Good and bad news for Houston’s post‑Harvey rebuilding efforts
Monday, December 04, 2017
Recovery efforts are still underway after the devastating hurricanes and wildfires in late summer and early fall. For all of the rebuilding efforts in California, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and Texas, the phrase "one step forward, two steps backward" is rather fitting.
Now that the scope of the problems has sunk in, innovative solutions are on the horizon. Consider Puerto Rico's post-Maria foray into solar power, or California's engagement with production-scale home rebuilding.
As difficult as things are in disaster-affected areas, people are working together to solve complex problems such as gerrymandered flood zone maps and construction laborer exploitation.
One excellent example of this collective spirit is a new nonprofit venture called the Harvey Housing Recovery Project (HHRP). People at this donation-driven, all-volunteer group in Fort Bend County witnessed 720 homes in the area get flooded during Harvey.
"The floodwaters came up and it sat for seven days, so the mold crept up and most of these homes had the Sheetrock cut four to six feet," explains Kristina Bozoarth, founder and president of HHRP.
The HHRP, which trains volunteers in rebuilding skills as it assists needy homeowners, is currently offering sod installation. This project shows how groups can emerge to tackle housing needs while also offering important career-building training in the construction trades.
That's the good news about rebuilding in Houston: People are coming together. The bad news is that as of last week, there are still a reported 20,000 Houston children who are homeless.
With government bureaucracies blamed for stalling on assistance, "some 47,000 Harvey victims stay in hotel rooms paid for by the federal government at a tune of $2.8 million a day," according to Newsweek.
Harvey caused an estimated $180 billion in damages, affecting 13 million people in five states. More than two months later, FEMA has doled out financial assistance to only 353,000 of the 900,000 assistance applicants.
Also, the New York Times recently reported a growing concern that developers misled prospective homeowners about flood threats and the subsequent need for insurance.
In 2011, North Houston suburban developers of The Woodlands assured new home purchasers they did not need flood insurance. As the Times investigation aptly describes, The Woodlands developers' used "a wrinkle in the federal flood-mapping system" while even adding dirt to dozens of lots, to lift them out of their flood-prone status.
While the Times observes that although the resulting "gerrymandered maps of risk" are technically legal, it also claims "when the mapping rules are followed to the letter, the results can be disastrous."
One important factor here is that FEMA creates flood-zone regulations. The agency has allowed 150,000 changes to zoning regulations in the past five years — upwards of 6,000 properties occupying these recent FEMA-redesignated zones were damaged by Harvey.
Critics of FEMA argue the agency relies on an antiquated 100-year-old flood-level determination, which decides who qualifies for federal flood insurance. This flood level "refers to a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year," but some say these numbers poorly reflect Houston's flood-prone reality.
Add to antiquated standards the developers' slick tricks — such as hauling "thousands of truckloads of dirt to raise home lots above the flood plain" — and we see why The Woodlands' newer homes flooded during Harvey.
Beyond who's responsible for rebuilding costs in contested flood zones, there's more bad news about rebuilding efforts.
A recent University of Chicago report suggests many "illegal" day laborers involved in Houston's clean-up and rebuilding efforts are being exploited in low-pay or no-pay unsafe work conditions. From toxic conditions, like mold and contamination, without safety protections to long hours and denial of earned wages, more people are taking note of precarious and dangerous rebuilding conditions for all workers, regardless of citizenship status.
A deportation climate encouraging officers to investigate residents' and workers' citizenship statuses has many people on edge, especially in the suburbs where more officers comply with this controversial law.
While Houston construction remains dependent on immigrant labor amid a skilled labor shortage, attention to proper work conditions threatens rebuilding costs. And we should be reminded that "even day laborers without legal residency are entitled to federal protections against wage theft and safety hazards."
As good news gets overshadowed by slow federal assistance, accusations of gerrymandered flood zones, poor treatment of day laborers and stricter immigration enforcement, let us not forget the hard work of Houston's volunteers who are surely making a difference for suffering and homeless families this holiday season.
They are leaving a lasting legacy to build on.
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