Field Notes: An unequal response to disaster in Beaumont

More than 48 inches of rain inundated Beaumont after Hurricane Harvey struck last August, and the deluge impacted people across the area, across the income spectrum and of all races and ethnicities. The disaster response, however, has not been so indiscriminate.

Texas Housers visited Beaumont last week to see the conditions on the ground. Our East Texas community navigator, Clinton McNair, has been working here on the ground for months and took us around to two neighborhoods hit hard by the storm.  The team left with more questions than we had before about equal treatment across the Harvey-impacted area.

Hard Hit

The area of East Texas that includes Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange has come to be known as the Golden Triangle, after the arrival of lucrative but potentially hazardous industries like oil refining and chemical processing.

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A screenshot of cumulative rainfall from the New York Times article on Hurricane Harvey

The National Weather Service reported that after Hurricane Harvey passed through Houston, it stalled over Beaumont and left record rainfalls, often in excess of 48 inches. When the storm had passed, Beaumont had taken much of the brunt.

Same Damage, Different Neighborhoods

We’ve written about Beaumont’s persistent fair housing issues in the past. So has The Atlantic.  They’ve refused to desegregate public housing and have forgone millions of dollars in federal funding because of it. When Texas Housers  visited, we looked at the hardest hit neighborhood in Beaumont, Pine Street, and an exurb of the city that suffered much the same, The City of Bevil Oaks. We saw that not much has changed.

Pine Street is predominantly black and located near the large canals meant to convey the water away from Beaumont. The residences have been built over time, some newer than others. Not many share the same look. The streets are dotted with empty lots where homes have been bought out from past floods. The median income sits around $45,000. The area is served by the Beaumont Independent School District.

Bevil Oaks could not have been more different. It’s a small city of about 1,000 people to the West of the City of Beaumont. The 2010 Census reports that Bevil Oaks is 90 percent White and nine out of ten households own their homes.  The median income is around $75,000. Beaumont ISD recently released the area to join the nearby Hardin-Jefferson ISD, a wealthier school district. The houses there are single-story, brick houses cut from the same ranch house cloth.

What We Saw

What we saw wasn’t just a segregation of homes but an unequal response to a disaster. In the middle of the workday, Bevil Oaks was bustling with contractors gutting and repairing houses. Many of the houses were marked with disaster response team codes, signifying information like hazards that might exist, or the date they were checked. FEMA temporary housing trailers lined the streets. Lawn signs on street corners shared the date and time of the next food pantry.

FEMA Trailers were plentiful in Bevil Oaks
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A sign on the median of a street in Bevil Oaks, TX

Twenty minutes away, Pine Street was like a neighborhood the city forgot. Many damaged homes sat unused. Some still full of a mixture of debris and belongings, tossed around by a storm that dissipated seven months ago. We saw few markings from disaster relief teams. In a neighborhood where Beaumont has determined there are over 20 “substantially damaged” homes, we saw one FEMA trailer. It’s resident said they had received it in March. The people in the neighborhood shared many different stories with us, but one thread was clear; none of them trusted the City of Beaumont.

Did both of these neighborhoods go through the same storm? Why does a city of 1,000 have more resources to help its residents than the City of Beaumont? Why does FEMA have such a disparate presence?

Left: Pine Street in 2013, on Google Street View. Right:  2018, seven months after Hurricane Harvey.

Where Else? 

This story of two neighborhoods is very likely the same story that exists in other Texas cities and towns — throughout the Golden Triangle and beyond. FEMA keeps data on who has requested aid and what FEMA provides but they don’t share it. This is one of the reasons that Texas Housers has been so persistent in our open records requests from FEMA; to verify what we saw in Beaumont and to see where else it occurs. We’re trying to answer statewide questions like “Where has FEMA aid gone to help?” and “Who has been denied FEMA assistance?” so that we can look for patterns. Meanwhile, FEMA has been less than forthcoming with this data.

Until we have data, the best we can do is use our own eyes and talk to the people living this reality. And what we’ve seen and heard all points to an unequal recovery from Hurricane Harvey.