by Noah Patton, NLIHC housing policy analyst

The apocalyptic images of wildfires, windstorms, earthquakes, and hurricanes that have graced television screens and newspaper pages across the country this year are a sobering reminder of our warming climate, and the fact that our country is much more susceptible to disasters than we’d like to think. They also hide a greater truth: that the individuals hit hardest by natural disasters commonly receive the least aid to help them recover.

Bay Area, Ca., Sept. 9, 2020. Courtesy of Jim Tang @wxmann

Although sometimes unnoticed, this effect is seared into our collective memory through catastrophic events. Hurricane Katrina evacuees being forced to commandeer school busses to escape rising flood waters in New Orleans, public housing residents trapped in their apartments during Hurricane Sandy, rural villages cut off from the outside world for weeks after Hurricane Maria, and smoldering mobile homes during California’s 2018 Wildfire Season all underscore that the most catastrophic effects of disasters are felt by low-income communities, including communities of color, individuals living with disabilities, individuals with low English proficiency, and individuals experiencing homelessness. Thanks to a changing climate, this effect will only become more pronounced.

Formed after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) – consisting of more than 850 local, state, and national organizations working in disaster recovery – has pushed for transparent disaster research and continually advocated that the lowest income households receive the resources they need to survive disasters and recover in their aftermath. The experiences of DHRC members during this effort led to the conclusion that a wholesale reimagining of America’s disaster recovery system was needed – one that was grounded in equity, community participation, and access. In order to facilitate this reimagining, NLIHC brought over 70 experts, community organizers, and legal advocates together to formulate what such a system would look like. The result of these conversations has been released in a two-part report authored by NLIHC and the Fair Share Housing Center entitled “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System.”

America’s Disaster Recovery System is Broken for the Lowest Income Households

Disaster Planners typically focus on what many incorrectly view as the “Typical American” – a middle aged, English speaking, white man that owns an insured home, a personal vehicle, and has steady employment and finances. This emphasis is unsurprising given that disaster planners are disproportionately white and male. The effect of this assumption is that low-income households that do not fit this ideal are placed in more danger during disasters and are forced to wait through extended recovery efforts that can span up to a decade.

The effects of redlining, gentrification, Jim Crowism, and the nationwide shortage of affordable housing has pushed many low-income households into areas at high risk of disasters. These families could not be more different from the ideal that our current disaster recovery system is based around. These households include individuals with disabilities who are 2 to 4 times more likely to die or sustain critical injuries during disasters than those without disabilities, individuals experiencing homelessness who are often discriminated against in disaster shelters and who are not eligible for the vast majority of federal disaster recovery assistance, recent immigrants and others with low English proficiency that may not have access to translated emergency notices or may be fearful of deportation should they seek federal disaster recovery assistance, and those from low income neighborhoods who must deal with outdated water and utility infrastructure and whose property ownership practices are not taken into account by FEMA.

Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition Member, Chrishelle Palay. Sept. 10, 2020 Congressional Briefing on “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System”

Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System Part 1: Barriers to a Complete and Equitable Recovery” focuses on these failures – that consistently appear during disaster after disaster. As the 2020 Hurricane Season continues to unfold, bringing with it more storms like Hurricane Laura that struck SW Louisiana in late August, these issues, and all those outlined in Part 1 of the report are likely to continue appearing until the necessary reforms are made. 

Reform is Desperately Needed at All Levels of the Disaster Recovery System

As illustrated above, the current disaster recovery system is broken and does not work for the low-income households most likely to experience the worst of a disaster. This failure to account for the social and economic inequalities in America today is made worse by FEMA focusing on rigid adherence to protocol, the ability to prematurely pull out of disaster areas, and on fraud prevention at the expense of low-income households. In order to ensure that low income households receive the assistance they need to recover, the focus of disaster recovery efforts must be changed to serve those most in need.

A focus on robust resident and public engagement is necessary at all stages of disaster response and recovery, along with the prioritization of transparency to ensure that disaster efforts have the greatest impact. Full accountability in disaster assistance programs must be established, and due process must be protected throughout the entire recovery process – from FEMA damage inspections to appealing denials of aid. Equity and civil rights enforcement must be made a priority to ensure that aid is being distributed equally – and not leaving out marginalized people in the process. Where mitigation and similar projects are used to decrease the risk of certain areas to disasters, such decisions should be made fairly, with the affected community having substantial input into the process. Finally, FEMA should focus greater effort on building the capacity of local communities to ensure that local service organizations, religious groups, and other community organizations can withstand a disaster and work together with residents towards an equitable recovery.

Attendees of the 2019 DHRC Convening set down numerous reforms to bring current practices in line with this re-orientation of disaster recovery priorities. “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System Part 2: Policy Framework Reform Recommendations” cover each of these recommendations in depth. They range from changes at the local level such as inviting members of historically marginalized communities to participate in pre-planning evacuation programs, to federal level changes like the creation of a universal aid application for all federally funded disaster recovery programs. As our climate continues to warm – spawning ever-more dangerous tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes – reforms such as these are becoming increasingly urgent.

NLIHC and fellow disaster advocates held a public briefing for Capitol Hill staff on September 10 outlining needed reforms to the nation’s disaster recovery and response system.

Watch a recording of the briefing at: