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Disaster Recoveries Typically Hampered by a Lack of Data

Many homes still need to be rebuilt after Hurricane Harvey, but how many?

A year after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the debris has been removed, and from a distance, recovery looks robust. But pop your head into many of the homes affected and you’ll see a different picture, one of completely gutted homes.

How many of them? Some estimates are that 100,000 homes still need to be repaired or rebuilt, but it’s difficult to know because of a lack of data — and that’s typical of the recovery process. But it allows people to fall through the cracks and that can be a major impediment to the recovery effort.

“Not having the data upfront, not knowing the length and scope of the damage first of all prevents government leaders and community leaders from advocating for their community on what they actually need to rebuild,” said Mark Smith, advisory services manager for the nonprofit SBP (formerly St. Bernard Project), a disaster relief organization. “It’s a huge problem.”

One of the goals of SBP is to shrink the length of the recovery process. For individuals, the longer it takes to get them back in their homes, the closer they are to reaching a breaking point — the point where families and communities are irreparably harmed and can’t recover.

That breaking point can come in a number of different ways, including stress from living in a damaged home, or with a multitude of family members having to share quarters, of physical stress from dangerous conditions.

Having to pay a mortgage on a house, and at the same time, pay for a motel or apartment during the rebuilding stage can break people and lead to bankruptcy, which can devastate a community. “You look at Jersey Shore,” Smith pointed out. “A lot of these were fishing communities, and after Sandy they lost homes, their savings and those communities are irreparably changed. They aren’t the same communities.”

One solution is better coordination and preparedness prior to a disaster. “Disaster-impacted communities need upstream solutions and better ideas across a range of agencies and programs (even ahead of rebuilding) to reduce the time between disaster events and full community recovery,” wrote Reese May, chief strategy and innovation officer at SBP, in an email.

“There are a lot of things we can do,” Smith said. “We can better prepare. We can equip local communities to better prepare for natural disasters. One of the things SBP does is advise local governments on what happens after a disaster, what the steps are you can take, what data is available and how you can access it.”

SBP also helps people understand how to get the right flood insurance, how to document possessions and how to ensure people get the funds needed for recovery.

Immediately after a disaster, millions of dollars pour in from sources who want to help, but time inevitably dissipates the intensity and the focus of the public lands elsewhere. “Unfortunately when you have three massive disasters [hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose] and wildfires in California, it’s easy to forget that rebuilding takes years and can take decades,” Smith said. “It’s something SBP continues to fight. I mean we’re still rebuilding Katrina homes in New Orleans.”

And often when the aid does come in, there is a disconnect between those offering the aid, those wanting to distribute the aid and those who need it. “There are all these people who want to rebuild homes, all these organizations willing to do it, but we struggled to find the people who needed the help,” Smith said.

SBP created an app for that purpose called Harvey Home Connect, where survivors can apply for assistance. SBP collects all the documentation necessary and helps get the completed assistance package to the right organization.