Natural Disasters: The Threat to Lower-Income Families

Oct 10, 2017

A triple shot of late summer hurricanes sent the southern U.S. and the Caribbean territories reeling, from floods to heat to areas decimated by wind. The cities and islands read like a roll-call of Federal Emergency Management Agency stopovers: Puerto Rico, Houston, Miami, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Those who struggle the most to recover after natural disasters are often those who have the least, and the most to lose—families who live near or under the poverty level, including those who live in affordable housing units.

While the D.C. metro area doesn’t have to worry about hurricane gusts stripping the fronds off palm trees, we’re not immune to the power of Mother Nature, from winter’s Nor’easters to the occasional northern hurricane. Smaller disasters, too, can cripple a family that depends on substandard housing (that might have more maintenance issues), long-distance public transit (more likely to be interrupted, so jobs are lost), and childcare, including public schools, which leave them scrambling when weather closes the doors. It’s worth taking the time to consider their needs, now, rather than scrambling after the fact.

Take the Florida Keys, for example, as USA Today recently featured. Real estate is pricey on the islands, so those who can’t afford luxury abodes might turn to trailer parks, where $25,000 affords a home instead of $250,000. But these areas don’t meet modern building codes, and are more prone to damage. Some residents don’t have legal contracts, but pay rent on their leased land or trailers as a leap of faith, as one resident told the newspaper. Meanwhile, developers are increasingly buying such lots for development — and they aren’t building subsidized housing.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition started lobbying the federal government when the storms hit, encapsulating the concerns of the affordable housing advocates after natural disasters.

“After past disasters, low income people and neighborhoods are often left out of the housing recovery process,” the NLIHC writes. “As a result, many of the most vulnerable people – including low income seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children – and neighborhoods are never able to recover fully, making them even more vulnerable when the next disaster strikes.”

In response to these, and potential future disasters, several agencies have begun releasing guidelines to help agencies as well as a residents prepare for the worst. Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., for example, has a toolkit that includes an extensive offering of checklists, videos and resource information for almost every potential issue.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends calling a government hotline to register your family and their needs, to start the process of eligibility for government assistance in the wake of a storm. Their website also offers a list of national resources.

The best offense, though, is a good defense — addressing the needs of families and clients before disaster arrives, such as ensuring buildings are safe, maintenance is updated, and adults (and kids) take advantage of programs from financial planning to coping strategies.

It’s easy to let things slide when the sun shines, but when gray clouds roll in, the more prepared families are to weather the storm, the better off they’ll emerge.