Two weeks after hurricane Harvey, Soni Herrera is trapped at her home – a home she and her family cannot yet live in.
Like many of the tens of thousands of Houstonians flooded out of their houses, Ms. Herrera, her husband, Jaime, and their four children benefited from the indiscriminate bravery of her community during and immediately after the storm. Neighbors helped them flee as the floodwaters crept under their doorway and rose past their knees. Friends took them in, squeezing them and another family of five into a three-bedroom home within earshot of the controlled explosions at the Arkema chemical plant.
But now, particularly for low-income families like the Herreras – Jaime is an analog x-ray technician, while Soni is on disability – the receding waters have only exposed a new raft of challenges.
Children need food, clothes, and a place to sleep. Flooded homes have to be cleaned out. Long waits in lines for donations, and on hold for relief claims, have to be endured. Plans for the school year have to be made.
For nine days, Herrera wrestled with these problems at her friends' house. It took days before she was able to tell her sister her family was all right. She was on hold for 1 hour and 47 minutes with the Federal Emergency Management Agency before the call dropped. With Herrera and her young autistic son diagnosed with conditions that weaken their immune system, going to a shelter is not an option. After nine days, they were able to book a hotel for one night. They haven’t been able to secure temporary housing through FEMA, so they’ve been devoting hours each day to driving around the city searching for another room for another night – all while gutting their home, finding food and supplies for their children, and starting the claims process with FEMA.
A week earlier, when the demolition began, hives broke out all over Mr. Herrera’s tattooed skin after ripping Sheetrock out of their waterlogged walls. But with the help of local church volunteers recruited by Herrera’s sister, the gutting of their home for the past four years is almost complete.
It affords a rare moment of rest for Mrs. Herrera, and she sets down her walking stick and eases onto a bench under a tree in her yard. The sodden contents of her home are piled up around her, drying in the sun. Rotting Sheetrock and floorboards are piled on the side of the street. The house had never flooded before Harvey dropped an unprecedented 52 inches of rain on the city.
“I don’t know how other people are doing it,” she says, speaking through a white mask covering her nose and mouth in her Beaumont Place neighborhood in northeast Houston.
“We have to be here because we have to put a roof over our kids’ heads. We know there are donations going on, but we have to be here,” she adds. “Not everyone has the availability and access to go wait in line.”
The Herreras’ situation illustrates a trend in how cities recover from natural disasters: Inequalities that existed in cities before disasters tend to be exacerbated afterward, research has shown. As it dries out and rebuilds, Houston – one of the most multicultural, but economically disparate, cities in the country – has the opportunity to break from this trend in a way that benefits its poor and immigrant communities, experts say.
“Historically, [with] disaster recovery dollars … money follows money,” says Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University in Houston and an expert on environmental justice. In other words, it is easier for disaster survivors with more resources to recover than those without – either because they can access aid programs more easily, or because they can afford to move away.
But Harvey presents opportunities to start addressing some of the systemic inequalities in these regions, says Dr. Bullard.
“We should break that paradigm and talk about trying to address that legacy,” he adds. “This is a real opportunity … to make this city greener, healthier, more climate resilient, but also fairer when it comes to quality of life.”
In the aftermath of hurricane Irma, Florida has similar challenges and opportunities. One in five Floridians is an immigrant, and 20 percent are undocumented. Florida has 3.3 million residents older than 65, more than any state other than California. Some 10 percent of the state's more than 20 million people lives in mobile homes – and are thus ineligible for FEMA relief – according to the most recent Census figures.
Disaster's effect on inequality
If Houston is able to recover from Harvey in a way that doesn’t maintain or exacerbate inequality in the city, it will become an exception to the rule for disaster-hit American cities.
In a study of disasters in the United States from 1920 to 2010, a group of researchers from around the country found that poverty rates increased by one percentage point in counties hit by disasters that resulted in 100 or more deaths.
“Natural disaster exposure risk could become another cause of rising quality of life inequality between the rich and poor,” the researchers wrote.
Furthermore, research has uncovered inequalities in how aid is distributed in the aftermath of natural disasters. Black-owned firms were “frozen out of the clean-up and rebuilding of the Gulf Coast” after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and “only 1.5 percent of the $1.6 billion awarded by FEMA went to minority businesses, less than a third of the 5 percent normally required by law,” wrote Bullard and a co-author in the book, “Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina.”
In the case of Houston, while the city’s population and ethnic diversity has skyrocketed in recent decades, so has its income inequality.
The poverty rate of Harris County, which surrounds the city, rose from 10 percent to 17 percent between 1980 and 2014, according to a 2016 report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. That poverty was also increasingly concentrated in specific areas, while the city’s high-income residents “are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the region.”
“That’s the economic segregation we must acknowledge, and hopefully address,” through Harvey recovery, says Bullard. “There have to be some special initiatives to address that.”
For low-income and immigrant communities, figuring out what kinds of help are available after a natural disaster – let alone applying for them – can be difficult. Bullard says officials need to communicate more and be open with different communities about how recovery funds are spent.
Houston’s recent emergence as the most diverse city in the country could also challenge the equity of its recovery process, particularly within its immigrant population.
The number of foreign-born residents jumped 60 percent since 2000, twice the national growth rate, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The varied experiences of that group so far illustrates how the Houston’s long-term recovery effort may have to be as diverse as its population if it doesn’t want anyone to be left behind.
Maria Barrios and Francisco Zamora say they have been pleasantly surprised by their experiences since they waded out of their north Houston home in almost waist-deep water. The two Mexican immigrants, speaking in early September at the NRG Center downtown, say the shelter is comfortable for them and their five children. They also got help in applying to FEMA for aid.
“We saw what happened with Katrina, when people came in and how disorganized it was.… We just didn’t know what to expect,” says Mr. Zamora, through a translator.
“I still can’t believe we’re here,” he says he tells Ms. Barrios when he wakes up at night.
Post-Harvey recovery may be more uncertain for the city’s estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants – even those with American-born children who are eligible for FEMA aid.
After President Trump entered the White House in January promising a crackdown on illegal immigration, Houston has seen some of the most aggressive enforcement. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in Houston, which covers southeast Texas, has been one of the most active offices in the country this year, making more than 2,000 arrests from January through mid-March.
While ICE reportedly suspended immigration enforcement in the days after the storm, Kate Vickery, executive director of Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, says the fear of enforcement could still scare some immigrants away from seeking help as they recover.
“We’ve seen since President Trump’s election that people without legal status don’t apply for federal benefits out of fear that applying on behalf of a citizen child will make them a target for immigration enforcement,” she adds.
Filling out a FEMA aid application “require[s] them to fill out form to the US government with their name and address on it, and nobody can say there’s no risk associated with that.”
“That’s what we’re concerned about, that people who are undocumented don’t have access to same type of relief as people who are citizens,” she adds.
From Jacksonville to Miami to rural Immokalee, Florida will now be wrestling with many of the same questions.
Irma destroyed 200 acres of seedlings in Immokalee, a city that grows a significant portion of the country’s tomatoes every year, providing vital income to low-income residents.
“I just hope and pray that as soon as we can, we can get back to the fields,” Anita Martinez, an Immokalee resident, told the Miami Herald.
'A long road ahead'
In Houston, Maria Molina is juggling three jobs and helping the Herreras recover.
Ms. Molina is one of the tens of thousands of Houstonians who, thanks to Harvey’s haphazard devastation, didn’t see significant flooding. So she has thrown herself into helping Herrera, her sister.
Between working multiple jobs, she called FEMA, the American Red Cross, Mayor Sylvester Turner, even the organization behind Houston Texans linebacker J.J. Watt’s relief fund, to ask for donations and help gutting their home. Eventually, she found the volunteers from the local church through a co-worker.
“The whole world is pulling together to donate,” she says on the phone earlier in the week, fighting back tears, “but no one [seems to be] giving anything.” Molina says she was talking about the federal and state governments, as well as large charities – not the individuals whose generosity became a byword during the storm. Every website she encountered had a "give here" button, but she couldn't find anywhere to help her sister ask those groups for help.
She is speaking after spending the afternoon getting new shoes for Herrera’s children. In the rush to evacuate during the storm, the family forgot to move the children’s shoes from under their beds. The floodwater took them.
“The water was in the neighborhood for three days, and she can’t recover from that, not right away,” she says. “I’m glad neighbors can help, and [that] churches are reaching out. I just hope we can keep finding people who can help. She and her family have a long road ahead.”