The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 1, 2018

How better data can inform decisions and improve disaster recovery

Charlie Duncan is the research director for Texas Housers. Amelia Adams is an equity analyst for the same organization.


Today marks the start of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, which is predicted to be slightly above average in the number and intensity of storms. But we’re still recovering from last year’s disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as California’s Tubbs and Thomas fires. In some cases, such as with Puerto Rico’s death count, we’re still measuring the damage from 2017. A new report estimates the total deaths from Hurricane Maria at 70 times higher than the government’s tally.

Each event on its own continues to pose challenges for the affected areas. But together, these events have taxed our national resources, local political will, and personal hopes. Individual victims and families—especially those with the least financial assets—will suffer the most from our inability to overcome the challenges of getting federal resources to the households most affected by disasters.

The fact that we often reinvent the wheel when it comes to identifying who is in need and how we fill that need accurately and fairly creates a barrier to better recovery. Many of us who have not been through a major disaster can’t imagine the hurdles involved in getting the paperwork about our leases, mortgages, or property insurance in order amid the chaos and anguish after a disaster.

But the moments after a disaster are critical for determining who recovers and how. Are communities and residents better prepared for these events than they were a year ago? And have we identified what governments need to know to be better prepared?

Examining the disaster data decision chain

From disaster damage assessments to final permits on rebuilt homes, the chain of data collections, analyses, and decisions is always complicated, often inconsistently regulated, and likely to leave gaps through which the neediest and most underserved disaster victims can slip.

Partnering with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (“Texas Housers”), the Urban Institute will produce a series of blog posts on the chain of disaster data that are collected, housed, and analyzed to support disaster assistance. We will also look at which disaster victims acquire all or part of the assistance they need and which fall out of assistance opportunities because of decisions made by federal, state, and local governments along the way.

One of our policy recommendations involves how state and local governments determine who receives assistance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), the final step and backstop to federal recovery aid.

As part of its effort to ensure that disaster data and decisions meet certain equity principles, Texas Housers has proposed a series of policy and program recommendations for Hurricane Harvey recovery.

One critical set of recommendations focuses on how Texas’ General Land Office (GLO, the state’s CDBG-DR grantee and administrator) assesses unmet housing needs, which informs how CDBG-DR funds are allocated among income groups, regions, and programs.

The office uses Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)–verified loss data to determine whether a household has an unmet need. Through the needs assessment in the GLO’s action plan, only homeowners with a FEMA-verified loss of at least $8,000 and renters with a FEMA-verified loss of at least $2,000 are considered to have an unmet housing need.

But the problem with this methodology is that the average FEMA-verified loss for low-income households is significantly lower than that for higher-income households, so low-income households are disproportionately considered to not have unmet housing needs. This incorrectly assumes that because FEMA placed a lower value on a low-income household’s losses, that household incurred less overall damage and has fewer housing needs.  

By adjusting the minimum FEMA-verified loss thresholds to base them on income levels, the state and any other recovery grantee can ensure low-income households are adequately factored into recovery plans. Areas with high concentrations of low-income households would also benefit from recovery assistance more than current plans allow.

disaster data income threshold

Improving disaster response through preparation

Future disasters are certain, even if they might not come tomorrow. But it’s clear that our response as a nation is still far from certain. We haven’t necessarily learned how to prepare sufficiently for and mitigate the likely damage from future disasters. At the very least, we should be prepared to respond in speedy, accurate, and fair ways to ensure all people can recover and start rebuilding their lives.

Isamar holds her baby Saniel on December 23, 2017 at their makeshift home in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Their home is under reconstruction after being mostly destroyed by Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.