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The American Disaster Relief System Is Broken

As U.S. federal agencies prepare to help families survive the coronavirus disaster, Hurricane Harvey’s lower-income survivors offer a warning of what can go terribly wrong.
April 9, 2020, 12:00pm

For 26 months after Hurricane Harvey, Doris Brown’s house was uninhabitable. At least, it was by the standards most people would apply, if not according to the FEMA assessor who had taken a look at it.

Her living room ceiling had a three-foot-wide hole where the roof had caved in. Some of Brown’s friends were able to help her bail out the two feet of water that had flooded her home, but it took a few months for the walls to dry out—by then, the house was infested with mold. "I couldn't hardly breathe,” Brown told VICE. Even the breathing machine she used to treat her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease didn’t make the situation much easier, she said.

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Brown was 17 when her family first moved to their 950-square-foot home in Houston’s Homestead neighborhood—a quiet area of churches, single-family homes and schools on the northeast side of the city. That was more than half a century ago, in 1967, back when most of Houston was officially off limits to Black families like her own, due to discriminatory redlining, and the city was half its current size. Brown’s seen a lot of changes since then. The country passed the The Civil Rights Act of 1968, making it illegal to refuse to sell someone a home or to lend them money for a home because of their race. In 1979, the city created the Whispering Pines landfill in the neighborhood, choosing to shuttle much of Houston’s trash to a site surrounded mostly by the homes of Black middle class families.

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Doris Brown in front of her home (Photo: Elena Botella)

Then, in August 2017, the single biggest rainfall event in American history dumped one trillion gallons of water on Houston’s Harris County, flooding Brown’s home with two feet of water. The hurricane wrecked Brown’s house. But what ripped her life apart was FEMA’s decision to deny her assistance. The house, the assessor decided, was still functional.

“They decided I could live with it,” Brown said. She couldn’t.

With not enough money to make repairs, Brown, a disabled senior, spent roughly two years sleeping on other people’s couches. She borrowed roughly $10,000 on her credit card to fix her water-damaged truck and pay for living expenses—debt that she said dropped her credit score from 688 to 619. If Brown were to apply for another loan or an apartment, she can expect that 70-point-drop would raise her borrowing costs by over 50 percent, and cause a lot of landlords to turn her down as a tenant.

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While Americans understand the devastation natural disasters can bring upon families, many also assume that if a family makes it past the initial onslaught of rain, fire or wind, their needs will be taken care of by one of the country’s many state or federal disaster relief programs. After Hurricane Harvey, the national media aggressively reported on how much money Houston received compared to post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, leaving the impression that Texans would fully bounce back. Some certainly did. In Houston, relief policies proved so generous to higher-income families that Harvey’s hurricane damage became a springboard into an even stronger financial position. But in the alphabet soup of disaster relief programs, each with their own complex eligibility rules, many poor Texan homeowners fared much worse or were even entirely left out of the equation. Almost three years later, many of them are still grappling to regain whatever semblance of wealth or stability they had before the storm.

The U.S. disaster relief system works a lot like the economy as a whole: ruthlessly advancing the interests of the better-off, while leaving poorer people trapped in decaying homes.

In that sense, the U.S. disaster relief system works a lot like the economy as a whole: ruthlessly advancing the interests of the better-off, while leaving poorer people trapped in decaying homes and neighborhoods. Today, the two federal agencies that played the biggest roles after Harvey, FEMA and the Small Business Administration, find themselves tasked with containing the ever broader economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. As the coronavirus threatens every single city in the nation, the lessons of Harvey’s aftermath provide a warning: When it comes to offering real assistance, these tangled government bureaucracies often fail to offer help to lower-income people when they need it most.

Hurricane Harvey provided a rare look at how American disaster relief actually works

For Emily Gallagher and Stephen Billings, professors of finance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Lowell Ricketts, an analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Harvey provided an opportunity to better understand how flooding altered the lives of American families of various socioeconomic positions.

After the hurricane, the academics analyzed the anonymized Equifax credit bureau data of 5 percent of the Houston population, before and after the disaster. They then matched that information about loans, debts, and credit scores with data showing the amount of flood damage on each of Houston’s city blocks.

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In cities like Houston, where there is a potential for flooding, FEMA draws up what is called a “100-year floodplain,” a map indicating which plots of land have at least a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. Homeowners who take out a mortgage to buy a house inside the 100-year floodplain are usually required by their lender to purchase flood insurance. But outside of the floodplain, flood insurance is merely optional, and most people don’t buy it. In Houston, Hurricane Harvey demonstrated that the particulars of the floodplain were disastrously wrong. Only around two percent of the flood intensity in any given block could be explained by FEMA’s flood maps, which created a scenario few expected. In Harris County, four in every five flooded homes sat outside the floodplain. That included Brown’s. She and others like her had escaped other major floods like Tropical Storm Allison and the Memorial Day Flood, largely unscathed. But when Harvey came through, they watched their entire net worth literally wash away, without the safety net of insurance.

The Houston floodplains created four cleanly distinct groups: (1) people who lived in an area known to be flood-prone, who were flooded; (2) people who lived in an area known to be flood-prone, but who escaped flooding; (3) people who lived in an area thought to be relatively safe from flooding, who were nevertheless flooded; and (4) people who lived in an area thought to be relatively safe from flooding, who did escape flooding. Hurricane Harvey hit wealthy and poor parts of town about equally—if anything, richer neighborhoods were a bit likelier to flood. The fact that Harvey destroyed and spared rich and poor neighborhoods, in areas inside and outside the FEMA 100-year floodplain, gave the researchers one of the clearest views we’ve ever had into the ways that natural disasters change peoples’ lives, both in circumstances when people had been told to prepare for a disaster, and when the disaster came as a big surprise.

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The researchers discovered something startling: When compared to similarly wealthy families that avoided flooding, the percent of their debt that was past due decreased by 44 percent, and their likelihood of declaring bankruptcy fell.

To get ahead, wealthy owners of flooded homes creatively leveraged private resources and public programs , including insurance payouts, tax breaks, loan-interest-rate loans, employer benefit programs, and higher rates of eligibility for FEMA assistance. The government or insurance companies provided cash or low-interest loans for rebuilding that resulted in higher home values. Using capital that wouldn’t have been available in the absence of disaster, contractors remodeled houses, replacing dated fixtures and finishes with contemporary remodels, each carpet and countertop newer and nicer than its predecessor. Mortgages were refinanced at lower interest rates too. While some of the money sent to wealthier, flooded households came with strings attached, earmarked by the state or federal government for a specific purposes, other payouts—like comprehensive car insurance coverage and tax deductions for depreciated assets—could be spent on whatever the family needed, giving higher-income families more wiggle room in their budgets than they had pre-crisis.

“We think redlining happened many years ago, but those laws still matter today. You have to recognize that people were pushed into these neighborhoods unjustly to begin with.”

Homeowners like Brown living in lower-income Houston neighborhoods, were far less lucky. A variety of rules put these families at a disadvantage, a primary reason so many are still grappling with the hurricane’s effects today. Because of climate change, the severity of hurricanes will only get worse over time. So for the flood-prone Gulf Coast, the negative effects of the American disaster relief system on poor homeowners and renters will in all likelihood only get worse too.

Overall, only 27 percent of the people who registered their homes with FEMA after Hurricane Harvey received assistance. For those who were approved, it normally wasn’t enough—on average, just $7,295.

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Poorer families who were flooded but supposedly lived outside the floodplain—and subsequently were less likely to be required to have flood insurance—were hit particularly hard financially, especially those who lived in lower-income but predominantly owner-occupied neighborhoods like Brown’s. For these families, Hurricane Harvey led to a 15 percent increase in the share of their debt that was past due, and a 30 percent increase in their likelihood of declaring bankruptcy.

The pain from the lack of aid was compounded by how financial institutions now saw them. On average, flooded mortgage-holders in poorer neighborhoods outside the floodplain experienced a 24-point drop in their credit scores. By comparison, flooded mortgage-holders in wealthier neighborhoods outside the floodplain experienced just a 4-point drop in their credit scores—not a statistically significant change—and mortgage-holders inside the floodplain saw effectively no change to their credit scores, regardless of their financial status before the hurricane.

Deanna Adams, founder of a local disaster relief group called West Street Recovery, points out that Black Houstonians remain relatively concentrated in a few parts of town, because of “redlining,” rules by the government and banks that prevented Black people from buying property outside of designated neighborhoods until the 1960s. Many of the people living in Northeast Houston are living in homes originally purchased by their now-deceased parents or grandparents, said Adams, who pointed out that the title to the home was often not transferred to the heir upon death, making it difficult for families to prove an ownership of a property and creating one of the barriers that poorer residents face when they apply for FEMA assistance.

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“We think redlining happened many years ago, but those laws still matter today,” said Alycia Miles, who co-founded West Street along with other Houston Black Lives Matter members after seeing the disparities in Houston’s responses to Harvey. “You have to recognize that people were pushed into these neighborhoods unjustly to begin with.”

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Lavender Street in Kashmere Gardens (Photo: Elena Botella)

The effects of redlining on the country’s disaster relief efforts were in clear view in the Houston neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens, where Brown grew up before her family moved to Homestead. Redlining forced Black families into less-desirable neighborhoods, which then became the city’s dumping ground in ways that further harmed home values. As Houston developed into an industrial powerhouse, neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens were selected as the places to house rail yards and chemical treatment plants. Last August, the Texas Department of Health Services officially declared Kashmere Gardens a “cancer cluster,” a result of the toxic chemicals dumped into the neighborhood’s water and the ground over the course of decades.

Even though Kashmere Gardens is about six miles closer to Houston’s city center than Homestead, the average 1,000-square-foot home there is now worth about $20,000. That’s $40,000 less than a comparable house in Homestead and $120,000 less than the average Houston home.

Those low home values shut Kashmere Gardens’ residents out of most forms of disaster relief, because of a federal policy colloquially called the “50 percent rule.”

Why poorer, blacker neighborhoods get less help

Nearly every federal rebuilding program, including FEMA’s Direct Assistance for Limited Home Repair Program, has a provision that says homeowners aren’t allowed to spend more than 50 percent of their home’s value on repairs for their flooded property within the 100-year floodplain, unless they simultaneously elevate their home, which costs about $75 per square foot.

But the fact that a house sits on polluted land doesn’t make it any cheaper to fix. If someone’s house is only worth $20,000, federal rules say they’re not even supposed to be eligible for the permits to make more than $10,000 in fixes, even if the money for repairs comes from a community group like West Street Recovery or the homeowner’s own pockets. It doesn’t matter that the home values have been depressed by systemic discrimination.

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There’s a certain logic behind the policy of discouraging people from rebuilding flooded homes. FEMA says the goal is to “reduce the total number of buildings that are exposed to flood damage, thus reducing the burden on taxpayers through the payment of disaster assistance.” But this policy also means you’ll be helped if your house sits on expensive land, but you’ll be ignored if your house sits on cheap land—even if the very reason the land is cheap is because of decades of racist policies. As Gallagher and her coauthors’ research explains, some people with flood insurance are able to use their insurance payouts to pay down their mortgage, and have enough insurance cash left over to restart their lives in a new city. But for those without insurance, there’s no magical pot of money to help you start over somewhere new. More often than not, you’re just screwed.

For those who would rather leave flood-prone areas than rebuild, federal assistance is limited. The federal government manages a buyout program to purchase repeatedly flooded properties, but in Houston, only about 3,100 homes have been bought out since 1985. That’s a tiny fraction of the flood-prone homes: 36,000 homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey, and 24,000 homes that flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Getting a federal payout typically takes five years or longer, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council—a realistic timeline for the investors who have been rushing to buy Houston’s flooded homes, but not for an ordinary family who needs a place to live.

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Because of depressed property values, buyout amounts often aren’t enough for those from poor parts of town to start over somewhere new, according to Miles of West Street Recovery.

“The issue with encouraging folks to stay is that you have [to] recognize that people were pushed into these neighborhoods unjustly to begin with, Miles said. “You can’t be mad if people want to leave.”

But they can’t, and as a result, the homes on Harvey-flooded blocks in Kashmere Gardens are still largely occupied, complete with boarded-up windows and rotted-out walls. A few have been sold to investors paying as little as $1,000 or $2,000 in cash to create lowest-grade rental housing after a quick touch-up of the home’s exterior.

“Northeast hasn’t been gentrified,” said Miles, a real estate agent by profession. “But it’s being bought up by massive rental companies.”

When homeowners in poor parts of town get a few thousand dollars for their flood-damaged home from an investor, it might be enough to put down a security deposit for an apartment, but they’ve lost what once was their most valuable asset—their home—and they join another cohort often left out of disaster relief policies: renters. A federal lawsuit filed last October alleges that tenants of color were systematically denied federal assistance in Harvey’s aftermath. In theory, tenants should be able to ask their landlords to make the repairs needed to bring the dwelling back “up to code” after a disaster, but those requests normally go unanswered, Miles said.

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To help understand why financial outcomes diverged so dramatically for wealthier and poorer families after flooding, the St. Louis Fed researchers dove into the federal data from every Houston resident who registered with FEMA’s Individual Household Program. Again, Brown’s experience proved typical. After controlling for the average flood depth and level of property damage, people living in neighborhoods with more racial minorities and low-income residents were less likely to have their applications for FEMA assistance approved, and received a lower amount of assistance if they were approved.

When reached for comment, a FEMA spokesperson pushed back against this categorization over email, saying that “FEMA disaster assistance is available without regard to race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency, or economic status.”

Although the spokesperson confirmed to VICE that the agency’s analysts were able to confirm some of the study’s conclusions, she also expressed concerns that “the study’s findings may not fully account for the complexity of determining assistance awards and the many factors that determine assistance outcomes.”

To explain why lower-income homeowners would be approved for FEMA assistance at lower rates, the spokesperson pointed out that some poorer families forego flood insurance, which can render them ineligible for FEMA grants if they live within the 100-year floodplain, especially if they’ve accepted FEMA aid for the same property during a past hurricane or flood. And the spokesperson argued that assistance amounts may be lower on average for lower-income homeowners because they often live in smaller homes or mobile homes, which may cost less to fix.

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FEMA didn’t comment on Brown’s case specifically, but said mold damage caused by a “homeowner’s failure to clean or remove flood-soaked items” isn’t necessarily covered by FEMA assistance, even if mold can render a home uninhabitable. Additionally, the spokesperson pointed to the existence of a program that helps some homeowners pay for the expenses associated with cleaning and removing waterlogged material.

Small Business Administration loans: a handout or a burden?

As important as FEMA can be, FEMA grants aren’t the main form of federal relief after natural disasters: that comes in the form of low-interest rate loans from, of all places, the Small Business Administration, a synecdoche for the kludge and confusion of American natural disaster relief. In the first year after Harvey, the federal government gave out $2 in SBA disaster assistance loans for every dollar it paid to Harvey victims as FEMA grants. In total, the SBA gave out more than $3 billion in disaster relief loans to Texans after Harvey; more than 90 percent of these loan dollars went to families, not businesses.

SBA loans provide the government with an avenue to say it’s helping out, without actually having to spend any money. Gallagher and her St. Louis Fed co-authors explained in their report last year that the SBA has a “goal of making revenue neutral loans using a single interest rate for all borrowers.” These SBA disaster assistance loans, in some sense, can be considered good deals. The most common interest rate assessed is 1.75 percent—well below the rate at which most consumers, even those with good credit scores, can normally borrow money.

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But because that requires the government to zero in on people who can repay their loans, they decline most of their applicants. The Center for Public Integrity found that the approval rate for federal disaster assistance loans was only 42 percent between 2001 and 2018. Ninety percent of denials were due to “lack of repayment ability” or “unsatisfactory credit history.”

Although these loans must be repaid with interest, it’s clear the federal government views them as a hand-out. If you pay for your own disaster repairs with money you already had in your checking account or through a bank loan, you can sometimes get reimbursed by state or federal grants. But if you use an SBA loan to make repairs, you render yourself ineligible for reimbursement, since the federal government considers that “duplication of benefits.” The FEMA spokesperson confirmed that federal agencies—including FEMA, SBA, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development—aren’t allowed to duplicate assistance. If a homeowner is given an SBA loan, that loan can’t be repaid with grant money.

SBA loans provide the government with an avenue to say it’s helping out, without actually having to spend any money.

The twist that taking out an SBA loan makes you ineligible for grants is rarely explained to potential borrowers, and often comes as a surprise. FEMA told VICE they encourage all applicants who may be qualified for SBA loans to apply, in part, because other sources of disaster relief money aren’t usually available as quickly. A 2018 law signed by President Trump provided a partial fix to this problem, allowing for SBA loan recipients to remain eligible for other forms of disaster relief, but only if states apply for and receive a waiver.

Thomas “Kit” Carson, 47, has lived in Richwood, Texas, a town 50 miles due south of Houston toward the Gulf Coast, since leaving the military in 1995. During Harvey, Carson’s house took on four feet of water, and the water sat in the house for a full week, meaning much of the sheet rock had to be gutted. The damage was estimated at $92,000, and he took out an SBA loan for that amount.

“Before Harvey, my credit score was in the 700s and excellent,” Carson said. But the loans he took out after added $1,000 per month to his bills—$650 of which was from the SBA loan, and another $350 that arose from credit cards he used to replace household goods like furniture. It was hard to keep up with the bills, he said, and his credit score began to fall as he missed payments.

He tried to call his lenders to try to negotiate a break, but he said most didn’t offer him any forgiveness. “I would have been better off not getting the SBA loan and going through the bank,” Carson said, noting the fact that if he had borrowed money from a bank, he might have gotten the money reimbursed with a HUD grant. Because he borrowed money from the government, he’ll be on the hook to repay the $92,000, which he estimates will take him decades. In the American disaster relief system, Carson’s situation is considered a government “benefit.”

"I would have been better off not getting the SBA loan and going through the bank."

Gallagher and her coauthors’ research adds to a growing mountain of evidence that our disaster relief policies absorb much of the cost of disasters for wealthier families, while leaving poorer and minority communities on their own to muck their ways out. Gallagher’s research shows that natural disasters create enduring financial setbacks for low-income families. As climate change increases the severity of floods and hurricanes, their research shows that poorer families in coastal states will be the ones hit with the brunt of the cost.

In January of this year, Brown finally moved back home and slept in her own bed for the first time in two years. After years of sleeping in other people’s houses, she was able to rebuild the home with money and help from West Street Recovery, the organization that Miles and Adams helped form.

Brown knows that Houston will flood again, and is angry that elected officials haven’t done more to protect communities like her own from the next disaster. "They're sitting on the money, not trying to help nothing,” she said. “I just don’t want people to forget about us.”

As a teenager, Brown had skipped school to march in downtown Houston, protesting Jim Crow and voter suppression. After Harvey, Brown was fed up with Houston’s response to the hurricane and co-founded Northeast Action Collective to fight for policies that would make her community more resilient, like more quickly cleaning out municipal drains after heavy rainfalls and creating more green spaces to absorb water.

“My mom used to say I was a rebel without a cause,” Brown said. “But now I have a lot of causes: climate, my neighbors, my community. I'm back at it."

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