'We know that FEMA undercounts, and that has long-term effects for Houston. It means we get less money than we should get; it means we are not seeing the full scale of the problem, especially for vulnerable people.'
(TNS) - The federal government underestimated by nearly $2 billion the serious unmet needs after Hurricane Harvey, overlooking issues in some poor neighborhoods that experienced widespread damage and loss of income, according to a new study.
The way the federal government assesses need and distributes aid is fundamentally flawed because it responds only to people who apply for help via the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the study, a partnership between the Houston Housing and Community Development Department and private engineering and consulting firms.
“We know that FEMA undercounts, and that has long-term effects for Houston,” said Sarah Labowitz, an assistant director in the housing department. “It means we get less money than we should get; it means we are not seeing the full scale of the problem, especially for vulnerable people.”
Labowitz and her team are using data from the study to try to increase the $1.17 billion the city has received in long-term aid from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While an additional $4.3 billion in recovery aid is slated for Texas, the money is still tied up as the federal government argues over rules about how it can be spent.
Meanwhile, the city has 50 canvassers knocking on doors, targeting areas where data shows there are particularly vulnerable populations.
The effects of Hurricane Harvey were unprecedented and devastating. Over 60 percent of the area within the Houston city limits flooded, according to the study, and a quarter of Houston households had some sort of impact. Over half of the households affected were outside a FEMA-designated floodplain.
To distribute post-disaster aid, HUD uses metrics collected by FEMA. But that approach is skewed to people who actively apply for individual aid right after a disaster and leaves out the vulnerable, city officials say.
The study found that Houston actually has $3.1 billion in serious unmet need after the hurricane. Labowitz said the city is making the case to HUD for more recovery dollars and talking to the city’s congressional delegation.
“We took a very different approach than the very traditional approach which uses FEMA individual assistance data — so, folks who raised their hands,” said Chris Dick, director of applied data science at Civis Analytics, one of the study partners.
To determine unmet need, data scientists mapped every building in Houston and worked with engineers to build a model to figure out how the floods worked their way through the city. Once researchers understood where the damage occurred, they built a model that showed the characteristics of every household: who lives there, racial and disability characteristics, and estimated income.
“It is possible to do something like this at a more national level,” Dick said. “Especially for places that have urban flooding, it’s definitely repeatable.”
To identify areas with “serious unmet need,” the study looked for census tracts that ranked in the top 20 percent based on a formula that considers poverty and employment rates, lack of vehicle ownership, residence in mobile homes, minority populations and houses with single parents or disabilities. Within the qualifying census tracts, residents lost more than half their income during Harvey and at least 40 percent of residential buildings sustained damage.
The study came up with 59 census tracts in Houston as highest risk, in which 31,000 households lost over half their annual income. Among the neighborhoods found most at risk are Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside, the Edgebrook area and Settegast.
The city plans to use the methodology in future disasters.
“It’ll require more resources, but the idea is that we can use this approach and be collecting ongoing data about our own recovery and our own needs so we can be better prepared for future storms,” Labowitz said.
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