Race, Class Impact Houston Resisdents’ Recovery From Hurricane Harvey

By Ayana Byrd Sep 04, 2018

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, 2017, devastating Houston and its surrounding areas. More than a year later, with much of the state recovered, lower-income earning Houstonians of color are still disproportionately displaced from their homes.

Yesterday (September 3), The New York Times examined the lives of the people the newspaper called “Houston’s most vulnerable” population—Black and Latinx Texans on the brink of homelessness as a result of Harvey, many of whom were denied assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Says The Times:


In the poorest communities, some residents are still living with relatives or friends because their homes remain under repair. Others are living in their flood-damaged or half-repaired homes, struggling in squalid and mold-infested conditions. Still others have moved into trailers and other structures on their property.

A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation looked at racial and economic disparities in the recovery from Harvey. Released on August 23, it found that 27 percent of Latinx Texans whose homes were badly damaged by the hurricane are still not able to live in them. The same goes for 20 percent of Blacks, compared to 11 percent of Whites. At the same time, “50 percent of lower-income respondents said they weren’t getting the help they needed, compared to 32 percent of those with higher incomes,” reported The Times.  

The survey, conducted in June and July, was based on phone interviews with approximately 1,600 adults in 24 counties that had significant damage from Harvey. And while no local, state or federal agencies have counted the number of people still displaced after Harvey, three out of 10 who answered the survey said their lives were still “very” or “somewhat” disrupted by the hurricane.

“Everything always hits the poor harder than it does everybody else,” John Sharp, head of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas, told The Times. His department coordinates Harvey recovery efforts by the state, local government officials and nonprofit groups.

As Colorlines reported when the storm hit, lower income communities of color in Houston—and the rest of Texas—are typically located in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to flooding. These areas are often built on flood zones and lack sufficient wastewater infrastructure. The website for the Texas Secretary of State says there are approximately 400,000 Texans living in the state’s 2,294 colonias (neighborhoods located near the U.S.-Mexico border), and 64.4 percent of them are Latinx.

FEMA officials say there was no bias in how the $4.3 billion in assistance it gave Houston was distributed. “FEMA does everything possible to assist every family in every way,” spokesperson Kurt H. Pickering told The Times. He added that FEMA assistance is meant to assist in recovery, not offer the total means to get back on track.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner expressed concern that some Houstonians are having a harder time recovering from Harvey than others. “We want to reassure [thousands of families who live in low-income communities] that they have not been forgotten,” he told The Times. And city officials say they have taken significant steps to help these residents, including opening 14 neighborhood restoration centers.

But City Council member Amanda Edwards, who goes door-to-door checking on constituents in neighborhoods still ravaged by Harvey, says much of the damage is invisible to the average Houstonian. “In New Orleans, you could see the remnants of Katrina by the markings of FEMA spray paint on people’s homes, and you could see those waterlines,” Edwards told The Times. “Those types of visuals are not present here. So it is difficult for people to really appreciate how difficult of a time people are having.”