Thursday 19 September 2019

'Where's the humanity? Where's the love? Where's God?' - The human cost of natural disaster

After Hurricane Dorian left a trail of death and destruction in The Bahamas last week, Rachel Farrell examines the impact disasters are having on homes in the US after eight months of research

UTTER DEVASTATION: The Mudd neighbourhood after Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Photo: Marco Bellow
UTTER DEVASTATION: The Mudd neighbourhood after Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Photo: Marco Bellow
Rachel Farrell

Rachel Farrell

Under the shade of a sweeping Texas ash tree, Benjamin Davis sits in the trunk of a Ford Escape parked across from his condemned home. The veteran stares down at his rugged hands, cracked and worn from years of hard labour and humid heat.

For Davis (57), the loss of his home to Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 was like losing his soul.

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"How do you get back to being a man? To having people respect you?" he asked, shaking his head. "Look at my hands - my hands shouldn't look like this. You do any and everything to survive."

In the past 10 years, almost 7.3 million Americans have been displaced by disasters. Some go to hotels, others rely on help from strangers, many don't have anywhere to go.

Since Harvey struck the Texas coast, Davis hasn't lived in his home. For a while, he stayed in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) before moving the few belongings he has left to the Ford, which he borrowed. Every night, he rearranges the boxes in the car to create a makeshift bed. "Everything in that car over there - that's all I got left."

Harvey, a Category 4 storm which brought record levels of rain and created immeasurable damage, prompted nearly 780,000 Texans to evacuate their homes, according to Fema.

HOMELESS: Benjamin Davis. Photo: Stacy Fernandez
HOMELESS: Benjamin Davis. Photo: Stacy Fernandez

To date, more than $1.24bn (€1.12bn) has been approved by Fema for homes damaged in Texas by Harvey, a fraction of the $16.7bn spent on housing assistance in the US since 2003.

Housing assistance, which falls under Fema's individuals and households programme, provides money to qualified homeowners for "necessary housing-related expenses and serious needs caused by the disaster". This includes reimbursement for short-term stays in hotels, rental help and the repair or replacement of homes.

After the eye of Hurricane Harvey made its first landfall on San Jose Island off Texas, it travelled east toward Louisiana, slamming the 53,000 residents of Port Arthur on the way. While much of the attention was on Houston, America's fourth largest city, homeowners in Port Arthur, 90 miles to the east, dealt with extensive flood and wind damage.

Some 41 counties in southern and south-eastern Texas were designated disaster regions, which qualified people there to receive individual assistance from Fema. The South Texas Economic Development Centre found more than half all homes in Port Arthur and in Orange and Jefferson counties were damaged. Davis's house was one.

"They say there's always somebody out there worse off than me," he said. "If I could have foreseen the future, maybe I would've did things differently."

For long-time Port Arthur resident Kim Therrien, 45cm of water put her out of her home. The 56-year-old, who was raised in the house, as was her daughter, knew she would have to leave when water reached the power outlets in the house. She hasn't lived there since.

Therrien stayed with her younger brother, who rescued her from the front porch, until a friend from church invited her to stay at her home. She moved in before Christmas in 2017 and has been there since. Although her friend has been accommodating, she said, there's still "a feeling of not belonging".

Inside her damaged home, piles of belongings reflect the memories made over 50 years: the magazine cuttings her mother kept and handwritten recipes from her great-grandmother that she, one day, will pass on to her grandchildren.

"If God's ever ready for me to come back, I'll be back bigger and better than ever," Therrien said. "That's just how he does things. But it may not be in my future to be back here, which will break my heart."

Cristina Cornejo, a programme officer with the Rebuild Texas Fund, said the non-profit group is still assessing homes. She expects home rebuilding will continue for the next five to eight years.

"True rebuilding takes almost a decade. Are we there? I think we have made great strides," she said. "And I think state and federal governments and local entities are really working hard together to move that needle. However, there's still such an extensive need."

Texas governor Greg Abbott's Commission to Rebuild Texas reports that more than $539m has been spent on housing and other disaster expenses in Houston as of January 2019.

Houston's poor communities took a big hit from Harvey. North of downtown Houston is Kashmere Gardens, a black neighbourhood. Many houses, according to volunteers, were in bad shape before Harvey hit and residents already lacked the means to rebuild quickly.

"In March 2018, nine months after the storm, we found a home that had 10 people living in it," said Colleen Henneke, a volunteer with Houston Responds, a non-profit which mobilises churches for disaster recovery.

"Mom and dad, seven kids and a brother, and the home had not been mucked or gutted," Henneke said. "Just mould infestation, and they were sitting in that, and we're still finding that."

Sally Ray from the Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund at the Centre for Disaster Philanthropy, said: "Texas likes to think they've done things better. And in some cases that might be true. But recovery here has faced the same issues we see everywhere else."

In Louisiana, low to moderate income people tend to live in flood prone areas. After a series of hurricanes in the past decade, as well as normal flooding, the state is tackling both housing restoration and land loss.

Hurricane Katrina, often described as the largest residential disaster in US history, displaced more than a million people and damaged more than a million housing units along the Gulf Coast, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Centre.

Because land is cheaper in flood-prone areas, said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Office of Community Development at Louisiana Division of Administration, it often attracts lower income residents. Flood insurance is more expensive in these areas, which drives down property values.

Forbes's team works primarily with people with low to moderate incomes and severe, repetitive property losses. The department has administered more than $16bn in community development grants and is becoming a leader in dealing with the ever-growing risk of coastline losses. "Louisiana is losing land faster than anywhere in the country, maybe faster than anywhere in the world," Forbes said.

After Hurricane Harvey, the National Low Income Housing Coalition founded the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, a group of 800 state, national and philanthropic organisations. It has called on Fema and its housing assistance programmes to provide better protection for lower income families after disasters.

Sarah Mickelson, senior director of policy for the disaster recovery coalition, said many displaced people return to uninhabitable homes, putting their health and safety at risk. "Or they are sleeping in cars or tents, or are doubling or tripling up with other low-income families - all these are things that are putting them at higher risk of evictions and, in the worst cases, homelessness," she said.

Nicole Hallam and her family have moved between hotels and camper vans five times in the year since a tornado tore through Marshalltown in Iowa. She and her husband and their nine-year-old daughter, who has ADHD, stayed in a hotel for four days after the July 2018 tornado.

They borrowed a camper van from a friend before buying their own, where they lived for more than three months - right in the middle of the summer rainy season, "the bug apocalypse".

"If it wasn't raining, you were walking out the door and you had 50 mosquitoes instantly on you. It was just miserable," Hallam said.

Since then, the family has lived in two hotels. They don't expect to move back to their home. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. But I hope that it's made us stronger as a family, as a town," she said.

Despite thousands of people currently displaced from disasters, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates almost a quarter of a million people will be forced to leave their homes because of disasters every year across the US.

How long they will be displaced for remains unclear.

But Ray, from the Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund, said disaster recovery is long term - and the US must address the needs of vulnerable populations in non-disaster times and help build their resiliency during disaster. "In other words, we must address low-income housing, economic issues, systemic racism, poverty and environmental issues before disaster strikes to make sure that we are better prepared for what is to come," she said.

For Benjamin Davis, who remains living in a borrowed car in Port Arthur, the possibility that he will never return home rings true, but he tries to hold on to hope.

"Where's the humanity? Where's the love? Where's God? Trust me, I don't question, but I wonder. How can a person change his life like this and then, whoosh, one day. Will I come back? Who's to say?"

Additional reporting from Stacy Fernandez and Becca Scadden. See the video at independent.ie

Rachel Farrell is this year's recipient of the Veronica Guerin Ireland Funds fellowship

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