When the skies opened over Houston, some of the worst flooding rose in Greenspoint. The low-income neighborhood off Interstate 45 — south of George Bush Intercontinental Airport and home to a namesake mall known for crime and vacant stores (its “days are definitely numbered,” DeadMalls.com noted in 2005) — is situated along Greens Bayou. The area’s black and Hispanic residents live mostly in multifamily, three- to five-bedroom apartments, in complexes built in not only floodplains but floodways , which the Federal Emergency Management Agency defines as channels or land reserved for discharging floodwaters. In a time-lapse video filmed Saturday night, a residential parking lot in the neighborhood goes quickly from damp to puddle to lake, until sunrise reveals a brown sea that has swallowed the first floor of the adjacent apartment buildings and half a dozen cars.
A resident, Exavier Blanchard, set up the camera as the storm rolled in. “I heard the area floods,” he explained to HuffPost.
He heard right. Just over a year before, much of Greenspoint was inundated under several feet of water in what Houstonians call the Tax Day Flood, an intense storm that dumped 17 inches of rain on the city. Residents were still recovering from that deadly deluge — dealing with moldy apartments and fighting with landlords who had pushed them out with nowhere to go, or who were forcing them to keep paying rent on damaged homes — when Hurricane Harvey came calling.
To some extent, Greenspoint’s back-to-back disasters were just an unlucky draw: The neighborhood had fared better than other parts of Houston in the equally deadly Memorial Day floods of 2015, and then in the flooding that killed six more people across the city that October . But the odds were stacked against it. As a growing body of research has shown, disasters tend to be worse for poor and minority communities — to a limited extent at the moment they strike, and to a far greater degree in the hard months and years that follow.
Low-income communities frequently sustain more damage in storms because they tend to be built on cheaper land that is often more flood-prone, said Shannon Van Zandt, an urban-planning scholar with Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, who spoke with me by phone recently. It can also be harder for poorer people — who may not have cars, may be more afraid to leave their possessions and jobs, may not speak English or may fear immigration authorities — to evacuate before disasters.
That’s not to say that only the poor have suffered in the rain. As many major disasters do, Harvey assaulted the homes of the middle class and the wealthy as well. Houstonians are only now starting to get a picture of the extent of the damage across a metropolitan area nearly 10 times larger than greater Washington.
But many who work in poorer parts of the city fear what they will find as the waters recede. “One thing which makes me pause is I see a lot of the rescues are being done in neighborhoods that are medium income or high income,” said Chrishelle Palay, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. She’s been getting messages from her contacts in more impoverished and heavily minority areas, including Greenspoint and the Fifth Ward, who tell her they are still waiting for help. Part of the problem has been a lack of attention from authorities and outsiders, she said: “The media wasn’t showing those parts of town.”
The poor get smacked again when it’s time to rebuild. “They lack a lot of resources. Not just financial resources, but also information resources and social resources that help them access assistance,” Van Zandt said. That includes insurance, especially flood insurance, which the poor are less likely to have. Following 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which also hit southeast Texas, it took housing values in poor communities two to four times longer to return to their pre-storm levels. “This is what we’ll see in Houston,” Van Zandt said.
Disaster expert Kathleen Tierney wrote after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that “some groups may be able to return to their pre-disaster status with relatively [little] difficulty, while others may never fully recover.” Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California, many apartment complexes stayed vacant because owners decided not to repair the buildings, leaving impoverished renters on the street. A few years earlier, after the Loma Prieta earthquake that brought the 1989 World Series to a halt in San Francisco, victims who had been living in multifamily households missed out when FEMA made disaster assistance available mainly to higher-income homeowners.
Among experts, one of the best-known facts about disasters — yet one that consistently surprises much of the general public — is that the vast majority of rescues, and the bulk of the immediate relief effort, are conducted by neighbors helping neighbors, rather than by authorities such as police, military or aid groups. Survivors find inventive ways to procure food and share supplies, and they often risk their own lives to save others. In whiter, wealthier areas, these efforts are often celebrated as signs of the unique spirit of a community.
But in poor and minority neighborhoods, such efforts are more often ignored or even vilified by officials and the media. After Katrina, “poor and mostly African-American victims were simplistically framed either as looters and dangerous thugs or as ‘deserving’ victims — mainly women and children — who were helpless and unable to care for themselves in the aftermath of the disaster,” Tierney wrote. Reports of violence, which repeated investigations found were inaccurate, in turn helped justify repressive measures, including the killing of unarmed survivors by police: “Missing from these accounts was any attempt to understand how poor African Americans aided and supported one another during the disaster.”
That tick of the cycle has already begun in Houston, where television reporters have been searching for signs of lawlessness and the mayor’s office has preemptively instituted a curfew . In reality, experts say, post-disaster crime, including looting, is rare.
Many in Houston are also concerned about likely contamination from the area’s major oil refineries, such as facilities owned by ExxonMobil — which, in addition to contributing to the climate change that probably helped fuel the rains, were damaged and released toxic chemicals during the storm. This is especially threatening to poor and minority neighborhoods, which are often located closer to the industrial works. In Houston’s Fifth Ward, residents have been fighting for years for a cleanup of creosote, a cancer-causing wood preservative, left by an old Union Pacific rail yard . Neighbors are worried that Harvey’s floods have spread the chemical even further around their homes. “Every time we’ve had excessive rain it ends up in the water. If the water is contaminated, as we know it to be, that contamination is going all over the city,” said Kathy Blueford-Daniels, a Fifth Ward resident.
To make sure the poor aren’t left behind, advocates are pushing to educate low-income residents about their rights — for instance, as renters in post-flood disputes with landlords — and to let them know about services available after a storm. They are also fighting for post-disaster assistance to be provided in ways that don’t require access to a bank account, which many poor people don’t have, such as on rechargeable debit cards.
Every major disaster also provides an opportunity to rebuild differently. Even before Hurricane Harvey, advocates were pressing state lawmakers to adopt a locally sourced rebuilding model for storm-damaged areas that they say will make poorer residents safer and let them get their lives back together more quickly. Residents, they say, should be given the option to move to safer areas, or given help rebuilding their homes in ways that better protect them from the now-yearly monster floods that plague Houston, such as raising them higher off the ground.
Van Zandt said that as the federal and state governments, and major corporations with stakes in Houston, begin paying to rebuild, it is important that planners start using the city’s land more intelligently, not continuing to pave over drainage areas and provoking more flooding. It is possible, she said — unlike after the 2015 or 2016 floods — that those changes could now happen. “I hate to say it, but I think that because not just low-income people have been affected, there may be more of a reaction from middle- and upper-income folks,” she said. The key, she said, is for people to understand that a disaster like Harvey is in essence a manmade event — the collision of a storm and a human-built environment.