“Those walls are already dry . . . .” Five years ago, I heard this repeatedly on the doorsteps of seniors I was visiting after Harvey hit when I asked them what they were going to do about their floodwater-soiled walls and sheetrock. In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, the second worst disaster in American history, I learned that there were a significant number of low-income seniors whose health was at risk because they were not removing the flood-soiled sheetrock from their homes. This catalyzed my work to mobilize hundreds of Houstonians to go door-to-door to canvas low-income senior communities and provide them with assistance in the years after the Hurricane. Here are the takeaways learned over these past five years and my resulting renewed call for action:
So many of our seniors are continuing to suffer in silence. We must meet people where they are.
“I just want a safe place to live before I die,” Mr. Brown told me in 2021. 85-year-old Mr. Brown was an example of a senior suffering in silence. His neighbors finally sought out help after Uri, at which point he had no working plumbing. It was almost too late: his home had sustained significant damage after Harvey, and it was only made worse by Uri. Shortly after we were able to rebuild his home, Mr. Brown passed away. Mr. Brown was a low-income senior, who did not secure adequate help for his recovery – and due to roadblocks, gave up on seeking help. There are too many Mr. Browns that need our help, and we must not expect them to come to us as they struggle to make ends meet; we must meet people where they are.
We need resident-centered comprehensive coordinated disaster recovery resource navigation.
“I had to stay home and fight. . . I could not lose my place in line.” Ms. Jones went against her doctor’s orders to go to a hospital for health reasons, using that time to argue with the Texas General Land Office (GLO) . Just days ago, I visited her home damaged by Harvey, Imelda and Uri, and heard her describe her challenges with GLO and with the sewage that ends up in her backyard after heavy rains. Ms. Jones has attempted to navigate numerous challenges, yet options for help still appear to be elusive. We need a comprehensive, coordinated and, most of all, easy-to-navigate resident disaster recovery resource so that residents can forge a clear path to recovery and alternative housing solutions for those like Ms. Jones with complicated cases.
Instead of assuming the worst out of our residents, we need our government to help them. We need to renew our fight to get resources in the hands of residents for home repair and reconstruction needed.
“I miss my house,” the New York Times quoted Ms. Moore in their September 2018 article saying Houston’s poorest neighborhoods were the slowest to recover from the devastation of Harvey. Ms. Moore is a senior that lived on a street where flooding had occurred after Harvey. I introduced the New York Times reporter to Ms. Moore because FEMA would not respond to her appeal after having wrongly denied the resources she needed following the disaster. Only days after the article was published, Ms. Moore suddenly received her FEMA support.
It should not take being featured in national news for our government to believe our needs are real. Arbitrary denials of support for the most vulnerable in our community are far more prevalent than many would like to believe. I cannot emphasize enough that we must fix this system that promotes mistrust of our most vulnerable residents; lives are depending on it.
Call To Action: Get the Housing Dollars to Our Residents for a Full Recovery
Although large sums of disaster recovery federal funding were initially made available in our city, not nearly enough single-family homes (fewer than a couple thousand) have been fully repaired using federal disaster recovery funds.
Residents have relied on FEMA, the National Flood Insurance Program, Small Business Administration loans, private insurance, the General Land Office, the City of Houston, volunteers, philanthropic support and their own savings to rebuild. Many of our residents have been lost in the political battles between federal, state and local governments. As a result, many of our residents have given up on their quest to get the help they need. We must tie the success of our recovery to the actual impact on the residents and their home repair.
It has been five years, and we must do better to help our residents fully recover – in particular, our most vulnerable residents. We must think of each home not just as an address: each home belongs to a person, a family or friend in need, and it is contingent upon all of us to ensure that we have systems that work for all people so that they can get the help they need.
I penned this piece with so many of the low-income seniors I have met in mind, those who have fallen through the cracks in our systems. It is contingent upon all of us to ensure that they get the help they need and that we repair the cracks in our systems so that all of our community can fully recover.
Amanda K. Edwards is a former Houston City Council Member and is running for Mayor of Houston