By Rachel Farrell and Stacy Fernández | News21
PORT ARTHUR, Texas – Under the shade of a sweeping Texas ash tree, Benjamin Davis sits in the trunk of a Ford Escape parked across from his condemned home. The veteran stares down at his rugged hands, cracked and worn from years of hard labor and humid heat.
For Davis, 57, the loss of his home to Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 was like losing his soul.
“How do you get back to being a man? To having people respect you?” he asked, shaking his head. “Look at my hands – my hands shouldn’t look like this. You do any and anything to survive.”
In the past 10 years, almost 7.3 million Americans have been displaced by disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a data analysis center formed by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 1998. Some go to hotels, others rely on help from strangers, and many don’t have anywhere to go at all.
Since Harvey struck the Texas coast, Davis hasn’t lived in his home. For a while, he stayed in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency before moving the few belongings he has left to the Ford, which he borrowed. Every night, he rearranges the boxes in the car to create a makeshift bed.
“Everything in that car over there – that’s all I got left.”
Harvey, a Category 4 storm that brought record levels of rain and created immeasurable damage, prompted nearly 780,000 Texans to evacuate their homes, according to FEMA.
To date, more than $1.24 billion has been approved by FEMA for homes damaged in Texas by Harvey. That’s a small fraction of the $16.7 billion spent on housing assistance nationwide since 2003.
Housing assistance, which falls under FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program, provides money to qualified homeowners for “necessary housing-related expenses and serious needs caused by the disaster.” This includes lodging expense reimbursements for short-term stays in hotels, rental assistance and the repair or replacement of primary homes.
But not everyone who applies for assistance qualifies. Applicants must meet five criteria, which include not having home insurance or having losses that aren’t fully covered by insurance.
Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said the agency isn’t built to provide everyone with money after disasters; it’s based on need. That’s why the first thing the agency checks is whether a person had insurance and if it was adequate.
“I’m not saying FEMA doesn’t provide some assistance, but it’s not designed to make up or replace insurance if you’re sure it’s covered everything.”
South Texas communities lost homes
After the eye of Hurricane Harvey made its first landfall in San José Island off Texas, it traveled east toward Louisiana, slamming 53,000 residents of Port Arthur on the way. While much of the attention was on Houston, America’s fourth largest city, homeowners in Port Arthur, 90 miles to the east, dealt with extensive flood and wind damage after the storm.
In response, 41 counties in southern and southeastern Texas were designated disaster regions, which qualified people in those counties to receive individual assistance from FEMA.
The South Texas Economic Development Center found that more than half the homes were damaged in Port Arthur and an Orange and Jefferson counties.
Davis’ house was one of them.
“They say there’s always somebody out there worse off than me,” he said. “If I could have foreseen the future, maybe I would’ve did things differently.”
For long-time Port Arthur resident Kim Therrien, 18 inches of water put her out of her home. The 56-year-old, who was raised in the house, as was her daughter, knew she would have to leave when water reached the power outlets in the house. She hasn’t lived there since.
Therrien stayed with her younger brother, who rescued her from the front porch, until a friend from church invited her to stay at her home. She moved in right before Christmas in 2017 and has been there since. Although her friend has been accommodating, she said, there’s still “a feeling of not belonging.”
Inside her damaged home, piles of belongings – some moved by trespassers – reflect the memories made over 50 years: the magazine cuttings her mother kept and handwritten recipes from her great-grandmother that she, one day, will pass on to her grandchildren.
“If God’s ever ready for me to come back, I’ll be back bigger and better than ever,” Therrien said. “That’s just how he does things. But it may not be in my future to be back here, which will break my heart.”
Other residents in Port Arthur, home to the largest oil refinery in the U.S., are expecting the rebuilding process to last for years.
Cristina Cornejo, a program officer with the Rebuild Texas Fund, said the nonprofit group is still assessing homes. She expects home rebuilding will continue for the next five to eight years.
“True rebuilding takes almost a decade. Are we there? I think that we have made great strides,” she said. “And I think that state and federal governments and local entities are really working hard together to move that needle. However, there’s still such an extensive need.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s Commission to Rebuild Texas reports that more than $539 million has been spent on housing and other disaster expenses in Houston as of January 2019.
Houston’s poor hit the hardest
Just north of downtown Houston is Kashmere Gardens, a historically black neighborhood. Many houses in the area, according to volunteers, were in bad shape before Harvey hit, and residents already lacked the means to rebuild quickly.
“In March 2018, nine months after the storm, we found a home that had 10 people living in it,” said Colleen Henneke, a volunteer with Houston Responds, a nonprofit that mobilizes churches for disaster recovery.
“Mom and dad, seven kids and a brother, and the home had not been mucked or gutted,” Henneke said. “Just mold infestation, and they were sitting in that, and we’re still finding that.”
“Texas likes to think they’ve done things ‘better.’ And, in some cases, that might be true,” Sally Ray, director of the Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said in an email. “But recovery here has faced many of the same issues we see everywhere else.”
In most disasters, people are dealing with issues that existed before the disaster, which are then exacerbated, Ray said. Texas already had issues with a lack of affordable housing, poor infrastructure, especially in areas prone to flooding, and lax zoning or no zoning to protect communities from building in high-risk areas.
“It’s never easy, especially politically, to tell a person they can’t rebuild in an area where they should never have been allowed to build in the first place,” Ray said.
Research by Scientific American in 2017 found that poverty rates increased by 1 percentage point in areas hit by severe disasters.
Already low-lying, Louisiana is losing land
In Louisiana, low to moderate income people tend to live in flood prone areas. After a series of hurricanes in the past decade, as well as normal flooding, the state is tackling both housing restoration and land loss.
Hurricane Katrina, often described as the largest residential disaster in U.S. history, displaced more than 1 million people and damaged more than a million housing units along the Gulf Coast, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
Because land is cheaper in flood prone areas, said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Office of Community Development at Louisiana Division of Administration, it often attracts lower income residents. Flood insurance is more expensive in these areas, which drives down property values.
Forbes’ team works primarily with people with low to moderate incomes and severe, repetitive property losses. The department has administered more than $16 billion in community development grants and is becoming a leader in dealing with the ever-growing risk of coastline losses.
“Louisiana is losing land faster than anywhere in the country, maybe faster than anywhere in the world,” Forbes said.
Survivors turned to nonprofits
After Hurricane Harvey, the National Low Income Housing Coalition founded the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, a group of 800 state, national and philanthropic organizations. It has called on FEMA and its housing assistance programs to provide better protection for lower income families after disasters.
“It’s pretty shocking to see that FEMA programs consistently favor middle class or higher income households and not the lowest income people, who tend to be hardest hit by disasters,” said Sarah Mickelson, senior director of policy for the disaster recovery coalition.
“Those programs were designed with middle class families in mind, and not for people with the greatest needs, people who have the lowest incomes.”
Mickelson said many displaced people return to uninhabitable homes, putting their health and safety at risk.
“Or they are sleeping in their cars or tents, or they are doubling or tripling up with other low income families – all these are things that are putting them at higher risk of evictions and, in the worst cases, homelessness.”
In Panama City, Florida, Joyce Buschmann lives in Shelly Summers’ backyard. Days after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October 2018, Summers, who works in the local sheriff’s department, offered her backyard to people displaced by the storm, so long as they passed her vetting process.
“They’re sleeping in a tent, which is not by any means ideal, but they have the comforts of home at the same time,” Summers said, referring to the 24/7 access almost a dozen people now living in her backyard have to her house.
Mickelson said that despite the National Low Income Housing Coalition making numerous recommendations to both FEMA and HUD, the housing problems continue.
“FEMA consistently relies on its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, such as the motel program,” she said. “But there are a lot of barriers that prevent many low income people from participating and benefiting from that program.”
Finding refuge in a temporary space
Many hotels charge fees on top of what FEMA reimburses the hotel for, or they require a security deposit or credit cards to be on file, which often is a barrier for families.
Nicole Hallam and her family have moved between hotels and camper vans five times in the 12 months since an EF3 tornado tore through Marshalltown, in central Iowa.
She and her husband and their 9-year-old daughter, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, stayed in a hotel for four days after the July 2018 tornado.
They borrowed a camper van from a friend before buying their own, where they lived for more than three months – right in the middle of summer rainy season, “the bug apocalypse.”
“If it wasn’t raining, you were walking out the door and you had 50 mosquitoes instantly on you. It was just miserable,” Hallam said.
Since then, the family has lived in two hotels. They don’t expect to move back to their home.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. But I hope that it’s made us stronger as a family, as a town,” Hallam said.
Forrester Johnson, 59, and his wife received a FEMA trailer within a month of flood water sweeping through their dead-end street in Port Arthur. The trailer had one bed and a wheelchair ramp. The couple lived there for a year and a half, after being granted a six-month extension.
When the couple couldn’t afford to keep the trailer, they moved back into their partially repaired home.
Now the couple owes $1,500 that they don’t have. They’d already put most of their money into repairing their flood-damaged home. Johnson said he’s worried the government will garnish his wages.
“But as I say, every time I look around and see other people that don’t have and didn’t have, I still feel blessed,” Johnson said.
Despite thousands of people currently displaced from disasters, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that almost a quarter of a million people will be forced to leave their homes because of disasters every year across the U.S.
How long they will be displaced for remains unclear. But Ray, from the Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund, said disaster recovery is long term – and the U.S. must address the needs of vulnerable populations in non-disaster times in help build their resiliency during disaster.
“In other words, we must address low-income housing, economic issues, systemic racism, poverty and environmental issues before disaster strikes to make sure that we are better prepared for what is to come,” she said.
For Benjamin Davis, who remains living in a borrowed car in Port Arthur, the possibility that he will never return home rings true, but he tries to hold on to hope.
“Where’s the humanity? Where’s the love? Where’s God? Trust me, I don’t question, but I wonder. How can a person change his life like this and then – whoosh! – one day.
“Will I come back? Who’s to say?”
News21 reporter Becca Scadden contributed to this report.
Rachel Farrell is a Veronica Guerin Ireland Funds Fellow, and Becca Scadden is a Murray Endowment Fellow.