HOUSTON – Shirley Paley’s life before the Hurricane Harvey was already a struggle: The 61-year-old former postal worker was the education of her 17-year-old autistic grandson, while dealing with a workplace injury that left her legally blind, disability and need of three cornea transplants.
Harvey’s heavy rainfall flooded Paley’s modest house in the neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens, one of Houston’s historic African-American neighborhoods, forcing her to live of her SUV for more than a month, and the activation of severe depression and anxiety in her 12-year-old granddaughter that led to a number of suicide attempts. Still not able to go back home and desperate to speed up the recovery process, Paley has built up thousands of dollars in debt from high-interest payday and car title loans.
“I was trying to get this straight, strong face. But in the end, I would die in the night,” Paley said.
Harvey is described as the storm that does not discriminate, inflicting an estimated $125 billion in total damages, the poor and the rich. But leaders of the community say that in the year since the storm came ashore , that in the poorest affected areas have a harder time recovering. In contrast to the wealthier homeowners who could draw on savings, and are more likely to have a flood or homeowners insurance , low-income residents are more dependent on a patchwork of organizations to meet their recovery needs.
“If you live on the edge and lost everything, you’re really back to square one,” said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation.
A survey of the residents of 24 of Texas’ hardest-hit counties, which was conducted by the Episcopal Health and the Kaiser Family Foundation in June and July found that 40 percent of Hispanics and 60 percent of African-Americans said that they do not get the help they need, including assistance for small repairs to the house, and in completing applications for aid.
In the coastal city of Port Arthur , where nearly 30 percent of the approximately 55,000 residents live in poverty, Harvey “pushed some of the people who were only just holding on, pushed them over the edge,” said Mayor Derrick Freeman.
Harvey damaged up to 85 percent of the buildings in the city, and only 15 to 20 percent of the residents had flood insurance.
“Everyone pretty much fending for themselves or waiting for the federal government to send a kind of disasters on their way,” Freeman said.
The median income in Kashmere Gardens is between $ 22,000 and $ 25,000 per year. The help many have received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not enough to rebuild their homes.
Before Harvey, “there is a great need in the community, gaps to fill in. So you’re now going to a hurricane on top of that,” said Keith Downey, chairman of the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood, a local group.
Near resident Rosalind Orphey, 67, has spent the last year looking for help to break and rebuild her 89-year-old mother at home. They only got $14,000 from FEMA and at least three non-profit organizations have told Orphey that the cost of breaking down and rebuilding of the home is too high for them.
“We are productive members of the community in all of our lives. We are trying to get help and no one is there to help us,” Orphey said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the provision of housing for economically struggling local residents remains one of his main concerns.
The city is set to receive $1.1 billion in Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, funding the federal government for housing needs. In the framework of federal guidelines, 70 percent of CDBG funds must be used for projects that benefit low – and moderate-income individuals.
But Houston is probably not the financing until the fall. And the $1.1 billion is not enough, Turner said.
Officials and community advocates say that the approach to affordable housing should also include the help of tenants, many of whom remain in the mold full of complexes that have not yet been resolved.
“Even if someone would say, ‘I’m going to move out of this hell hole of an apartment after Harvey,’ they have no place to go,” said Ed Emmett, the top elected official in Harris County, where Houston is located.
Groups such as Texas Housers, a non-profit organization focused on housing, say they hope the recovery sheds light on low-income areas that historically have not received the services and the infrastructure that they have needed for flood resiliency and economic development.
Texas Housers has expressed its concern that the state’s long-term recovery plan undercounted the needs of the poorest residents with the help of a formula which is not as damage of less than $8,000 to homes and $2,000 for the tenants. Texas Housers said his analysis found low-income homeowners suffered an average of $7,000 in damages, while the higher-income homeowners had an average damage of $13,500.
The formula of the state was imposed by the federal government, said Heather Lagrone, deputy director for community development and revitalization with the Texas General Land Office, which is tasked with the implementation of the state’s long-term recovery plan.
But in the calculation of how it would allocate funding for various programs, including buy-outs, the bureau of the country considered other factors, such as race and income, that look at a community the ability to recover, Lagrone said.
Paley said that since Harvey is hit, she often felt like her life was sinking in the quicksand.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Paley, who hopes to be back in her home in September or October.
Meanwhile, Orphey and her mother are still looking for aid for the reconstruction of their house.
“I’m just as lost as the day of the hurricane,” Orphey said.
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