Hurricane Harvey one year after: inequalities in Houston as the root causes of disaster
Hurricane Harvey hit Texas on 25 August 2017. It was the country’s first major hurricane since Wilma hit Florida in October 2005 and the first major hurricane to strike southern Texas since Celia in 1970. Hurricane Harvey became the second-most costly hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since 1900, with over $125 billion of damages and loss. In the weeks who followed, hurricanes Irma and Maria unfortunately left death and destruction among Caribbean countries and islands, including Barbuda, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
One year later, how is the recovery going in Houston, largely affected by Harvey? As mass media coverage and information about disaster-prone places decrease few weeks after the disaster, we wanted to know something more about the current conditions of people affected by Harvey.
Therefore, in August 2018 we met Magdalene*, one of the thousands of people living into African American and Latinx communities of East Houston, still struggling with the recovery after Harvey. We were introduced to Magdalene by the research team of Roberto Barrios (Southern Illinois University Carbondale), anthropologist with over 15 years of research experience in post-disaster contexts in North and Central America. Along these years, his work has been devoted to investigate not just how recovery worked in the affected areas but also how neoliberal institutional approaches to recovery contributed to worsen the impacts of hazards and to further increase the vulnerability of people.
In his last book, Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction, Barrios focuses on the role of affect in shaping the ways people assign meanings to disasters and assess the impacts of governmentality (through planning, reconstruction, and policies) on their life. With the support of a National Science Foundation grant, Barrios is continuing his work by studying social after-effects of hurricane Harvey together with his research team, composed of two University of Houston anthropology students, Irene Martinez and Mayra Sierra, and one SIUC student, Grace Vargas.
Disaster response and recovery in the US, as New Orleans and Puerto Rico have also demonstrated, have always been based on the discrimination and segregation of the most disadvantaged or marginalized groups. Harvey has been praised as an equal-opportunity disaster that would not leave the poor behind. However, its recovery is replicating and exacerbating inequalities already existing in Houston, one of the most unequal and segregating cities in the United States.
The US Census Bureau calculated that 19.3% of families live below the poverty level, higher than the US average value of 11.3%. This rate has increased in the past five years, particularly among African American and Latinx neighbourhoods. The unequal distribution of and access to resources and opportunities – housing, healthcare, public facilities, education, safe environment – persists between majority white and higher income neighbourhoods and low income African American and Latinx people.
As it has already been written by the disaster scholar Ilan Kelman on this blog right after Harvey, also Roberto Barrios and his team are convinced that Harvey and its recovery highlight everyday spatial and social segregation in Houston, nourished by land use and development malpractices. “Houston – he says – is a city that floods by design. Collusion between real estate developers and local government have made existing flood control codes ineffective. Hurricane Harvey’s floods were primarily a political economic disaster, not a natural one”.
Indeed, the rapid urban development in Houston has been accompanied by building decisions favouring developers and construction corporations rather than by an equal and sustainable urban planning. This further increased vulnerability of people already living into areas at higher flood risk.
Hurricane Harvey hit neighbourhoods that were already struggling with ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities, or those people who were in higher flood risk areas. As found by a survey reported on the New York Times (August 2018), 27% of Latinx people in Texans whose homes were badly damaged declared that those homes remained unsafe to live in, compared to 20% of African American and 11% of white people. Nowadays, those people who were already financially in need, vulnerable or marginalized, are facing longer recovery timelines.
Harvey hit thousands of people with no home insurance, no assets or savings to be put into recovery, no transportation options alternative to flooded cars. Federal disaster response—including an underfunded National Flood Insurance Program— mainly support homeowners, those who either rent or live in public housing find even fewer options.
According to Roberto Barrios, the Harvey-affected neighbourhood of East Houston has been long chronically neglected of its drainage systems on the part of the City Government: “East Houston has always been “invisible” in the gaze of many Houstonians, even as it is considered the site of waste dumps and hazardous material storage that serves most of the city. In Harvey’s aftermath, media attention has focused on more affluent parts of the city that were also flooded catastrophically, but has continued a long tradition of underserving this historically marginalized minority area”.
Therefore, there is need to raise voices of the affected people such as Magdalene. Magdalene is deeply rooted in the community. She lives in East Houston since almost 40 years ago and is very active in the long-standing informal network created in East Houston to support the people most in need. We met her in early August. Too hot to walk around, Magdalene instead took a drive with us and Barrios’ research team into the neighbourhood where she has lived almost 40 years. She brought hands up to her chest and marked the height of the floodwater released by Harvey into her house. During Harvey, she spent one day and one night on her living room table, before rescuers arrived.
She can tell you almost everything about each house in the neighbourhood, including a meticulous description of damages suffered by each family after the hurricane. She showed us the landscape of broken windows, scaffolding, doors locked with wood planks or temporary curtains, trashed furniture. A few houses have never been opened since the hurricane, and the devastation can be observed from outside. Other houses have been repaired with personal savings, but several houses will never be repaired. As East Houston is an undervalued neighbourhood, people are receiving fewer dollars on average for recovery, or have no compensation to recover as they cannot afford increasing insurance costs of thousands of dollars.
Some families are already leaving the neighbourhood. Magdalene says that the price of the houses drastically collapsed. Houses with previously average value of 80,000 dollars can now be bought at 20,000 dollars. Speculators are now coming around, offering residents less than 20,000 dollars for the damaged houses. Later they sold them at more than 100,000 dollars for newcomers. Real estate’s posts for renting and selling at a ridiculously discounted rate are gradually showing up. Developers took advantage of people’s misfortune. Insurance companies took opportunity to force people to buy higher insurance.
Regulations to access to funds allocated by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government agency by US intervening in case of disasters across the country) are always unfavourable to marginalized people or those with no insurance such as in East Houston. This makes these people ineligible to any funding support program. Compared to “richer” neighbourhoods, they had no alternative immediate support, such as trailers for temporary stay. Some of them have already built unstable elevated mobile homes because they are scared of future flooding. Perpetual trauma with rain will follow for the rest of their life.
Hurricane Harvey just mirrored and exacerbated social and economic inequalities shaping the everyday society in Houston. Looking at the stories of the people who are most vulnerable when a disaster occurs reveals, once again, disaster as a political construction, deriving from historical paths of environmental and social injustice.
* Magdalene is a fake name to ensure her anonimity. The neighbourhood of East Houston has not been identified too, and it has been generally referred as East Houston. We warmly thank Magdalene for the time spent with us, Grace, Mayra and Irene for their kindness, and Roberto for giving consent to access to his research.