Houston Needs an Equitable Reconstruction in the Wake of Harvey

Houston Needs an Equitable Reconstruction in the Wake of Harvey

Houston Needs an Equitable Reconstruction in the Wake of Harvey

The city needs to learn from the mistakes of previous disasters and put disadvantaged communities at the center of rebuilding efforts.


As the floodwaters recede, Houston’s underlying social disasters are surfacing in Harvey’s wake. Harvey is not misfortune, it is environmental crime. The impacted region’s petrochemical facilities and predatory land development are stoking the same weather patterns that have drenched Mumbai and blasted the Caribbean. And the same polluters will now control a potentially equally disastrous “recovery” process.

For Texas’s oil and business corporations, the furious waves and winds were calculated into the cost of doing business. Federal flood-protection standards were deliberately kept weak enough to foster unsustainable construction in disaster-prone areas. For years, federal flood maps, which determine building decisions, have grown wildly out of date, and in many regions don’t even exist, including much of Texas. Meanwhile, Trump has continued Washington’s pattern of coddling corporate polluters with a new executive order just days before Harvey slammed into Texas’s oil-rich coast.

Eventually, the flooding will likely yield to a secondary epidemic of mold growth, leaving poor communities disproportionately exposed to respiratory disease. Superstorm Sandy’s fungal fallout sickened New York’s low-income public-housing residents, who were already suffering from pre-storm mold contamination. Coming home to impoverished, toxic buildings, they were subject to even greater injury than catastrophic flood damage, trapped between inadequate remediation and a citywide lack of affordable housing.

Harvey’s devastation covered the whole coast, but the “fence-line communities,” with concentrated poverty and pollution, are disproportionately threatened by under-regulated waste sites that leach toxic contamination constantly.

Human-made inequality will also undoubtedly shape the second wave of this disaster through the region’s recovery efforts, distributed by ZIP Code. If past hurricane recoveries are any guide, the federal flood management authorities are virtually incapable of preventing unsustainable rebuilding in hazardous areas, due to anemic regulation and corporate-friendly insurance schemes. Meanwhile, the White House has pushed to slash funding for Superfund cleanup and roll back chemical-safety regulation.

Other areas may be forced to rebuild with minimal protections against future climate threats. The post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans, for example, suffered from a mass displacement of people of color, and aggressive gentrification and privatization of social services—effectively rebuilding the city on even deeper rifts of racial and economic hierarchy.

And below the debris and chemical spills, the most enduring toxic residue is the corrosive intergenerational trauma. New research published by the National Bureau on Economic Research on social outcomes of disasters since 1930 suggests that over time, cumulative disasters drive up poverty rates across generations, as those who can afford to, flee, and survivors “left behind” fall deeper into isolated poverty that their children subsequently inherit, along with poisoned land and water.

Leah Boustan, a researcher on the data project, projected that the same patterns would play out in the aftermath of Harvey: There could be a net out-migration following the disaster itself of about 23,000 residents over the following decade, and, under the anticipated rise in poverty, Houston would see “an increase from 25 percent to 26 percent of the population living below the poverty line.” Both demographic trends are linked to the shift of more affluent people away from disaster-impacted areas, while the poor remain stuck in harm’s way.

And tracking of Katrina’s displaced families (many of whom, ironically, moved to Houston after fleeing their hometowns) reveals that the cycle of displacement, social volatility, and permanent transience compounds over a lifetime, and ties into both economic hardship, along with mental illnesses and poor school performance. “Trauma is real. It is long-lasting,” says Colette Pichon Battle of the advocacy group US Human Rights Network. For poor families with young children, especially, climate crisis “has long-term impacts for the next generation who have to go through these disasters.”

While working to pump corporate contracts for reconstruction, the Trump administration is unlikely to heed the glaring lessons of past hurricane seasons. On a post-Harvey conference call, Houston-based urban-planning professor Robert Bullard warned of a racialized, regressive reconstruction in the coming months: In highly unequal cities where the government is closely allied with corporate elites, the recovery tends to replicate “that concentration of vulnerability in terms of race and space.” In areas already mired in environmental racism, “people who get left behind with all of the same threats and the same risk, are somehow…not in the protected zone, or somehow outside the wall. There’s decades and centuries of that phenomenon.”

An additional wild card in the recovery is the Republican-led anti-immigrant crackdown, which has threatened to outlaw Texas’s sanctuary cities and strip temporary reprieve and work authorization from 68,000 local DACA recipients. So flooded communities may end up shutting the door on young people like paramedic Jesus Contreras, among the first to join the emergency-relief front lines. In addition to deepening the trauma on immigrant survivors, the interwoven crises of displacement and deportation threats could hamper long-term recovery. Undocumented workers make up an estimated 30 percent of construction laborers, “with no replacements readily available.” DACAmented youth are among the educators now coordinating the recovery in the disaster-stricken Texas school system. If Houston’s historically vibrant migrant lifeblood is pushed into the shadows, communities will be stripped of the muscle and spirit needed to heal and revive. Some DACA recipients have already become victims of irrevocable loss, like Alonso Guillen, who drowned while trying to rescue flood victims.

In the long term, Bullard argues, the government can ensure a just recovery only through a regulated decision-making process that includes “some mechanism put in place so that recovery and rebuilding and the resources as they are being spent, don’t somehow allow money to follow money.”

Marion McFadden, vice president of public policy at the development foundation Enterprise Community Partners, stressed that residents do have narrow channels to voice dissent and make demands in a political forum, particularly at public hearings where elected officials will debate how to distribute billions of recovery dollars from the federal housing agency, HUD.

“The community gets an opportunity to weigh in and give comments to their elected officials.… The use of these dollars will be shaped locally, so there is an opportunity to do it better and to learn from Katrina and Sandy…. It’s just an open question of how it’s going to happen, and we need public awareness to ensure that it happens.”

Ultimately, the storm has put the ruling elite of Texas in a vulnerable position as well. Harvey has exposed their shortsighted profit motives and their ethical blind spots, and the workers and residents rebuilding on the ground have a chance to hold officials accountable for disaster profiteering. The storm therefore also has a silver lining: a chance to organize and lay down a fresh, more equitable foundation in Harvey’s wake.

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