When the last major hurricane slammed into a densely populated section of the United States in 2012, New York, New Jersey and some surrounding states took the brunt of the damage. That time, the hurricane was called Sandy. And public officials made the usual promises: That which Sandy had put wrong, the government would help to put right.
But three New Jersey nonprofits discovered policies and practices that overstated the needs of homeowners and underestimated the number of renters who lost their housing and belongings in the storm, according to a complaint the nonprofits filed with the federal government. Aid plans did not ensure that the bulk of the aid money went to areas which suffered the most damage. Complete and accurate disaster aid information existed only in English. And because decades of federal, state and local housing policy had made white residents far more likely than others to own their homes, the entire plan was poised to do more to meet the needs of the state’s disproportionately white, middle-class and wealthy homeowners than others, according to that complaint. What was more, 80 percent of the recovery aid applications rejected in New Jersey should have been approved, the agencies behind the complaint found.
The Obama administration agreed. The situation was not right.
In 2014, New Jersey and the agencies settled on a series of changes to the aid program. What followed was not just a victory for the Fair Share Housing Center, the New Jersey NAACP and the Latino Action Network, the three agencies which filed the complaint, or even the millions affected by Sandy. The federal government decided to conduct a wholesale review of disaster recovery. Then, several federal agencies for the first time in U.S. history gave specific guidance directing state and local officials to pay close attention to equity when administering disaster aid. That is particularly important now that American’s most diverse city — Houston — has been ravaged by a Category 4 hurricane called Harvey.
The Washington Post talked with Kevin Walsh, executive director of Fair Share, about lessons learned during Sandy and some of what people living in communities ravaged by Harvey need to think about. What follows is a conversation with Walsh, edited for clarity and length.
Q: When people think about storms and recovery, what do you think they expect from the government?
A: People want things to be returned to the way they were before the storm. There are a lot of promises made that there will be a robust and effective recovery, but it is a long and arduous process, and for many, the rhetoric will not be real for several years after the disaster and possibly not at all.
[In the past,] the disaster recovery programs funded by the federal government have done a tremendous amount of good in helping families and individuals return home, but there are also people historically who have not received much help because of the complicated nature of the programs, insufficient resources, and policies regarding who will and will not receive help.
Here in New Jersey, after Sandy, we ran into a situation where a local recovery center — the place where people needed to go to apply for help — changed locations and changed its hours. That information was updated in English on the website and materials given to the public, but not in Spanish. There was also an appeals process for people whose applications were rejected. But there was no information indicating that an appeals process even existed for people whose primary language is not English.
Q: How have class differences and the link between race, ethnicity and home ownership traditionally been attended to in disaster recovery?
A: Very often what we see after a disaster is that “we are all in this together” begins to diminish and people’s biases begin to emerge. And that’s not just [limited to] the landlords. Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it may not be, but the effect can still be the same.
What we saw here in New Jersey was Gov. Christie going around and talking about homeowners all the time, again and again and again. In press releases and TV appearances, the governor would show up and say we are going to help these homeowners and small business owners recover. That’s our priority, that’s our job. Nothing wrong with helping homeowners. That’s actually really important. But, inside that “homeowners are our priority” talk, it became very clear, were some ideas.
The notion was that renters were transient, they have not really been harmed. They can just move on, go elsewhere. But the reality was that other than the mortgage, they had the same claims and the same problems as homeowners. They had jobs, generally, somewhere near the places they had been renting. Their kids went to school, generally nearby. They also needed to get back to their lives.
Then those [Christie] talking points became their policies.
After Congress finally passed a funding bill and New Jersey came up with an action plan, it did exactly what the governor said. But it also vastly underestimated — perhaps unintentionally, perhaps by design, it’s unclear — the needs of renters. There was just an overall cumbersome handling of renter needs. And, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you saw that again [as other states recover from Harvey]. A lot of times elected officials default to what do the landowners care about, not what do all my constituents care about or need.
Q: Were there other fundamental fairness issues built into disaster recovery efforts in New Jersey that people should be aware of now?
A: One of the big challenges is that they lost track of people early on. People who were displaced by the storm and may have been entitled to help who came in, applied for it early on, were a particular issue. Some people got some of the help they needed, but since early on New Jersey wasn’t making an effort to find them or be able to stay in touch with them, when they moved away from their original address or left New Jersey they effectively became people never to be heard from again. But this is one of the ways that I’m actually hopeful that this time that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] will have fixed this problem and do a better job. People have cellphones, email addresses. It can be done.
We also saw situations where water damage rules may, for instance, require that water came into the house [to receive aid]. But if you are talking about a manufactured home [mobile home] that doesn’t have a solid foundation, just a lot of water coming directly under the house and standing there, coming up to the house but not coming inside can do major, major damage. That house is probably done. But in New Jersey, initially, that house wasn’t even eligible for disaster [relief] funding. And, while it may be cheaper to, say, rebuild a standard, single-family home, rip out the drywall and put new stuff in, it’s sometimes cheaper just to replace an entire manufactured home.
What we know now is that 80 percent of the thousands of people rejected [when they applied for some form of disaster aid] were wrongly rejected. New Jersey, before the complaint and the settlement agreement, had an 80 percent error rate.
So, how did those observations lead to the complaint?
Really, the NAACP and the Latino Action Network began seeing some patterns, raising some alarms about what was happening — how many people in very hard-hit areas, places really damaged by the storm — weren’t getting help or saw their applications rejected. The NAACP and the Latino Action Network started collecting stories. We handled the legal work and had to fight the state, hard, for data they tried very hard not to give us.
As a result of that complaint and the settlement [agreement,] lower-income households and renters, people with special needs and a few other groups got millions of dollars more in disaster recovery funding than they otherwise would have.
That’s why it is so important to look for patterns, to get the data collection and applicant contact information right from the start. Folks in Houston should be looking at these issues beginning right now, because when the money has been spent, it’s very had to address these issues.
The good news is the federal government has committed to more transparency on disaster recovery data going forward.
Q: Has the Trump administration indicated whether it will adhere to the civil rights guidance issued after the settlement?
A: The departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, and Homeland Security have not altered the important civil rights guidance issued. It is still in effect. It’s still up on their websites.
We haven’t heard it yet in terms of Hurricane Harvey, but in New Jersey early on, we would hear from state officials and agencies you are going to slow us down if you force us to worry about this stuff. But if an agency is doing something that leads to African Americans and Latinos receiving funding at a small or unfair rate and that don’t have any other explanation, they do tend to get defensive. Houston should work very had to make sure they are not in that position.
It is completely possible to both move quickly and comply with the law if public officials really plan to do so from the beginning and know they will be held accountable.