FutureStructure

Can ‘Precovery’ Be the Best Solution to Natural Disasters?

A system developed in South Texas could become a national model.

by Leah Binkovitz, The Urban Edge / September 13, 2016
A view of South Padre Island after Hurricane Dolly Flickr/Coast Guard News

When Hurricane Dolly and then Hurricane Ike hit South Texas in the summer of 2008, it devastated the Rio Grande Valley, home to some of the poorest cities in the state and in the country.

The storms caused billions of dollars worth of damage, and the recovery was slow and uneven. Five years after the storms, many people were still waiting on promises of rebuilt homes.

It’s a familiar pattern, and it’s one you can see after nearly every disaster, says John Henneberger of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. He’s been fielding questions from folks in Louisiana in the wake of last month’s devastating flooding there. “Here we go again,” he said, “It’s several weeks after the disaster, and now we’re going to start planning how we’re going to recover. That’s not the lesson we all have learned over repeated cycles of disasters.”

He’s been on the ground for several rounds of disasters now and has seen the problems with the recovery process, particularly for low-income communities. Through design competitions, legal complaints and a pilot program, housing advocates in Texas have landed on a disaster relief model they say is more efficient and less expensive than the status quo. The process, dubbed Rapido, has two components, starting with the housing itself. Using a temporary-to-permanent model, builders use a pre-assembled temporary core that can be expanded to move families into within 120 days. For that, they’ve received a lot of attention. But the key isn’t the temporary core that can get families into safe housing quickly. It’s the other component of the rapid rehousing model: the extensive pre-planning that makes it possible.

A family stands in front of a completed Rapido house. Image via buildingcommunityWORKSHOP.

“I think the most important thing we have proposed is this precovery work,” said Brent Brown, the founding director of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, the Texas-based community design nonprofit behind the housing Rapido, gaining national attention, including media coverage and a spot in an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City. And though Brown gets calls inquiring about the temporary housing core itself, he said it’s much more important that cities and counties undertake planning before the storm hits.

Brown and others are pushing for state legislation that would enable local jurisdictions to not only make those plans for themselves but also make sure that emergency funds from the state or federal government would be go toward implementing those plans.

“What we’re trying to say is the community has a plan, the state has recognized the plan and the money should be going there,” said Brown.

Deferred Maintenance

In the wake of Dolly and Ike, the border city of Brownsville was struggling. Hit hard by the storm, the city of roughly 176,000 was also responding to one of the most vulnerable populations in the country. Cameron County, where Brownsville is located in the southern tip of the state, has one of the state’s highest concentrations of colonias, sub-standard housing developments that often lack basic infrastructure like water, electricity and paved streets. The median income for households in the area was just $28,523, according to Census estimates. More than a third of the city is below poverty level.

And for people living in the region’s most impoverished communities, aid was out of reach.

“Many people applied for assistance,” said Elaine Morales, design associate at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP’s Brownsville office, “but over 85 percent were denied because of ‘deferred maintenance.’”

Properties in the colonias were sold off in the 1950s to low-income, largely Hispanic families looking for affordable housing generally using contract for deed arrangements that left buyers with few protections. Over time, residents have had to make improvements as money allows. Families worked for generations to add drainage, connect to power and make other changes. But because their homes often failed to meet code even prior to the storm, they were told it was impossible for officials to distinguish what was storm damage and what was an existing condition of life in the colonia.

Thanks to advocacy efforts by the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and others following previous storms, a settlement reallocated funds to the Rio Grande Valley. With that funding, buildingcommunityWORKSHOP set about custom designing 20 homes for families who hadn’t received assistance or had been cut from the assistance rolls without knowing it. Years after Hurricane Dolly, many of them were still living in their badly damaged homes.

“They didn’t leave their home even though they had mold and their roofs were falling down because they didn’t have the resources,” said Morales.

Few were expecting the questions that awaited them, according to Morales. “They were all custom-designed,” she said. “How do you want your house? I think that’s a very powerful question.”

Building on Experience

The team quickly learned, however, it was about more than building a home.

Image via buildingcommunityWORKSHOPImage via buildingcommunityWORKSHOP

“We started out (with) ‘let’s build a cool house,'” explained Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, which worked with buildingcommunityWORKSHOP and other advocacy groups on disaster relief in the area. “Then you realize, anyone can build a cool house.” Instead, he said, the difficult parts of disaster relief are outreach, eligibility issues and identifying local resources and preferences ahead of time.

“We had to retool a couple times,” he said. Ultimately, the organization was able to design and build the homes but they learned that their way of custom designing homes was too slow. The final Rapido model relies on a temporary core that can be added onto later to become permanent. The model also necessitates meticulous on-the-ground planning around issues such as permitting. That way, plans are ready and in place before disaster strikes. The model relies on community input to design several choices for style and type of home appropriate to the area.

“When people look at our houses they say, ‘That won’t work in my neighborhood,’” explained Brown. “Well of course it won’t. It was designed for a family in a colonia. A big principle in this work says it must be local and contextual. The physical product can be adjusted.”

Good Planning

But every municipality needs to do outreach to determine what kind of disaster housing would be most appropriate, who could build it, who would be eligible to receive it and what resources would be available. That conversation should even include whether folks want to rebuild in vulnerable neighborhoods and how to offer alternatives. “I think a lot of this is integrable with good planning and community development work as well,” said Brown.

That process can be time and labor intensive, however, so Brown and others are hoping the legislature will help incentivize it as a home-grown solution for local governments. Last year, state senator Eddie Lucio III, whose district includes his hometown of Brownsville, told the Houston Chronicle, “We’ve known there is a problem forever, and it’s time we addressed it,” as he oversaw hearings about disaster relief and recovery that sought to address the more than $1 billion in funds for the 2008 storms that had yet to be spent.

As chair of the intergovernmental relations committee, Lucio says he will sponsor legislation in the next session that would speed up the recovery process and adopt Rapido’s best practices — similar to a bill that failed last session. “The RAPIDO model and demonstration project, which was called for in the legislation that I authored in 2009, needs to be the standard for our state,” wrote Lucio in an email. “As RAPIDO has demonstrated, if we follow their example Texas will achieve better, faster, and more efficient results at a fraction of the cost. Our disaster victims and their communities deserve this quality program and the standard of rapid construction it establishes.”

The legislation would call for homes to rebuilt within a year and allow governments looking to do recovery planning to get support from Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, which helped guide Rapido’s development as well, all changes Henneberger argues are sorely needed.

“They continue to sort of reinvent disaster recovery from a blank sheet of paper every time there’s a disaster,” he said. “They’re eight years into the Hurricane Ike (and) Hurricane Dolly recovery and that program is still inching along. The state is approaching this like every disaster will be like that: billions of dollars and large system to be put in place, large contracts brought in, multinational engineering firms employed. What’s really called for is a faster response, a pre-planned response.”

The committee has been briefed on Rapido, and seemed impressed by the results, according to Mitchell-Bennett. “They were saying, let’s build 200 of these and store them away some place,” he said. But embracing Rapido means more than building hundreds of temporary cores.

When Mitchell-Bennett got a call from an official with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department on the ground in Louisiana asking how much the core cost to build, he wasn’t sure what to tell him. “It’s different for every market,” he said. “He said, ‘We’re going to try to do Rapido in Louisiana,’ and I thought, well, it’s a little late.”

He said they even considered going to Louisiana to help out, but they decided they shouldn’t come as outsiders. “Quite frankly, that’s what Rapido is not,” he said. “We did this because we didn’t like people from the outside telling us what to do.”

Meanwhile, rebuilding after Ike and Dolly grinds on. In March, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council was recognized as the first council of governments in Texas to complete its recovery program. And the city of Brownsville will be the first to officially adopt a Rapido plan. But it’s only a matter of time before the next one. “We can look right now in places across our state or the Gulf Coast,” said Brown, “We can identify those neighborhoods that are most at-risk. I think its only right to put together a plan to say how you’re going rebuild with the community there.”

This article appeared on The Urban Edge, part of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, a multi-disciplinary ‘think-and-do tank’ housed on the Rice University campus in central Houston, focusing on urban issues in Houston, the American Sunbelt, and around the world.