FEMA Aid Misses Both the Big and Small Picture

A child plays with toys in a puddle of water left by heavy rains from hurricane Harvey.

A child plays with toys in a puddle of water left by heavy rains from hurricane Harvey. Parilov / Shutterstock.com


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Houston's experience shows it's time to rethink how we assess damage from natural disasters.

As a Houstonian, the images coming out of the Carolinas and Florida in the wake of Florence and Michael were particularly painful. They brought back vivid memories of Houston’s own experience being underwater just about a year ago, when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. More than 200,000 households in the city experienced damage from Harvey, and floodwaters covered 64% of our territory.

Following Harvey, Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department wanted to do everything possible to understand the impact of the storm, and what we as a community must do to recover. Out of 18 public meetings, an online survey and a tele-townhall co-hosted with AARP, we heard stories of struggle and survival from Houstonians. We heard about the long-term impacts that continue to affect them and their families.

The concern driven home in these discussions is the challenge of applying for FEMA assistance and securing benefits, particularly for low-income or socially vulnerable populations. This did not come as a surprise. As anyone who has lived through a disaster knows, there are a host of reasons that people do not apply for, or do not receive, FEMA benefits after a storm. Some people don’t qualify because they are undocumented or live with relatives. Others, like some renters, don’t understand that they could qualify, while some people simply don’t want to take government aid.

Beyond slowing an individual’s ability to rebuild their lives, the number that decide not to apply matters to the community as well. How much funding a city or state receives from the federal government to recover is based on a calculation of who was impacted and how much it will cost to repair the damage. But the problem for cities like Houston, and now those in Florida and the Carolinas, is that “who was impacted” relies exclusively on who FEMA decides meets certain thresholds for loss.

Because of the widely-known difficulty in qualifying for FEMA aid, we cannot simply accept FEMA's count of those who raised their hands for help from the federal government as the basis for what a city or state needs to recover. We have to count everyone who needs help.

This year, we commissioned a team of data scientists from Civis Analytics and flood engineers from Dewberry to more accurately calculate the damage from Harvey. They used satellite and algorithmic technologies, along with a slew of data sources, to develop a model for Harvey’s impact on the city of Houston. Our models harnessed data sources as diverse as assessments on all 700,000 residential parcels in Houston, satellite and drone imagery of the flood, census information, and consumer data.

What we found is that the traditional ways of counting damage—tallying up who got FEMA aid and multiplying their level of flooding by a standard cost multiplier—missed thousands of households affected by Harvey and undercounted the cost to repair by $2 billion. Because Houston was hit by five federally-declared disasters in the last three years, our city has been chronically under-resourced for recovery, contributing to an ever-growing affordability crisis.

In Houston, we see real promise in new methodologies that take advantage of advanced technology and predictive analytics to more accurately assess which properties were damaged by a flooding event and how much it will cost to fix them. This will help us rebuild smarter—not just building back what was there before, but building a more resilient city that makes efficient use of valuable recovery dollars.

I would suggest that leaders in the Carolinas and Florida should be attempting to generate valuable data in this critical period following the storm. Debris removal sensors and satellite imagery can be used in the future to assess impact.

We’re ready to be partners in developing next-generation methods for calculating damage so that all communities can recover smarter and more equitably.

Tom McCasland is the director of the Housing and Community Development Department for the city of Houston.

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