Hurricanes, COVID-19 and mental health – Part III: The long, uneven road to recovery

Hurricanes COVID 19 and mental health – Part III
First: Sandra Edwards in her home in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Last: Edwards walks through her home, still being rebuilt after heavy damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. – Photo by Lucio Vasquez for the Center for Public Integrity/The Texas Tribune



Columbia Journalism Investigations


Center for Public Integrity


(The Texas Tribune) – How well or quickly someone recovers emotionally from a disaster can depend on how well and quickly they recover in other, more tangible ways, according to experts in psychology.

“It’s not just initial exposure” to a flood or wildfire, said Sarah Lowe, a psychologist and professor at Yale School of Public Health. “It’s more than that – dealing with bureaucracies, finding someplace else to live, financial impacts.”

One example of those traumatic ripple effects: major disasters worsen homelessness.

In the 2017-2018 school year – marked by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria – the number of homeless students jumped 57% in districts where a hurricane, flood, coastal storm or wildfire damaged property, according to a Public Integrity/CJI analysis of federal data.

In unscathed school districts that year, student homelessness was virtually unchanged.

The Houston Independent School District counted a little less than 7,000 students whose families had no home of their own before Harvey hit, including those doubling up in other people’s houses and living in motels. Afterward, their ranks swelled to nearly 30,000, more than in any other district nationwide.

Houston’s school district has spent the past three years helping families get back on their feet. But Lisa Jackson, senior manager of the district’s Department of Student Assistance Services, said the families of some students made homeless by the hurricane have yet to find housing.

The longer the recovery takes, the worse that mental health outcomes can get. This was clear, experts said, from Louisiana after Katrina, where many lived in damaged homes for years and felt forgotten.

Recovery efforts after Harvey were widely applauded by both government officials and emergency management experts. But even in Houston, thousands of low-income homeowners are still seeking aid to repair hurricane damage to their homes, according to the city. Recent analyses show that part of the reason may be the unequal way the federal government distributes aid.

In one study, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that bankruptcy rates in Houston after Harvey rose nearly 30% for flooded low-income households while remaining flat – or even declining – for flooded higher-income households. Emily Gallagher, a finance professor who co-authored the study, attributed that to the fact that those same low-income areas – as well as majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods – were also less likely to secure federal disaster aid.

In majority-White Houston neighborhoods like Greater Heights, for instance, the rate of approval for FEMA housing aid was 20%. In the Fifth Ward, a majority-Black neighborhood, the rate of approval dropped to 15.5%. This pattern was consistent throughout the city.

“It isn’t because there was less damage in minority areas,” said Gallagher, whose study controlled for that. Her conclusion wasn’t that FEMA is actively discriminating, but that the agency may not be accounting for the way that race in America, after decades of systemic discrimination, is linked “with factors that make it harder to get a grant.”

FEMA’s caseworkers do their best to help all people struck by disaster, regardless of their background, according to an agency spokesperson.

“To imply that FEMA does not or would not grant assistance to any survivor in need is grossly inaccurate, misleading and disturbing,” the representative said.

Nationally, other studies have shown differences in aid. Nearly 60% of requests for federal disaster loans were denied from 2001-2018, and tens of thousands of other applicants were kicked out of the process before a decision was made, according to a Public Integrity investigation. Ninety percent of denials were due to “lack of repayment ability” or “unsatisfactory credit history,” one way that lower-income disaster survivors get shut out of recovery help.

Herndon applied for FEMA housing assistance just days after the storm. She was rejected weeks later: Her house was “Safe to occupy,” FEMA wrote.

“I was sitting in my bedroom, and I could look all through my house,” said Herndon, who had torn out her walls because black mold had overtaken them. “That was the most disheartening thing.”

For months, Herndon met with countless nonprofits to no avail. She said she appealed FEMA’s denial three times. Finally, in early 2018, Herndon got two bits of good news. FEMA reversed its decision and awarded her $9,800. Then a nonprofit called Team Rubicon agreed to rebuild her house free of charge.

Sandra Edwards, who lives in the Fifth Ward not far from Herndon, was less fortunate.

Edwards’ $47,000 home – like Herndon’s, located outside the 100-year floodplain – was all but destroyed by the flooding. FEMA awarded her $11,000, money she used to rip out her walls and pay for a few months of temporary housing. For over a year, Edwards, 54, lived without walls, gas or hot water. Parts of her floors and ceilings were missing. One side of her house had sunk several inches into the ground. She wrote frenzied, handwritten appeals for more aid.

“I am Homeless!!!” she declared in one – but was denied.

In the fall of 2019, she found West Street Recovery, a local nonprofit. The organization had enough money to repair part of her home, though about a third remains unfinished. Edwards moved back this March. A city application to finish her home is on hold.

The experience took an enormous toll on her mental health, she said. She’d be sitting in a neighborhood meeting, for instance, and break down in tears.

“If you sit back and think about all the stuff you going through,” said Edwards, “it just makes you don’t want to be here anymore.”


This story was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Disclosure: Rice University and Texas Southern University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article was first published at–mental-health by The Texas Tribune.



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