Lessons from Harvey survivors for Texans recovering from the snowstorm

by | Mar 12, 2021 | Policy, Winter Storm

As Texans continue to recover from the snowstorm and electrical grid failure, thousands are now looking to the government for help repairing their homes and restoring normalcy to their lives.

It will not be easy, survivors of Hurricane Harvey tell the Signal.

Juanita Hall, a resident of Houston’s Eastex/Jensen neighborhood, is still working to repair the damage caused by roughly two feet of water that entered her home during the hurricane. 

The house originally belonged to her mother who passed away months before the storm. 

“My mother was crazy about her home,” Hall said. “Her home was the to-go-place for the whole entire family. She would have been devastated the way her house looks now.”

Today, her childhood home is a hollowed-out version of its former self. Each new disaster has compounded the road to recovery. Harvey hallowed out the walls and ruined more than five decades of cherished items and furniture her family collected. Imelda brought further damage and weakened the home to the point where pests, from bugs to possums, began to invade the home. And the snowstorm last month caused new leaks in the home’s roof.

“It’s like my home is sinking,” Hall said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency helped with Harvey but denied Hall’s aid application for Imelda and the snowstorm. 

“I’m so tired and ready to go home. It’s been long enough,” Hall said. “It makes no sense to have been asking for help since 2017.”

Hall said her prospects for real aid have improved since she joined the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus, a community organization made up of other Houstonians still seeking help, and since she began receiving help from West Street Recovery and Texas Housers, nonprofits dedicated to housing justice and disaster recovery.

Julia Orduna, a community navigator focused on disaster recovery with Texas Housers said federal, state and local recovery programs like FEMA individual assistance or Houston’s federally funded Homeowner Assistance Programs have recurring problems that let desperate Texans fall through the cracks. 

For example, low-income FEMA applicants are significantly more likely to be denied assistance. The same is true for applicants who rent their home versus those who own it. 

Orduna advised those recovering from the snowstorm to be careful of relying on FEMA aid to rebuild their homes. The individual assistance program is meant to provide funding for temporary emergency fixes, like mucking and gutting or roof repair, and will not always provide sufficient funding to rebuild a home. 

Between 2018-2019, FEMA paid an average claim of about $33,452.5.

One common misconception is that FEMA aid only applies to home-related damages. It also covers personal items such as a computer, lawnmower or television, and can also help with financial needs related to child care, moving and storage, medical or dental expenses, and rental assistance for temporary housing.

There is only a two-month window to apply for FEMA aid after a disaster is declared. 

“If you didn’t make the cut you didn’t make the cut,” Orduna said. “Maybe you didn’t know you had damages until two months later. And if you didn’t realize that and apply, you didn’t make the cut.”

Longer term aid for Harvey is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is managed by the Texas General Land Office, who in turn doles out the money in block grants for cities and counties.

“Harvey had $5 billion dollars and we’re still arguing about the money and the plans,” Orduna said. “And they’re not rolling out properly like they said they would — they say they’ll do something and it just doesn’t happen.” 

FEMA individual assistance and HUD-funded housing recovery are the biggest and best known forms of disaster recovery aid, but there’s also other programs like Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which offers short-term food assistance, and the Disaster Property Tax Exemption program by the Texas Comptroller that reduces property taxes for damaged homes. 

“They’re gonna throw you in the circus, jumping through hoops and walking a tightrope, it’s going to be a circus act before you even think about getting help,” Sandra Edwards, another Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus member said of navigating the network recovery programs. 

Harvey forced Edwards from her home and she struggled to receive long-term aid from the city because her household was in her father’s name at the time.

FEMA gave her $11,000 to get the home cleaned after Harvey. She is still seeking long-term aid to rebuild her home. She said the snowstorm caused minor leaks to appear in the house and she is again applying aid from FEMA.

“I don’t get how you can let people suffer like this all this time and do nothing. And throw papers in their face — ‘well you don’t have this or that in order’ — that is bullshit,” Edwards said. “These people out here are suffering.”

Edwards said those recovering from the snowstorm should reach out to as many organizations as possible, like West Street Recovery, which helped partially repair her home while other official recovery programs falter.

“And pray with all your might, because you’re gonna need it,” she said.

Photo: SC National Guard / Wikimedia Commons

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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