Point of View: Disaster Disparities – by Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

Another massive hurricane is approaching Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and, as always, the lowest-income people in the hurricane’s path will be hardest hit. Deeply poor households are disproportionately harmed by disasters: they are least able to evacuate prior to a storm, least likely to have savings available to help them get back on their feet quickly after a storm, and, without dedicated focus and advocacy, they are most likely to be left behind in rebuilding efforts.

Evacuations are expensive and can be extraordinarily difficult for the lowest-income people. Evacuations require a functioning car with a full tank of gas. Emergency disaster shelters fill up quickly, forcing people to drive further or to stay in a hotel or motel room, both of which require more money. Hotels often require a credit card at check-in, another barrier for low-income people. People experiencing homelessness may not be aware of evacuation orders; people with disabilities can have unique challenges. 

Special outreach and attention by city and state officials is crucial to ensuring that the most vulnerable people survive the storm. Without it, the consequences are grave. Of the two thousand people that died from Hurricane Katrina, almost all were low-income people of color, and three quarters of them were seniors. Similarly, with Hurricane Maria, three thousand people died, mostly low-income seniors and people with disabilities. 

The disparities and failings of our country’s disaster response, recovery and rebuilding system continue long after evacuation. After each storm, many of the lowest-income and most vulnerable survivors become homeless. More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Houston area has increased for the first time in seven years. Nearly 20% of the people living unsheltered in the city cited the hurricane and FEMA’s lack of assistance as the cause of their homelessness. Homelessness rates increased by double digits from 2017 to 2018 in both Connecticut and Massachusetts, where large numbers of Puerto Ricans fled after Hurricane Maria, with no adequate housing assistance from FEMA. When FEMA arbitrarily cut off their assistance, they entered the local homeless system.

FEMA’s immediate post-disaster housing assistance program, putting displaced people up temporarily in hotels or motels, further isolates or harms the lowest-income people. Many hotels do not participate, including some that are closest to jobs or otherwise most convenient. Those that do participate can charge prohibitive (for the lowest-income people) fees on top of what FEMA pays. Other participating hotels or motels require security deposits or credit cards at check-in, additional barriers for low-income families who have already depleted their limited savings. 

For the last two years, FEMA has refused to implement the Disaster Housing Assistance Program of short-term rental assistance and wrap-around services. Instead, they evicted those survivors who were able to access FEMA-funded motels under arbitrary deadlines, regardless of whether their homes were repaired or the survivors had secured alternative housing. When FEMA evicted survivors of Hurricane Maria from motels last summer, hundreds became homeless.

Disparities continue in rebuilding after disasters. Time and again, from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey, we have seen federal disaster rebuilding dollars favoring higher-income white communities over lower-income black communities. Programs that award funds based on the pre-storm value of a home rather than on the cost to reconstruct it – as they did in New Orleans after Katrina - discriminates against mostly lower-income black families that may disproportionately live in economically declining or distressed communities. After Hurricane Harvey, white families in higher-income neighborhoods received about $60,000 per resident. Black families in poorer neighborhoods received, on average, $84/person.

The bottom line is our disaster housing recovery and rebuilding system was designed solely for the middle-class: it never contemplated or accommodated for the unique needs of the lowest-income people, low-income communities or color, people with disabilities and others, so it consistently leaves them behind. It is time for a wholesale redesign to prioritize the lowest-income and most vulnerable people and achieve equitable and complete recovery and rebuilding.

The NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) of over 850 organizations from across the country, most from communities impacted by the last two decades of hurricanes and other disasters, is working to do just that. In late October, we are convening a working group of the DHRC in Houston, to reimagine and redesign the disaster housing system based on decades of hard-won lessons learned and best practices. We will publish our policy recommendations and work with members of Congress and presidential candidates to get it done.

Join us in this work. And join us in keeping everyone in the path of Hurricane Dorian in our thoughts. When the winds die down and the water recedes, NLIHC and the DHRC will be at their side for the hard work and advocacy to achieve equitable and complete disaster recovery.


Diane Signature

Diane Yentel