State issues

Apply the lessens of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita to the Ike relief efforts

We learned a lot of valuable lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita about providing post-disaster housing assistance to low income families.

I will discuss how these lessons should be applied to our response to Hurricane Ike over the coming days.

I begin today by recounting the lessons in four areas of immediate concern:

A. Evacuation
B. Shelters
C. Damage Assessment

A Spring 2008 Affordable Housing Policy graduate student class at the University of Texas at Austin School of Community and Regional Planning which I taught undertook research and made these recommendations. The class evaluated the effectiveness of different models for the provision of this assistance in Texas and other states. I offer the work of that class below and urge government officials to heed these lessons.

The most important lesson we have learned about housing recovery and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is that the housing needs of low-income disaster survivors are profoundly different from those of higher income families. Disaster recovery programs to often fail to provide efficient, effective and compassionate temporary housing and long-term housing stability to low-income families.

These recommendations relate to the needs of these low-income households…

A. Evacuation

(1) Amend the Stafford Act and U.S. disaster policy to bring its treatment of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in line with U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Congress should also revise the “shared household” provision of the Stafford Act to ensure that disaster housing policy does not discriminate against low-income people, people of color, or elderly or disabled people.

The U.N. Guiding Principles, adopted in 1998, include the right to protection before a disaster and the right to housing, safety and legal protections that do not discriminate against low-income people, people of color or elderly or disabled people. These principles also protect the right of displaced persons to return, resettlement, and reintegration to the community of their choice (Kromm & Sturgis, 2008). The principles recognize the importance “for the international community to see how best it can contribute to enhancing the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in conflict and crisis situations” (United Nations, 1998). These principles have also played a large role “in raising awareness of the needs of IDPs, mobilizing support within the humanitarian community and helping field colleagues to find solutions when confronted with the protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced” (United Nations, 1998).

The revision of the “shared household” provision of the Stafford Act would allow individuals to apply for and receive aid. A significant number of low-income households “double up” in order to make ends meet. When such households were split up after Katrina, only one household was eligible for housing assistance under FEMA’s “shared household” rule, delaying or denying assistance to many evacuees and slowing the ability of families to resettle (Crowley, 2006). Revising the “shared household” provision would reflect and respect the needs of low-income households who may engage in unconventional housing practices such as “doubling up,” giving them access to aid.

(2) Evacuate households as a unit whenever possible.

Eliminate the costly process of reconnecting households by evacuating households together. Attempt to preserve social networks and familial ties by enabling households to avoid the stress of trying to reconnect with one another.

On the ground, workers were largely unprepared for a large-scale evacuation; during Hurricane Katrina, people were rescued individually rather than as households, leading to widespread mayhem as families were split up during evacuation. Many families were separated during the evacuation process, making reconnecting difficult and expensive (Kulkarni et al., in press)

Displaced survivors lose previous social networks that provided informal support such as transportation and child care, small loans, and information about jobs and access to services that made it possible for low-income families to make ends meet (Kulkarni et al., in press). Having to reconnect with family makes this process even more stressful and costly.

In addition, the current “shared household” rule has prevented many individuals and families from receiving the aid that they deserve. A significant number of low-income households who had engaged in “doubling up” prior to the disaster were left without any access to aid. Because this clause has affected such a vulnerable segment of the population, it needs to be revisited. The shared household rule has been a problem in other disasters, such as Hurricane Andrew (Yelvington, 1992).

Fiscal Impact
These revisions of United States disaster housing policy will result in greater overall efficiency in expenditures on disaster emergency response. Current disaster housing policy is failing to meet the needs of low-income, minority, elderly and disabled individuals, placing a tremendous cost burden on these individuals as well as on social service agencies, non-profit organizations, and other entities to attempt to meet the crucial need for housing. The evacuation of households as a single unit will also result in enormous cost savings, as less money will need to be spent on the expensive and difficult process of reconnecting individuals.

B. Shelters

The American Red Cross has taken the lead with the provision of shelters in the emergency response period. Local governments have supported and supplemented these efforts and should continue to do so.

The American Red Cross has been the nation’s leading agency in disaster preparedness and emergency relief. It has a Congressional charter to “carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, an other great calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same” (,1082,0_319_,00.html).

C. Damage Assessment

The government’s efforts in data collection should focus on two major areas:

(1) The coordinated collection and compilation of data on disaster victims so there is a clear picture of who these people are and what their needs are.

The government should build upon the Coordinated Assistance Network (CAN), a powerful database created by seven of the nation’s leading nonprofit disaster relief organizations. CAN was a first attempt to solve the problem of the lack of fluent information sharing. CAN allows its users “to share secure, up-to-date information about clients and services being provided to them by partnering agencies” ( Data is “instantly accessible to all CAN partners, helping to ensure timely delivery of services, without duplicating effort.” This data is then used by national, regional, and local relief organizations to deliver services in a timely manner without duplicating efforts. Caseworkers have access to client information, which enables more collaboration and makes referrals easier. In addition, CAN enables organizations to match victims with available resources, which means that there is less pressure on victims to navigate their way through the web of relief services that exist. The system is currently being piloted in six cities, so there is a great need for the capacity of this database to be expanded to a more national scale.

This database should have information such as age, income, family composition, housing tenure, employment status, income sources, level of educational attainment, and disability status. Having this information is crucial to being able to predict families’ post-disaster housing needs and their likely level of economic attainment. This information will enable the government to better be able to meet the needs of disaster victims.

(2) The accurate and timely assessment of housing damages to ensure that rebuilding begins as quickly as possible.

A housing damage assessment, based on the disaster management plan carried out in aftermath of the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, would have three parts: (a) an initial damage estimation, (b) a building safety evaluation, and (c) a housing damage assessment.

(a) Initial damage estimation: Collect and consolidate information on the extent of the damages caused by the disaster.

The initial damage estimation should be carried out IMMEDIATELY after the disaster by the local government, with the lead taken by the local building inspection department. In small towns or rural areas without a building inspection department, the fallback responsibility will be on the county building inspection department. This portion of the assessment should be conducted within 48 hours of the disaster. It is critical that the initial damage estimation be carried out in a timely manner because many of the initial response activities are dependent upon this assessment. The initial damage assessment is crucial for the authorities to get a sense for the scale of the disaster- it should be a replacement cost damage assessment. While information needs to be accurate, there does not need to be a focus on precision. A distinction should also be made between structural damage and other types of damage, such as flood damage. Current FEMA procedures are summarized as percentage damage estimates which “do not adequately capture variation in types and level of damage” (Bates, 2007). “Questionable methodology combined with inspectors unfamiliar with the area’s architecture and pre-storm conditions” led to inaccurate damage estimates in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Bates, 2007).

(b) Building safety evaluation: Ensure that no further lives are lost by assessing the safety of buildings before re-entry.

The building safety evaluation is directed at ensuring that buildings are safe for re-entry. Buildings can be classified as: unsafe, limited entry, and inspected. Assessment should be carried out in a uniform fashion, with checklists created for wooden, steel, and reinforced concrete structures. Specific attention should be paid to: overall hazards, structural and ground hazards, and following hazards. This part of the evaluation should be carried out within a week of the disaster. The inspection of multi-family buildings, public buildings, and complex structures should be carried out by certified experts. These experts are local architects, engineers, contractors, and other professionals familiar with building code standards who pass a qualification exam and are certified by local and county building inspection departments. Inspections should occur under the guidance of a uniform safety evaluation standard, which clearly breaks down damages into types (structural and non-structural) as well as offers specific guidelines for assessing the severity of the damages. HUD will be responsible for the adoption of this uniform safety evaluation standard, with local and county building inspection departments contributing by helping to taylor the standards to the needs of the specific locale. These adjustments may account for mixes in the type and condition of the housing stock as well as for wide variations in the way that a disaster may affect the housing stock (i.e. location of the flood plain).

(c) Housing damage assessment: Finalize damage assessment and issue Victim Certifications based on these results.

The housing damage assessment involves the detailed inspection of buildings and the issuance of a Victim Certificate, divided into four categories: major damage, moderate damage, minor damage, and no damage. The purpose of this segment of the assessment is to provide a basis for allocating various forms of support. Because the housing damage assessment directly affects the rebuilding process, it requires the highest level of accuracy. In order to ensure the accuracy of the assessment, there should be detailed criteria for conducting the assessment, a systematic method of assessment, and well-trained experts to serve as inspectors. This portion of the assessment should happen within a month of the disaster and the opportunity for re-survey should also be made available in the event that the owner and inspector cannot agree on a damage classification. This final damage assessment should be the basis for issuance of benefits. Currently procedures are extremely unclear and since the assessment process has been extremely drawn out, there has been confusion as to which damage estimate should be used to determine how much victims should receive in benefits.

Current government efforts are marred by haphazard data collection, overlapping of efforts by various agencies, and the lack of a system of information sharing. There is no list of demographic and economic data that is needed and no protocol for collecting useful data about survivors’ needs. Additionally, most of the disaster housing assessment appears to operate on its own timeline, which is unacceptable when people are without a permanent living situation and the neediest segment of the population has no other place to turn for help.

In order for the government to respond to a housing disaster effectively and efficiently, a housing damage assessment needs to be carried out. The results of the housing damage assessment guide the disaster relief and redevelopment process and it is critical that the assessment be as accurate as possible. An accurate assessment is necessary in order for the government to be able to estimate the extent of the damages and to allocate resources based on severity of need. Additionally, if the process is not carried out in a timely manner, further deterioration can occur, resulting in additional costs for repair. It is important for the assessment to be completed as quickly as possible so that the relief and rebuilding process can get underway. People unable to start piecing their lives back together without a permanent living situation and the security and opportunities that come along with that. The government must carefully consider the purposes, methods, and implementation of damage estimation procedures in order to improve the quality of decision-making in the emergency response period.

These policy recommendations may require greater upfront costs, but will generate enormous increases in efficiency in the overall disaster housing policy response. The CAN database is a powerful and necessary tool that will enable the government to more efficiently and effectively meet survivors’ needs.

D. FEMA process

(1) Expand and strengthen CAN database to ensure better coordination between service agencies and to make the process of obtaining aid easier and less stressful for disaster victims.

(2) Improve public education about FEMA programs by
(a) utilizing the FEMA website as an information portal and
(b) engaging the public in more pre-disaster education through mailers and information pamphlets that can be distributed at libraries, recreation centers, city halls, and other public locations.

(3) Encourage more transparency in FEMA communication and decision-making.

Ensure that contracting process is open to the public and that people are informed of pre-award decisions, contract data, and contracting officers’ decisions and justifications. This information can be provided on the FEMA website. Additionally, contract files should contain source selection information explaining why contracts were awarded to certain contractors and documenting why prices are set where they are. FEMA should also ensure that contracts are awarded with conditions, scope of work descriptions, and prices so that resources are adequately accounted for.

(4) More training for FEMA workers.

Ensure that FEMA workers, especially those in direct contact with the public, are given adequate training and are well-informed of the basic FEMA processes

(5) Improve the capacity and the breadth of the FEMA website.

Provide detailed information on status and updates of disaster relief housing programs. Provide eligibility requirements, application process, status of applications, reason for denials, and amount of assistance provided.

(6) Standardization of housing recovery assistance in advance of disaster.

Provide a clear outline of how funding and service responsibilities would be allocated among states, localities, and the federal government. Ensure that people understand what type of benefits they would be eligible for and where housing aid would come from. This can be done through the FEMA website and information packets as described in (2).

(7) Better oversight of FEMA contracts.

Hire the appropriate number of contracting officers in order to have sufficient staff to oversee the award and monitoring stages of FEMA contracting. Also, ensure that institutional memory is built up so that the rotation of officials does not impact the agencies’ ability to track contracts. This can be done by keeping better tabs on important documentation and invoices as well as keeping better track of who is responsible for the oversight of each contract.

There needs to be stronger Congressional oversight in the form of a joint House-Senate subcommittee that oversees operations in the wake of a disaster. Members of this subcommittee could be drawn from representatives of the affected area with representation from the appropriations committees, FEMA oversight committees, and housing oversight committees.

Additionally, the General Accounting Office should be engaged in oversight and review of damage estimates and rebuilding cost estimates.

(8) More coordination with the bigger picture emergency response effort.

The CAN database is another crucial piece of greater accountability for FEMA. The database will allow the sharing of accurate data about family needs among the various agencies and organizations providing intermediate and long-term relief. The database will inform the design of the rebuilding programs and will enable government agencies and faith-based organizations in deciding where to target their resources. The database needs to be built as both a collection of demographic, economic, and needs information about households as well as a repository of information about the current status of each survivor household. This will assist in long-term rebuilding efforts and give the government and other agencies information about who is in the process of being assisted and what stage of the process they are at. This database should serve as the foundation for all accountability. It will reveal households that have slipped through the cracks and will serve as a tool for the General Accounting Office and Congressional subcommittee to assess the overall relief effort and identify programmatic gaps. Oversight of the database should come from a committee of government officials and non-profit organizations involved in relief efforts, headed by FEMA and the Red Cross. This committee would be responsible for preparing regular reports for the Congressional subcommittee and identifying problems that should be brought to Congress’ attention.

The CAN database also has potential to bring local housing agencies and faith-based groups into the process of rebuilding. The database allows for a more coordinated rebuilding process, thus allowing more agencies and organizations to be involved.

A primary aspect of the inconsistent and inadequate provision of FEMA services in the emergency response period is that FEMA workers were not adequately trained to meet the needs of the public. Workers’ answers to victim’s questions were often inconsistent and inaccurate, leading to more confusion and frustration. On the ground, workers were unprepared for a large-scale evacuation.

The lack of transparency in FEMA’s communications both internally and with the public also marred the rebuilding process. One element of this was that there was a lack of trust in FEMA’s abilities to carry out its responsibilities. Many people feel that the program is “so badly designed and implemented that people are unable to use it or have so much trouble accessing it that they give up” (Crowley, 137). FEMA has done a poor job of communicating information to the public, resulting in a severe lack of trust as well as mass confusion about their policies.

There is clearly a need for a more clear understanding of FEMA’s role in the disaster relief process and for there to be a more coordinated, cohesive effort among all levels of government and non-profit organizations involved in the relief and rebuilding process.

This policy recommendation will also result in greater efficiencies in the disaster response and rebuilding process. The recommendations outline necessary improvements and will result in more efficient spending on the part of the federal government.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

2 comments on “Apply the lessens of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita to the Ike relief efforts

  1. Thank for this article, CAN looks forward to partnering with agencies assisting in recovery in Texas and across the country. For further information about the Coordinated Assistance Network, please contact
    Peace, Lesli
    Sr. Officer Deployment and Community Support

  2. Pingback: Lessons from Kartina and Rita about rebuilding permanent housing for low income hurricane survivors « Texas housers

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: