Study: Low-Income and Latino Households Face Disaster Recovery Challenges

A recent paper published by the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “Damage, Dislocation, and Displacement After Low-Attention Disasters,” documents a case study of disaster impact and recovery following a tornado in Marshalltown, Iowa. The authors found that concentrated storm damage in low-income neighborhoods, lack of insurance, and limited federal recovery resources created a variety of recovery challenges, particularly for low-income and Latino households.

A large tornado hit Marshalltown, Iowa, on July 19, 2018, causing major damage across the city. Despite the damage levels, the disaster did not receive much attention and the president initially declined to declare the storm a federally declared disaster. This prevented residents from receiving FEMA’s individual assistance funding, leaving few available resources for recovery and repairs. Marshalltown provides a case study on recovery challenges that households face after low-attention disasters without federal funding.

The authors began their research soon after the tornado hit, allowing them to collect timely data on damage incurred, initial repairs, and recovery resources. To assess damage and initial recovery efforts, they implemented two surveys among selected households in affected census blocks. The first questionnaire asked about property damage, physical characteristics of residential structures, and preliminary recovery efforts. The second survey was conducted to quantify disruption among families, including disruption to school/work, utility cut-offs, displacement, and precarious living situations.

The initial survey identified several patterns of tornado damage, including high rates of damage among low-income and Latino households. Out of all households that experienced some sort of damage, 37% had an annual income below $30,000. Only 33.3% of Latino households experienced no damage, compared to 50.4% of white households. A higher share of Latino households also experienced major damage, at 11.8% compared to 4.4% for white households.

Since Marshalltown residents were not eligible to receive individual assistance from FEMA, insurance was the primary recovery resource available following the disaster. Insurance coverage differed across racial and ethnic lines, income, and housing tenure. Approximately 37% of Latino households did not have insurance – nearly 16 percentage points higher than white households. Nearly 31% of those making less than $30,000 annually did not have insurance, compared to 21.6% of households making more than $30,000 annually. Renters were also less likely to be insured compared to homeowners. Eighty percent of homeowners knew they had insurance, compared to only 27.9% of renters. This disparity is exacerbated by the lack of control that renters have over repairs following a disaster. Though this study did not examine long-term recovery outcomes, renters’ lack of control over repairs could lead to increased recovery times or to displacement.

The researchers found that the lack of federal individual assistance and the urgency to address repairs before winter led many households to make repairs on their own or seek alternative housing options altogether. Population loss due to displacement and deferred repair or demolition following a low-attention disaster can have long-term adverse impacts on affected towns and their residents. This research highlights the need to further examine weak points in disaster recovery, and the need to identify policy solutions that mitigate these challenges.

The report can be found at: