storm surge such a strike would create so far amount to zero. “We have not turned a single spade of dirt for a levee construction system,” Philip Bedient, director of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told NBC News. “It’s unbelievable. We’re sitting ducks right now.”

Two years ago, SSPEED proposed the Galveston Bay Park, a storm-surge barrier comprising levees, berms, dunes and oyster reefs within Galveston Bay. The in-bay park — costing an estimated $6 billion — would also serve as a multifunctional recreational area while protecting against storm surges until the larger coastal barrier is built. By comparison, “given the importance of Houston’s petrochemical facilities, the entire nation could be crippled by such a direct hit.” The environmental and economic costs would be enormous.

“These are hard projects to find a sponsor for; they’re expensive projects,” Jim Blackburn, SSPEED’s co-director, told Houston Public Media last August. “But the risk, the potential damage is so huge. And it is not a long jump to see a truly destructive hurricane coming into the Houston region.”

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Galveston Bay Park would complement and enhance its proposed $26 billion coastal barrier project, better known as the Ike Dike. That project has the bipartisan backing of Texas officials. Construction of the Ike Dike would take 10 to 15 years.

In the meantime, what happens to Texans living in the Houston region and along the coast, an area that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says can expect to be hit by a hurricane roughly every seven years. (After the past decade, in which Texas experienced 67 major weather disasters — more than any state — many might happily take those odds.) By the way, hurricane season begins in less than a month, on June 1, and next week is National Hurricane Preparedness Week (May 9–15).

How can residents at the local level better prepare for the next disaster? What can be done at the neighborhood level to improve preparedness and recovery?

In October 2017, just after Hurricane Harvey, Kevin Fitzpatrick and Matthew Spialek came to Houston to learn how response and recovery differed among storm survivors depending on who they were and where they lived. They intended to examine the role that “th place effect” played in residents’ preparedness, response and recovery. With a team of interviewers and funding from the National Science Foundation, Fitzpatrick and Spialek, both University of Arkansas professors, conducted 316 interviews with Harvey survivors all along the Texas Gulf Coast. The project and the stories they gathered became a book — “Hurricane Harvey’s Aftermath: Place, Race and Inequality in Disaster Recovery” — filled with “heartache, destruction, recovery, resilience, and hope.”

Fitzpatrick and Spialek argue that the ability of an individual — and the immediate community they live in — to respond to and recover from displacement and disaster is subject to the “wildly variable” inequalities seen across metropolitan areas such as Houston. Place, status, race and social structure — which constitute the “place effect” — as well as poverty significantly impact not just a person’s well-being, but also the well-being and resilience of their community.

From 1997 to 2017, the rapid urbanization of the Houston metro area led to a 63% increase in impervious surfaces like pavement and buildings. That increase equates to covering almost 187,000 football fields in concrete, or, fitting to the topic, paving over 71% of Galveston Bay. Growth at this pace has contributed to a physical environment that can’t possibly mitigate the level of rainfall Harvey brought.

“It’s certainly no accident that poor communities of color dominate the high-risk flood zones in the United States,” said Fitzpatrick, a sociologist and criminologist who for 30 years has studied the intersection of place, race and health. “There’s not a lot of green space, there’s a lot of concrete. There oftentimes is a fractured or very old mitigation system. I think that is a recipe for another layer to the disaster.”

During a Kinder Institute Urban Reads event last month, Fitzpatrick and Spialek spoke about their research and their book, and Fitzpatrick emphasized that while wealthy communities weren’t immune to flooding during Harvey, just as they haven’t been immune to COVID-19, place remains important. “Hurricane Harvey’s Aftermath,” he said, is “a tale about unpreparedness. That is a story that has a lot to do with place.”

Why place matters

“ZIP code continues to be an important determinant of a wide range of health and well-being outcomes,” Fitzpatrick and Spialek write. “Disaster response and recovery appear to be no different.”

They cite emerging research that shows socially vulnerable groups, including the physically disabled, were living in Houston neighborhoods that greater proportion of flooding during Harvey. They also point out that predominantly Black, Hispanic and low-income neighborhoods experienced significantly higher levels of flooding and devastation. To illustrate this, they placed a map of the highest flood areas of Houston during Harvey on top of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index Map showing the level of vulnerability — from highest to lowest — for each neighborhood by census tract in the city. The maps show the worst flooding from Harvey was concentrated outside the Loop and in areas with higher levels of vulnerability.

Fitzpatrick and Spialek write:

“Community resilience factors into the response and recovery equation. Just like individuals, some communities have been broken and will experience great pain and suffering in recovery compared to more resilient communities who will rebuild even stronger than before Hurricane Harvey hit. The power of place for everyday experiences and behavior is undeniable. Place is a key element in our identity and life experiences — a life whose quality, in turn, can be dramatically impacted by natural disasters.”

Fitzpatrick and Spialek maintain that place reflects a long-standing, deep divide across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. It reflects a difference in resilience and recovery. Race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and immigration status, among other factors influence a person’s exposure to a disaster, their ability to recover and their resilience.

“Disaster-social vulnerability just doesn't emerge when a disaster takes place,” Spialek said. “Instead, it is cultivated structurally within our society well before a disaster strikes, and has long-term consequences for underserved communities.”

Fitzpatrick and Spialek looked at social vulnerability across the three phases of the “disaster life cycle”: Before (preparedness), during (response) and after (recovery). Following their interviews, they found that three main cracks in resilience emerged: lack of trust among Black and Hispanic residents, communication failures and trouble perceiving hurricane risk. These cracks “along the social and psychological components of place and race” exposed residents to more dangerous disaster consequences. They found the Texas Gulf Coast was vulnerable at each disaster phase of Harvey.

Cracks in resilience: social trust

One of the most glaring findings to surface in the data collected through in-person interviews and online surveys, according to Fitzpatrick and Spialek, was the trust gap among white, African American and Hispanic residents.

Among white residents, 58% said they could trust their neighbors, while 53.6% said they could trust those living at their current locations following Harvey (such as their neighborhood, shelters, friends’ or relatives’ homes or hotels). But 61.7% of African American residents said they could not trust their neighbors, and 63.2% claimed that those living at their current locations could not be trusted. According to Fitzpatrick and Spialek, this trust gap could be the result of differences in “bridging social capital, which involves social ties that help community members connect across different demographic characteristics like class and race.”

Hispanic residents found their communities to be less caring and possessed fewer resources to help residents in their daily lives compared to non-Hispanic residents. In addition, Hispanic residents were less optimistic about their community’s abilities to learn from past setbacks, manage disasters and share information with the public.

“Linda,” an immigrant in her 30s who primarily spoke Spanish, described her town as a “quiet, lonely place lacking in vigilance.” She added, “In the town where I lived, the majority were immigrants. It is incredible that one barely knows his neighbor. Most of the time people are busy working and people do not interact with each other.”

The first time Linda met her upstairs neighbors was during Harvey, as she was trying to escape her flooded first-floor apartment.

Linda recalled, “Some immigrants in a boat wanted to go to the shelter, but they weren’t sure where they should go. They were afraid to register to get shelter and food.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, close to 40% of participants born outside of the U.S. reported being worried that seeking assistance after Hurricane Harvey would draw unwanted attention to their or a family member’s immigration status.

“Linda’s story illustrates that distrust can create a place where people don’t know who to believe—which, in a disaster scenario, could result in negative consequences. Linda’s story also emphasizes the second crack in resilience: communication.”

Communication challenges in preparedness

Fitzpatrick and Spialek found that communication challenges existed between emergency management officials and local residents, which impacted preparedness. Challenges included weak perceptions of community disaster management and communication:

“My community tries to prevent disasters.” 47.5% strongly disagreed to neutral

“My community actively prepares for future disasters.” 46.2% strongly disagreed to neutral

“When disasters occur, my community provides information about what to do.” 35.7% strongly disagreed to neutral

Bonding social capital — one of three types of social capital that impact the ability to respond to and recover from a disaster — includes feelings of belonging and identification with a certain group or type of people. Research has shown that individuals who report stronger feelings of belonging in their communities and who have lived in their communities longer are more likely to take significant steps toward being prepared for a disaster.

Cracks in resilience: social trust

The researchers also point to the importance of social capital, which includes the networks of people we know and belong to the norms that are established in that community, and elements of trust and reciprocity that we use to coordinate our work with one another, not only to help people around us but also to probably help ourselves as well. Social capital is important when it comes to disaster recovery because it can speed up recovery and keep people in the neighborhood — “people will be more inclined to move back to a community that is susceptible to disasters if they believe that they have a support network if they believe that they have a strong attachment to that particular place.”

Recovery: mental health disparities across race and ethnicity

Mental health plays a large role in disasters, Fitzpatrick and Spialek point out. Disaster exposure, in particular, is associated with increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

They found that roughly 25% of respondents qualified for a probable PTSD diagnosis. That percentage matches the data from the Texas Flood Registry, which shows 25% of respondents reported having severe impacts and mental and emotional challenges because of Harvey.

There were also significant differences across race and ethnicity in terms of to what degree these symptoms were distressing. Nonwhite residents were much more likely to report “more distress from these symptoms than white individuals.” But, Spialek said, when they looked at the actual diagnosis cut off, there was a higher percentage of nonwhite residents reporting probable PTSD (34.1% of nonwhite residents qualified for probably PTSD diagnosis compared to 23.5% of white residents.) That reflects a significant difference in how distressing the symptoms were for nonwhite versus white residents.

“I think we can make the argument that Hurricane Harvey is a regulatory crisis. But it is not an outlier,” Spialek said. “We’ve seen in the past year with COVID, and in the last few months with the Texas freeze, that this is not just something that can be isolated to one event. Disasters are not just a climate issue. And they’re not just an economic issue, but they’re a public health issue. And they’re a race issue.”

Continuing the conversations about communities and building community resilience. When it comes to disaster policy, Spialek insists, the people most susceptible to disasters — the “vulnerability bearers” — need to have “a seat, a voice and a vote” in the decision-making process.

What can residents do to make this happen?

Getting involved at a hyper-local level by joining a community emergency response team is one example. To effectively advocate for themselves and their communities, and to get a seat at the table, residents need to get involved in government at the local, state and federal levels. As an example, Spialek points to inequalities in the allocation of Hurricane Harvey disaster funds in Houston, where only a quarter of funds have gone to residents in East Houston, one of the areas hardest hit by flooding, while “other relatively affluent areas are getting a lot more of that money. I think it shows that we need to ensure that people can hold positions of power to help make those decisions.”

Unfortunately, because many people of color may lack the linking social capital needed to implement policy changes, this is easier said than done.

“Hurricane Harvey may have started as a natural hazard,” Spialek said, “but because of the decisions that we make as a society, it became a disaster.”

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For over four decades, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has been tracking the changing attitudes and experiences of Houstonians.

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