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What Have We Learned about Housing Recovery After Disaster Strikes?

November 13, 2017

This year marked the end of a nearly 12-year hurricane “drought,” during which no major hurricanes made landfall on the mainland United States. While Superstorm Sandy and other severe weather events wreaked havoc in the interim, the last time we saw multiple major hurricanes hit the U.S. was back in 2005, when Katrina and Rita became household names. Experts have commented on the similarities between the 2005 and 2017 hurricane seasons, which opened our eyes to the catastrophic potential of these deadly storms.

As communities in hurricane-affected areas of the U.S. and Caribbean begin the slow process of rebuilding, Abt is revisiting findings from evaluations that we conducted in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These evaluations were designed to uncover what worked in housing people who lost their homes in the storms. What we learned then can help to shape recovery efforts today and in hurricane seasons to come. Here's a summary: 

After a disaster, large numbers of previously unassisted families may need long-term or even permanent housing assistance.
The Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP-Katrina) provided housing assistance to more than 36,000 hurricane-affected households who had not been assisted by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs before the hurricanes, but who were living in FEMA temporary housing two or more years after Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, more than two years after the DHAP-Katrina program ended, about 55 percent of participants were receiving housing assistance through HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program, and 22 percent of participants were homeless, doubled-up, or at risk of homelessness.

2. The greater the level of damage in a neighborhood, the less likely people are to rebuild.
Properties in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas that were leveled, demolished, or condemned were 39 percent less likely to have been rebuilt six years later, compared with properties that experienced a lesser degree of destruction. Neighborhoods that suffered widespread, significant flood damage were least likely to get rebuilt, suggesting that property owners in those neighborhoods would require a substantial commitment of resources to come back.

3. Homeowners who have property insurance before the disaster hits are more likely to rebuild.
Six years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, insured properties were 37 percent more likely to have been rebuilt than uninsured properties. This finding emphasizes the importance of homeowner’s insurance and flood insurance, particularly for households in disaster-prone areas.

4. Federal assistance plays a critical role in the rebuilding process.
Beginning in 2005, Congress provided supplemental appropriations totaling $19.6 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to help in hurricane recovery efforts in five states. By 2010, property owners in Mississippi who received CDBG assistance were almost 2.5 times as likely to have rebuilt as those who did not receive CDBG assistance, despite having higher levels of assessed damage, fewer resources from other (non-CDBG sources), and lower-valued homes.

5. With advance planning, well-designed, high-quality housing can help displaced residents recover.
In 2006, FEMA created the Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP) to support the development of new types of post-disaster housing in four states. AHPP units provided alternatives to travel trailers and other traditional forms of emergency shelter. After moving into AHPP housing, residents felt safer and more satisfied with available community services and amenities. They also experienced reduced rates of depression and anxiety and improvements in respiratory health. While development at some AHPP sites encountered administrative delays and community opposition, communities can mitigate these obstacles by integrating disaster recovery into long-term community planning efforts.

6. Funding should be available for relocation as well as rebuilding.
Households who moved away from hurricane-affected homes and neighborhoods reported higher neighborhood satisfaction than those who stayed, suggesting that a recovery model that allows for relocation may serve the affected households better than a rebuild-only model.

Now drawing to a close, this year’s hurricane season brought unprecedented rainfall and flooding to affected areas. But the images of an inundated Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey may become a familiar sight in years to come. Climate researchers predict that we will likely see an increase in the intensity of hurricanes, with future storms bringing increased rainfall and higher wind speeds.

Abt’s research on the Gulf Coast following the 2005 hurricane season suggests that there is much we can do to help communities recover and rebuild after these destructive storms. To learn more about Abt’s work in the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the following reports are available for download:

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