5 years after Harvey: Exploring the racial inequities in disaster relief distribution

Rosie Nguyen Image
Friday, September 2, 2022
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Despite the Texas General Land Office insisting that millions in Hurricane Harvey aid money is making it to Black and Latino communities, neighbors say they're still waiting for help and have simply given up hope.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It's an anniversary not many want to remember. Five years ago, Hurricane Harvey devastated communities throughout southeast Texas, and many are still in the recovery process.

In several northeast Houston neighborhoods, some residents say they've had to rebuild on their own and feel like it results from racial inequities in disaster relief distribution.

James Burford, who lives in the Trinity Gardens neighborhood, doesn't know when he'll be able to return home again. He has always been able to bounce back, making repairs to his house after each catastrophic storm.

But this time was different. The damage the storm caused was so severe and costly that he hasn't been able to restore it to a livable condition.

"I'm kind of at a dead end, because I've been denied (financial assistance) by everybody. I'm not asking for a handout. I'm just asking for a hand," Burford, a disabled veteran, said. "So I've been putting things back together on my own, piece by piece, doing whatever patchwork I could. My garage is where the flood came in, and I haven't been able to repair it yet. The house is in shambles."

Burford believes his experience with being denied state and federal aid is one of many that lie within the inequities of Hurricane Harvey's financial aid distribution. ABC13 asked Dr. Jim Elliott, who teaches sociology at Rice University, what they've found in their research at the Kinder Institute of Urban Research on this very topic.

"We know from prior research that there are inequities in distribution, whether it's initial access to individual assistance from FEMA. The Government Accountability Office has actually shown that that's the case and is working on that," Elliott said.

He added, "We found that across the country, the more damage there is from, say, Harvey or another flood event, the more we see wealth inequalities within racial groups along education lines. It also increases across racial lines between white and communities of color. So as more FEMA money comes in to assist with the recovery, those inequalities actually begin to grow."

READ ALSO: From technology to mitigation, what's changed 4 years after Hurricane Harvey

Doris Brown still gets a little bit of anxiety when she sits on the couch next to the front door of her house. She lived in the East Little York-Homestead neighborhood and came very close to what could've been a devastating injury during Hurricane Harvey.

She recalls folding clothes in the living room when she walked away to check on an odd sound in the back of her house. Just seconds later, she says her ceiling collapsed in that very spot. It was just the beginning of what would eventually become extensive damage to her house.

"It displaced me for about a year and cost over $60,000 because there was mold and the roof had to be repaired," Brown said.

Brown says that $60,000 mostly came from the help of grassroots organizations like West Street Recovery and Northeast Action Collective (NAC), both of which she's now a part. She says her house has flooded twice, but she never received any financial relief from the government to help with repairs.

ABC13 asked Dr. Elliott what other reasons may be behind the inequities researchers are seeing in disaster relief.

"It is complex. There's not one single reason. We know there are inequities in people's ability to afford proper insurance and access initial recovery dollars if they are not homeowners. So it starts there. The other thing that makes this so complicated is federal money, which is the bulk of the money that we've been getting in Houston, has to first flow through the state and then down to local communities," he said. "One of the solutions may be to create a more direct linkage and cut out some of the red tapes."

In March, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ruled in favor of NAC's Title VI civil rights complaint. It stated that the Texas General Land Office (GLO) "discriminated based on race and national origin" when deciding how to distribute $2 billion in federal funds for disaster mitigation.

"The criteria was built to deny us. It makes us angry. We're disappointed. We just got sick and tired of people just overriding us, thinking we were expendable and we didn't deserve a good quality of life at that time," Brown said.

READ ALSO: Texas GLO discriminated when giving Houston, Harris County $0 in flood mitigation, HUD says

In a statement to ABC13, Brittany Eck with the Texas General Land Office wrote in part:

"The GLO carefully followed HUD's instructions, requirements and regulations in developing its action plan for the allocation of CDBG-MIT funds. HUD allocated $4.3 billion for three disaster events and named 140 counties as eligible. The GLO's action plan adhered to all federal requirements and HUD initially approved the state action plan on March 27, 2020, and then again on June 15, 2022. HUD worked hand-in-hand with the GLO to develop the Action Plan, which was HUD-approved, and GLO executed the plan approved by HUD.HUD falsely claimed Black and Hispanic residents were "disproportionately harmed," but in reality, more than two-thirds of the beneficiaries are Black and Hispanic. Additionally, 100% of the projects benefit most low-and moderate-income communities.GLO did not engage in discrimination, and HUD's false allegations about a process HUD approved were nothing more than a fake political attack. The GLO has worked tirelessly to help Texans recover and build stronger, having completely rebuilt more than 5,000 homes, reimbursed 3,000 Texas families for repairs, and built thousands of affordable rental housing units across the coast.

Since 2021, GLO has rebuilt more than 725 homes in Houston, overwhelmingly for Black and Hispanic residents. As you can see from the demographics report, 64.48% of homes rebuilt are for Black/African American homeowners. As for ethnicity, 25.13% identify as Hispanic/Latino."

According to the Houston Chronicle, Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive. This comes after Houston and Harris County received $0 from GLO in federal funds last year.

READ ALSO: Harris County and Houston left out of $1 billion in flood mitigation aid

"We've been trying to get them to do something about the infrastructure. If you don't do something about the infrastructure, we're going to continue to flood. That is the problem now. We still flood with heavy rain," said Brown. "When the next disaster happens, there's going to be massive devastation. We already have these PTSD moments when it starts raining hard. People get anxious."

READ ALSO: Hurricane Harvey survivors demand better investment, attention to drainage issues in NE Houston

Brown says she hopes they'll see some tangible changes in her neighborhood. But in the meantime, her organizations will focus on creating their disaster preparedness plans for vulnerable communities. They have designated certain houses in the area to be stocked with kayaks, fans, batteries, generators, go-bags, and more.

"We don't get discouraged. Our neighborhoods, we're adaptable. We are resilient people. We make lemonade out of lemons. We have to look out for ourselves because no one else is going to," she said.

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