Q+A: Why The Harvey Health and Housing Registry Needs You


An innovative study tracking the effects of Hurricane Harvey looks for input from Houston-area residents, whether they were directly affected by the storm or not.

Police car blocking road due to high water

An innovative study tracking the effects of Hurricane Harvey looks for input from Houston-area residents, whether they were directly affected by the storm or not.

As the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey approaches, the Houston area is still taking stock of its impact. At the start of the month, displaced residents and families living in hotels saw their Federal Emergency Management Agency funding expire. Crews dredging debris from Lake Houston this month have been removing up to 2,000 cubic yards of debris each day in a project that's expected to last several more months. And Harris County voters will soon decide on a $2.5 billion bond proposal with a slate of flood mitigation projects.

But researchers are hoping to go beneath those numbers and create a better understanding of the varied impacts of the storm. Through a partnership with the Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health, Environmental Defense Fund and Rice University, researchers have launched a first-of-its-kind registry that will collect individual experiences around health and housing in the wake of the storm. Modeled after a similar registry started after 9/11, the registry would be the first used after a major flooding event.

Rice University Provost Marie Lynn Miranda has done environmental health work after hurricanes in North and South Carolina as well as New Orleans and she said the key to making this registry work is having responses from a wide range of Houston area residents, including those who were not directly affected by the storm. "We need people both who were flooded and not flooded," she said.

The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and can be found here along with more information about the project.

The Urban Edge talked with the provost about the registry and what it might mean for the city's future. The interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

After Hurricane Harvey, there was a rush to get good data and also a realization that that can be really hard to acquire. Where were you during the storm? As you were watching everything unfold both as a Houstonian and researcher, what questions were you asking?

I was in Houston...It was a great leadership test. I was kind of managing Rice’s response to the hurricane. I’d done a fair amount of hurricane-related work, even before Harvey hit Houston and from what I was reading about the storm and what I understood about the city and water management issues in the city, it was apparent to me from the beginning that there were going to be long-term implications of the storm and we needed to be prepared and ready for that.

I began talking almost immediately with people about how we could get a registry up and running. We have such great people on campus.

We got some seed funding from the Environmental Defense Fund and from the Collins Medical Trust. By October 2, we had submitted a time-sensitive award [to the National Institutes of Health]. So by January, we had pilot funding available and we did receive one of the seed funding grants from the NIH so we had this money and we began working immediately on the technical back end. It's quite complicated to establish these registries in ways that are secure and flexible and actually help solve problems, help identify what the issues are.

It’s modeled after a similar post-9/11 registry, why was that the right model? Why is this the first time it's been done following a hurricane?

Katrina hit in 2005, that would’ve been a logical time to do a registry but I think that we did not understand the power of the World Trade Center registry as well as we do now. I also think that Houston is a different city. People take care of each other in Houston and the thing about Harvey is that the impact was felt across racial lines, across income lines and people came together. Those two things are major contributors. And you had a group of people who were incredibly busy with a gajillion different things but in the present moment of how busy we are we can't let that busyness get in the way of our doing this other really important thing but which at the moment feels a bit long-term.

There are so many partners involved in this. Is this sort of part-government, part-university, part-institute a formula that you think we’ll see more of? What does it allow for that might not otherwise be possible?

I think increasingly Rice is viewing itself--and I find this really wonderful--not just as an institution that can and should engage with the city of Houston, it's seeing itself as an institution that should be empowering the city of Houston, which requires a much deeper engagement. So the relationships that we have, if we’re going to transform from just doing some interesting things in the city to we’re going to be part and parcel of helping Houston achieve its highest aspirations, it's this sort of full commitment in being a partner with Houston.

Over the course of however many years, certainly long before I came to Rice, there's been these relationships that have been built that are quite powerful one of which is with the public health institutions. What we’ve been able to accomplish, because we had preexisting relationships with these institutions in the city, is much bigger than if, when the storm hit we were trying to figure out who are we going to talk to in the city and who will be our partners.

We have these relationships so that we’re better positioned when something big happens. Those are going to increasingly be part of how Rice participates in the important work of the city.

The survey is going to track all sorts of potential impacts, can you talk about a few specifically?

The two that I would highlight first are longer-term respiratory issues for people in the city and the other is that I think it's going to help us understand the longer term impacts on the housing stock and what's available to which people in what parts of the city. I think many of us are worried that one of the things the hurricane has done is taken out, certainly some of the lower income housing but also some of the middle income housing. What are the longer term implications of that? I think we’re going to get some important insights.

How is the survey going so far? Any gaps?

With the World Trade Center, they got up a first responders registry about nine months after and they didn’t get their community health registry up and running until about two years after. We had a goal of getting this up much sooner. We actually managed to get it up and operational within 7.5 months.

We have I think right now about 600 people signed up and our goal is to get to 5,000. I'd really like to get toward the 5,000 by this fall so we can apply for longer-term funding.

We have done summary statistics on some of the results, but I would be hesitant to talk about it because we know right now we have a biased sample. We want a sample that’s representative of the entire Harvey-impacted region and we want it be representative of the geography and the demographics. We've only just got Fort Bend and Montgomery counties on board. We have many more people from the city of Houston as opposed to Harris County more broadly. Every registry ever starts off with an overrepresentation of white women. We need to get more men and we need to get more people of color. The age distribution is actually quite good to date.

So how will the data be used? What might this mean for policy?

All of this effort will leverage Kinder Institute’s Urban Data Platform and because everything gets spatial-temporal data architecture, we can tie in the air quality data, housing data, tax parcel data, Census data, all of those things to link all of these different datasets together. That allows us to ask a limited number of questions of people filling out these surveys because we want it to be reasonable in terms of the amount of time.

It's so important to have the partners in the public health community across the region because, in the end, Rice doesn’t implement intervention programs. Sometimes, Rice will run a little experiment and say this type of intervention works really well, would you be interested in scaling it up? But for the most part Rice doesn’t. One of the points of the registry is to design it with the agencies that would. They’re very enthusiastic about that.



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