Disaster recovery should heal, not divide, our communities

It’s time to redefine disaster recovery.

SOURCECampaign for America's Future

Houston has barely begun to recover from Hurricane Harvey, as Irma devastates the Caribbean and heads towards Puerto Rico and Florida. Its hard to imagine all the grief, effort, and cost it will take to rebuild from one of these thousand-year storms, much less two.

But we better get used to it. Climate science tells us more superstorms are coming. We should learn how to recover from them in a smart, humane way – one that promotes economic and social justice, so people, families and communities can truly heal.

Trump and the Republicans are about to do it the other way.

Money from misery

The devastation of Houston was made worse by poor planning and deregulation. That wasn’t an accident: it was greed. Wealthy individuals and corporations want to keep their taxes low, so they blocked government spending for preparedness and recovery.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey in 2012, one of the most vocal cheerleaders for this brand of ghoulish selfishness was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who dismissed disaster mitigation efforts as “pork” and joined most of his fellow Texas Republicans in voting against aid to Sandy’s victims.

Today, it’s Cruz’s own constituents who are paying the price for this selfish, short-sighted philosophy.

The greed of oil companies like ExxonMobil and Valero led them to lobby against the EPA’s regulation of benzene. As David Sirota and Jay Cassano report, this will probably allow them to escape punishment for leaking this highly carcinogenic solvent, a common element in gasoline, into the atmosphere around Houston in the hurricane’s aftermath.

Why spend money to prevent deadly leaks, these corporations reason, when you can get the rules changed in your favor for a fistful of lobbyist dollars?

In a just world, the politicians and special interests responsible for so much suffering would be forced to step aside so that saner, more ethical people could clean up their damage and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again next time. But we don’t live in that world… yet.

Target: Houston

As Thomas Jessen Adams and Cedric Johnson write about Houston, “the race to capitalize on the disaster, to redistribute wealth upward, and to transform the region has already begun.” The Trump administration, together with the right wing extremists who currently govern Texas, will direct recovery efforts. They are likely to roll back environmental protections – which will make future disasters worse – and further weaken worker protections like the Davis-Bacon Act.

This playbook is familiar to anyone who followed what happened to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s disaster capitalism, straight out of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: every catastrophe is an opportunity to consolidate wealth and power for the elites, and undermine the public institutions that serve the majority.

If our current leaders have their way, working people will be driven even further from the desirable parts of the city, making them more dependent on cars and forcing them to give up even more of their lives to difficult and lengthy commutes.

Recovery money will be channeled toward contractors and projects that further enrich the already wealthy, building high-end housing and luxury retail outlets instead of the affordable housing in transit that most people. The Department of Education under Betsy DeVos will try to privatize Houston schools, a move that would increase segregation, reduce social mobility, and make economic inequality even worse.

Ethical recovery

It doesn’t have to be that way. Disaster recovery could be based on some fundamental ethical principles, including:

1. Disasters are going to happen more often now, so we better get good at recovering from them.

The science is settled. Hurricanes are getting more severe because of climate change. Even as we fight to minimize the harm we’re doing to the environment, we need to accept the fact that disasters like Katrina, Harvey, and Irma are going to shape our world for the foreseeable future.

2. We must never again allow the powerful to use disasters to exploit the powerless.

The recovery from Hurricane Katrina was a national disgrace, thanks to an economically and racially biased plan of action. The city lost 96,000 black residents, nearly one-third of its African-American population, after rebuilding efforts that were slow to help the mostly black Lower Ninth Ward.

Gary Rivlin notes New Orleans no longer has a public hospital. Affordable housing was bulldozed, not repaired.

The city’s 7,500 teachers were fired and charter schools replaced the traditional system. The city’s most disadvantaged children suffered as a result. As Jeff Bryant writes, “here’s no evidence anywhere that the NOLA model of school reform has ‘improved education.’” Borrowing a phrase from TV’s The Wire, Bryant also characterized the charterized school district’s test scores as a case of “juking the stats.”

Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy. The response was a crime.

3. Rebuilding, like all government aid, must respect those most in need.

Our current system of mass incarceration targets people of color, who make up more than half (59 percent) of the nation’s prison population. Although black and white Americans sell and use drugs at roughly the same percentages, the African-American imprisonment rate for illegal drugs is nearly six times higher than the white rate.

Maybe that’s why prison inmates in New Orleans were abandoned, potentially to drown, during Hurricane Katrina, enduring days of horrifying neglect before being rescued.

Prisons must be rebuilt as humane institutions, and plans must be put in place to keep inmates safe.

But prisons are only the tip of the iceberg. Rebuilding efforts provide an opportunity to ensure that affordable housing is available to all those who need it. A recent report from the Urban Institute shows that there is an affordable housing crisis, and that it has reached every single county in the United States. “Without the support of federal rental assistance,” the report concludes, “not one county in the United States has enough affordable housing for all its (extremely low income) renters.”

This is a catastrophe, too, a slow-motion disaster playing out all around us. Its victims deserve to be rescued too. Communities must be affordable, safe, and secure for all of their residents.

4. We need to get smarter about transportation.

Hurricane Harvey destroyed several hundred thousand cars – as many as 1 million, according to some estimates. Insurance companies will bear the multibillion-dollar cost of replacing them, but that cost will then be borne by the economy as a whole in the form of higher premiums.

Most residents will also have to pay an insurance deductible, and lower-income people are more likely to have a high deductible. Given the fact that many Americans say they don’t have $400 for an unanticipated emergency, this means that many Houstonians will suffer another hardship as they replace their cars.

And they will have to replace them, just to survive. Houston is geographically broad, and it’s difficult to live or work there without an automobile. That’s why the car ownership rate there is 94.4 percent, second only to Dallas. By contrast, supposedly car-crazy Los Angeles has an ownership rate of only 86.5 percent.

An estimated 15 percent of Houston residents don’t have car insurance, which is likely to mean they can’t replace them at all. That could doom them to joblessness and poverty, which raises the question: can car ownership ever be considered a fundamental right?

Replacement cars are already making their way to Houston. They will make climate change worse, and so will help lay the groundwork for future disastrous hurricanes. Cars are part of the problem in the long run, not part of the solution.

Houston, like other cities that lack effective public transportation, force their residents to rely on cars. This is like imposing a regressive kind of “life tax” that imposes a disproportionate burden on lower-income people.

Future rebuilding efforts need to concentrate, not just on replacing what was there before, but in replacing it with something better. That means public transportation, and government investment in cheaper and more energy-efficient vehicles.

5. Rebuilding efforts must repair the planet, as well as the city.

We have been repairing the damage caused by climate change by rebuilding infrastructure that makes climate change worse. That is, very literally, insane. We should replace destroyed homes with ones that are energy-efficient, repair highways and bridges so that they impose less wear and tear on vehicles, and (as mentioned above) build or upgrade mass transit wherever possible.

Disaster recovery efforts should also include mitigation of future disasters. In Houston’s case that means slowing or stopping development on nearby wetlands, a reckless undertaking that makes flooding more severe.

Rebuilding efforts must consider the planet, as well as the city.

6. Safe, well-governed communities are a human right.

Lastly, it needs to be recognized that we’ve taken a reckless and shortsighted approach toward urban planning and regulation over the last several decades. Whether it is the deregulation that has contributed to Harvey’s environmental and human toll, or the lack of foresight that is exacerbated our housing and transportation crises, we’ve allowed our cities to become unsafe spaces. That needs to stop.

Every human being has the right to be safe. Every human being has the right to expect that their government will protect them, from human greed as well as natural disasters. Under the sway of the cult of privatization, our municipal, state and national governments have been falling down on the job. That has to change.


As this is being written, Hurricane Irma has devastated much of the Caribbean and is bearing down on Puerto Rico and Florida. Scientists say that its record winds and “epic” size is being fueled by climate change. There will be more storms like it in the future – and very possibly worse.

We need to be ready for disaster – with our satellites, our rescue teams, with our earth movers and cranes. But we also need to be ready with our values and our ideals. It’s time to redefine disaster recovery – not as an opportunity for exploitation, and not even to restore the status quo, but as a way to heal from the rapid and slow-moving disasters happening all around us.


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