After a year of vicious storms, recovery is far tougher for those already stretched thin

Published on
February 12, 2018

Several months after one of the most active hurricane years in recent decades — and the most active month on record for storms in the Atlantic — many parts of the U.S. are still reeling from the collective impact. While the storms themselves and their immediate aftermath tend to generate the most news coverage, for many of those impacted, the toughest days are still ahead.

Rebuilding is expensive and emotionally depleting for anyone caught in the path of a major hurricane. But for people who go into a storm with financial and social challenges, the job can be even tougher.

That’s because storms frequently exacerbate whatever financial and social differences exist before rains and winds wreak havoc on a community. Whether or not a family can afford adequate car insurance, whether a parent works an hourly job, or whether someone lives in an area without public transportation can all determine how easily a family or individual can pick up the pieces.

Take Hurricane Harvey, which struck Houston and Texas’ Gulf Coast in late August of last year. Months later, people were still waiting for insurance payouts and government aid. For people without a savings account or other assets, the delays can be catastrophic.  

Unlike previous storms, in the case of Harvey it’s not clear that lower-income and marginalized people were more impacted by the storm itself, as was the case in previous disasters. Much of the damage Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans was caused by poor infrastructure. It was after one of the city’s levees breached that the Lower Ninth Ward was flooded, an area that had already seen the effects of disinvestment on numerous fronts. Ten years later, the scars were still visible throughout the neighborhood. During and after Harvey, however, neighborhoods rich and poor were flooded with several feet of water, and homes and cars were damaged throughout the city.

But that doesn’t mean people have the same ability to respond to the damage. One of the challenges is that getting aid sometimes requires the help of lawyers or advocates. That’s why access to legal aid can make all the difference for recovery, as Vann Newkirk II highlighted in The Atlantic. People often lose important documents in the flooding, and seeking help from FEMA can require complicated paperwork. For those without the resources for a lawyer, they can end up with no way to obtain long term relief.

A community’s infrastructure going into a storm also affects how well it can get back out of it. Houston’s public transportation is notoriously inadequate (though it was instrumental in evacuations and transportation both during and after the storm). For those living in the one-third of the county that isn’t served by the city’s bus system and couldn’t afford to rent a car after Harvey, they faced additional barriers to picking up the pieces.

Infrastructure is a problem in Puerto Rico as well. The entire island was without power in the days that followed Hurricane Maria’s landfall; much of it still is. But for those who rely on electricity for medical treatment, the long-term affects can be particularly dire. And Puerto Rico has a particularly high burden of several chronic diseases, things like asthma and diabetes, making electricity all the more important. Sixteen percent of Puerto Ricans have asthma, more than any other racial or ethnic group (for non-Hispanic whites, it’s 7.7 percent). Mortality from asthma was higher among Puerto Ricans before the storm than for the rest of the country. But scarce electricity and shuttered pharmacies, combined with mold and other allergens that can flourish after a storm, likely made the situation worse. Many rely on electronic nebulizers for treatment, and found themselves without options for continuing treatment after the storm, beyond crossing fingers and hoping for diesel to arrive to fuel hospital generators.

These problems were exacerbated because Puerto Rico’s health system was in crisis before the storm hit. Hospitals faced the lowest Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates in the country, and, in the face of a severe economic crisis that left the island bankrupt and under control of a congressionally appointed financial board, tens of thousands of medical professionals had left the island for the mainland U.S. in recent years. All combined, it has been, and will be, much harder for the commonwealth to recover from the storm than it would be for a state whose health system wasn’t already struggling. It’s the island’s poorest residents that will bear the brunt of these problems. 

And then there are those who aren’t entitled to help to begin with. Hurricane Irma ran through an unincorporated community of farmworkers in Florida’s tomato growing region. Many of its residents have precarious legal status, a problem that led to decades of worker abuse before the group organized and demanded better conditions. Many are undocumented immigrants and aren’t entitled to government assistance.

Such groups enter into storms with many disadvantages. Financial and health problems are typically made worse, and legal and government help are out of reach. It doesn’t mean the storm itself will cause more harm, but more often than not, it does make it harder to pick up the pieces. For the most vulnerable, the storm is often just the beginning.  

[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]