As a potentially catastrophic Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Carolinas, an extensive disaster recovery is likely no longer an “if” but a “when.” Yet many flaws with our disaster preparation and recovery remain unaddressed, even after the wake-up call of last year’s devastating natural disasters.
The Urban Institute partnered with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service to explore the chain of disaster recovery and data collection to identify areas where people might get left behind. Click on the headers below to read about problems in each step of the disaster recovery and data supply chain and about ways to strengthen the recovery process.
The assessment of damages to a house establishes several fundamental recovery decisions, starting with determinations of eligibility for public and charitable assistance programs. Despite advances in technical methods and standardized processes, assessments are far from perfect. Some properties might be inaccessible to inspectors for reasons related or unrelated to the disaster.
Additional problems come from the varying quality and consistency of inspectors and their techniques, and these challenges are likely to lead to households in need being denied assistance.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses property damage assessments to evaluate the need for long-term, temporary housing. Households can be left behind during the eligibility stage of the recovery process because the damage to their homes falls below an eligibility threshold or because their repair costs are underestimated.
But need estimates often do not account for the disproportionate burden that damage costs have on low-income households.
The way households self-identify and provide information about themselves for a governmental program to determine their eligibility for and eventual receipt of assistance can be complicated and confusing. The short time frame for applications combined with additional challenges facing certain groups and complicated processes can mean disaster victims do not receive the help they need.
Federal aid application and review data evolve into administrative data used by states to develop postdisaster action plans. Aid agencies are hindered by inconsistent rules and regulations and an inability to link administrative data systems across federal and local agencies and private insurers. These limitations prevent federal and local agencies from providing integrated case management for disaster-affected households and expediting aid delivery for those with the greatest need.
Disaster programs and their data exist outside the world of housing and community development and its knowledge base. The system is not designed to address the intersection of current housing and community challenges with the expected impact of climate change. To recover from disasters more quickly, communities will need to have better knowledge about housing, household conditions, and local housing construction and rebuilding beforehand and to start envisioning what their communities should be like after a disaster strikes.
Learning from the past to improve future recovery
We can learn from the past to prepare for future disasters. But we can only learn when we place the households that have experienced disasters—and that are most likely to slip through the cracks—at the center of our disaster policies and aid programs.
As Tracie Washington said at the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy’s commemoration of the 13 years since Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, “We need to be in a place when, after a disaster, we’re not in a position of begging for help.”