The five-day deluge flooded more than 300,000 structures, 500,000 cars, and caused damage in excess of $125 billion, the study found. But the storm and its aftermath have had the most severe impact on vulnerable residents, many of whom are African American and Hispanic, have lower incomes or live in economically struggling areas known as the Golden Triangle — Beaumont, Orange and the Port Arthur area — said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation.
“These kinds of storms expose what’s already been happening in a community,” Marks said. “Bad things happen to everyone, but if you’re already disadvantaged, for example, by poverty or structural racism, then we shouldn’t expect you to bounce back as quickly as others who don’t suffer from these disadvantages.”
In 24 storm-affected counties that were surveyed, 8 percent of all residents remain displaced from the homes in which they were living at the time of the hurricane. That includes 20 percent of residents in the Golden Triangle, areas that have a high proportion of lower-income and minority residents, something Marks says illuminates the disparity of the hurricane’s impact.
Twenty-four percent of affected residents say they still need help repairing damage to their homes, according to the survey. And many say they need more assistance navigating government aid programs that are often complicated.
Among those whose homes have not been restored to the same or better condition than they were in before Harvey, the largest share — 51 percent — say the reason is that they cannot afford the cost of repairs. Eleven percent say they are waiting for insurance money or other financial help to come through, 10 percent are renters who say their landlords have not completed work, and 6 percent say they have not been to find someone to help them do the necessary work on their homes, according to the survey.
Approximately 1 in 5 of those whose homes were damaged as a result of Hurricane Harvey say their present living conditions are unsafe. Lower-income and Hispanic residents with home damage are more likely than others to say their current living conditions are not safe because their homes are near flood plains or because they are still living with mold or in half-finished homes, the survey says.
The survey results mirror what advocates and residents of those communities say. The affordable-housing group Texas Housers filed a complaint this summer with the General Land Office arguing that the agency’s Harvey recovery plan was “relegating African American and Hispanic households” to “not only an unequal recovery after Harvey but continued vulnerability during future storms as well.”
The Kaiser survey also conducted two Spanish-language focus groups: one with people who report having legal-resident status and the other with people who are likely to be undocumented immigrants. In both groups, people raised concerns about applying for aid without legal status or Social Security numbers.
“I heard that if you applied without papers or documents, they were registering you or recording you,” an unidentified 32-year-old undocumented Hispanic woman says in the survey report. “We were afraid it was like a trap. That they were getting that information to locate you.”
Mental health is also a concern in southwest Texas. The survey reports that 31 percent of affected residents indicated that the hurricane had some negative effect on their mental health, including that they are having a harder time controlling their temper; feel that their mental health has declined; or are newly taking prescription drugs to address mental-health concerns.
Toma Morin, 59, a retired nurse who lives in a one-bedroom home near Rockport and participated in the Kaiser survey, said she feels “very alone.” At the time of the hurricane, she was living “in our little house” with her husband, Joe, a 70-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War. When the storm hit, he was fresh from surgery related to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which his wife said the Department of Veterans Affairs found to be linked to his exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant that the U.S. military sprayed over vast tracts of Vietnam during the war.
“We put our Social Security numbers on our arms and rode it out,” she said of the storm. “He was too sick to move.”
Today, she lives alone because her husband’s frailty meant he had to move in with his daughter; the wobbly porch and ramps at the home he shared with his wife are too dangerous for him.
“We’re trying to find friends or someone, anyone, to fix it,” Toma Morin said, adding that she just wants her husband to be able to move back home. “There are still people down here without roofs, so I get it. But I’m a very persistent person, and we still can’t get someone over here to fix it.”