About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Post-Disaster Housing Woes

Its been three years since Hurricane Katrina and the FEMA has finally issued a much-awaited draft of a new disaster housing strategy, commissioned by the Bush administration. This proposed strategy is much overdue, and so I read it eagerly when it came out.

What an utter disappointment.

I was hoping for some innovative ideas to address the significant problems we've all seen in relation to post-disaster housing. Research on housing-related policies and outcomes after numerous U.S. natural disasters documents consistent disparities based on race, class, and gender. Peacock and Girard (1997) found that racial and ethnic minorities tended to receive insufficient insurance settlements because they are less often insured by major national carriers. Blanchard-Boehm (1997) reported that financial constraints reduce the likelihood that African-Americans made structural improvements so their houses could withstand natural disasters, resulting in more serious damage to the homes of African-Americans. Enarson (2008) pinpoints elderly women as more vulnerable during disasters. Similarly, temporary housing put in place after a disaster is often not designed with the needs of women and children in mind.

More recently, we've all heard a long string of exposes on the significant social and health costs associated with FEMA travel trailers issued to Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors. Formaldehyde levels in the trailers caused respiratory problems and made many inhabitants sick. Trailer camps were often far away from commercial and residential centers making it nearly impossible for inhabitants to find employment or other housing. Cramped conditions, isolation, and post-disaster depression created a toxic mix. Domestic violence, mental illness and suicide skyrocketed. As a nation, our approach to post-disaster housing seems to be on-par or worse than the primitive tents and survivor camps in mega-disasters overseas.

So, with all of these problems, what did the 2008 Disaster Housing Plan recommend? Almost nothing new. The plan is basically a description of a mixed-plan approach based on the rental voucher and trailer solutions used in the past. While they have now put a 6-month limit on travel trailer occupancy, they have pushed the ethical and legal issues to the states. Now it is the states who have to determine acceptable levels of formaldehyde and bear legal responsibility if anything goes wrong. More significantly, the plan leaves many of the big challenges to a currently unformed housing task force. They have left the important equity and recovery questions posed by Congress to an even later set of annexes. I'm unimpressed.

If you want to read and comment on the proposal, you can to FEMA's press release here.

On a brighter note, four students in our Practical Applications of Emergency Management class and over two dozen students in a complementary design class tackled the issue of post-disaster housing this Spring semester. A draft policy brief based upon their work is available on the IGCR website, here, including a few innovative conceptual alternatives to travel trailers and FEMA camps.

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