The Long Road to Recovery
Response and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey.
By Saundra Brown
In the way that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, per Tolstoy, every disaster is disastrous in its own way. But yet, there are similarities in what they do to us and in how we respond and recover. This is the story of Hurricane Harvey.
On the evening of August 25, 2017, Harvey hit the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane near Rockport, with wind speeds of nearly 130 miles per hour.1 The devastation was immediate—homes and businesses were substantially damaged. But Harvey lingered in the area for five more days, with lessened winds but continuous rain, which brought monumental flooding to Texas, some 27 trillion gallons of rain.2 This was equally destructive. So, Harvey was a wind event—a true hurricane—but it also became a flood event. This change in types of damage impacts the legal response to the recovery, and in many ways, affects the practical one.
President Donald J. Trump issued a major disaster declaration for Texas on August 25, which triggered the wheels for a federal disaster response, making federal funding available immediately for six counties for emergency work and to individuals and business owners who sustained damage as a result of Harvey.3 (Since that initial declaration, an additional 35 counties were added.)4 This enabled those without wind or flood insurance to receive up to $33,300 for recovery.5 This money can be given for many needs, such as home repair, property or transportation replacement, or rental assistance.6 Only about 15 percent of the people in Harris County who experienced flooding had flood insurance. Similar percentages apply to those with wind coverage, so the availability of this Federal Emergency Management Agency funding as a resource is vitally important.7
After a disaster of this magnitude, if the state requests it, Disaster Legal Services is activated.8 As part of that process, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division initiates a toll-free hotline number, and in Texas, it is run through the State Bar of Texas, with the calls ultimately going to the various providers funded by the Legal Services Corporation. The statewide number for the bar’s Legal Disaster Hotline is (800) 504-7030. In the greater Houston and East Texas area, Lone Star Legal Aid is the provider on hand to help. As part of the initial mobilization, Lone Star, with assistance from law students and local bars, staffed tables at disaster recovery centers and other outreach points and began advising and taking more extended cases, such as FEMA appeals for those denied.
Because Lone Star Legal Aid is a member of the local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and connected to the Texas VOAD, it is aware of its position as just one of many organizations that help to create a holistic response to a disaster such as Harvey. That holistic response—from legal advice to nonprofits providing physical, tangible, and monetary assistance—is necessary for people to receive the help they need to be able to repair their homes and put their lives back together.
Nonprofits help in a variety of ways, and one example is through Crisis Cleanup, an open-source disaster response program created during Hurricane Sandy to connect volunteers with people who need assistance.9 This type of “muck and gut” service—tearing up carpet, hauling off trash, and delivering food—is the first step to rebuilding. But completion rates begin to taper off after time because of a lack of manpower.
The next phase of the nonprofit response is through long-term recovery groups that allocate services and monies. As important as this work is, recovery has historically been uneven, with rural locations rarely getting the funding of a larger city due to donations given and for what area. A similar problem with recovery is seen in low-income communities and those that are primarily minority. (See the Episcopal Health Foundation’s report on Harvey in Houston.)10
The first funding for those without insurance is from FEMA grants and the U.S. Small Business Administration, or SBA.11 Many people don’t realize that the SBA is the largest provider of disaster recovery funds. Often, no other funding will be available to them.
FEMA and the federal government are aware that the money available from FEMA and the SBA is only a partial amount of the monies needed for recovery. This is expressed through the sequence of delivery flow chart that shows recovery comes not only from the government but also nonprofits, the faith-based community, state and local governments, and individual donations that are pooled into funds such as the Greater Houston Community Foundation’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.12 But even by accessing all available funding streams, historically, the response has never been enough to help all those with disaster needs. Think of the blue roofs still seen in the Greater Houston and Galveston areas post Hurricane Ike.13 This shortage shows why it is so important that each survivor tap into all streams of recovery, whether it’s through FEMA, the SBA, or their flood or homeowner’s policy. Being able to get the most recovery from all sources is what enables the survivors and their communities to make the most complete recovery. That is where civil legal aid and attorneys play a pivotal role, helping people get the assistance they need and are entitled to.
Due to this need to get every dollar possible for survivors, Harvey has presented an ongoing, legal need for FEMA appeals. Lone Star’s outreach has pivoted from the disaster recovery centers to community outreach locations.14 (To see more information, go to lonestarlegal.blog/services/disaster-relief.) The various legal needs will continue for a number of years.
For example, insurance money for rebuilding has begun to come in, and the National Flood Insurance Program mandated generous advances for those few with flood insurance.15 But now that many are getting their initial offers from adjusters for proof of loss, many feel the insurance companies are underpaying. This issue can potentially be resolved through FEMA’s new resolution process; if not, survivors will need to file their own proof of loss by one year from the date of damage, incurring possibly the expense of a public adjuster and a private attorney—a special hardship for low- and moderate-income families.16 These same problems will be present for homeowners with wind insurance policies.
Another legal issue that impacts money for rebuilding will be appeals for the increased cost of compliance coverage for those with flood insurance whose houses are declared substantially damaged and must elevate or rebuild them at a higher level.17 Lone Star and other legal aid programs can and do assist with these kinds of appeals in addition to FEMA appeals. With the flow of this and other sources of money for repair comes contractor fraud, which although can be sued for, is often difficult to recover.
The last of recovery monies to come online is usually the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program, or CDBG-DR, which historically has not been enough to fill unmet needs. For example, the CDBG-DR money for flooding in 2015 was enough to fulfill a small amount of the documented need.18 Due to this shortfall, the city of Houston chose to restrict the money to three neighborhoods, increasing the impact of funding by concentrating it but also leaving many out.19 The current notice for Harvey’s CDBG-DR has been published, but final plans of who it will help with rebuilding are not completed.20
Every disaster is disastrous in its own way. But it may take years, or even more than 10 years, to fully recover from an event on the scale of Harvey.21 We use our past experiences to guide us in our response and recovery. We are still working, striving toward a more complete recovery. This is the story of Hurricane Harvey.TBJ
The author would like to thank Newton Tamayo for his assistance with this article.
is the directing attorney of Disaster Legal Services at Lone Star Legal Aid. She has responded to disasters for Lone Star Legal Aid since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. She has been the manager of the unit since 2010 and is also the content coordinator for www.disasterlegalaid.org, a national disaster legal webpage with resources for individuals and attorneys to help them navigate the disaster preparedness and response process. She has responded to Allison, Katrina, Rita, Ike, the West Fertilizer Company plant explosion, the wildfires in 2011, the BP oil spill, the 2015 and 2016 floods, and of course, Hurricane Harvey.