The Poor Pay the Price for Another Hurricane

Residents at Trent Court Apartments try to wait out the flooding. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)

New Orleans   Keisha Monk made the front page of the New York Times.  I doubt if this was on her top ten list of life’s hopes and dreams.  She lives, or at least lived until recently, in the Trent Court public housing project in New Bern, North Carolina, which turned out to be in the path of wind, rain and flooding when the river rose in the wake of Hurricane Florence.  Her unit and others, not far from the river’s bank, were flooded, ruining virtually everything, and likely making her unit uninhabitable.

The rivers in North Carolina are still rising.  I got a call from a Local 100 person in Houston who was being sent alerts by FEMA to get ready to be deployed as a contractor to do home inspections as soon as the water receded and anyone could drive in and assess the damage.  Keisha Monk will not be on his list.  She’s not a homeowner.  She’s simply a lower income, public housing resident, who was happy to have finally found a home in Trent Court.  She might get a check from FEMA.  Eventually.  After a mountain of paperwork.  She won’t get anything but temporary housing though.  If she is lucky.

An article mentioning Monk was on the front page of the Times, but what really caught my eye was not Keisha or Florence, but the word, “Katrina” which still has a visceral trigger for me even after thirteen years.  There were some sentences from reporter, Richard Fausett, that capsulized the horror of the aftermath that Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Ike, Irma, and many others that have brought stigma to their human counterparts for life and scarred millions for the rest of their lives as well.  He wrote,

She [Keisha Monk] also realized that she was now a player in the kind of redevelopment drama that tends to swamp storm-battered places like this – a story of race, class, gentrification and safety fears, and questions without easy answers about who gets to live on often alluring, sometimes treacherous, waterside real estate.  She is also being reminded after Hurricane Katrina, that the poor are always vulnerable – to the vagaries of the real estate market and to the perceived value of their residences in good times and the ravages of Mother Nature when disaster hits.

The future of Trent Court, like so many center city public housing projects in cities both large and small, was already precarious.  There was a plan to relocate people and build something new, maybe there, maybe nearby with market rate housing and eighty units still available for the poor.  Many, like Monk, would likely not be on the list for those eighty units, and they are years away as life continues to grind down hard on low-and-moderate income families.  The problem is global, not local, as we heard in Asuncion about the relocation of thousands of families there from areas where they have lived for generations because of flood risk.

Organizations and individuals talk about a “right to the city,” but as we know from Katrina, this is another right that requires a constant fight, and is often lost.

We all know this is not a story that will end well.  At least not for Keisha Monk, her family, and the other residents of Trent Court.  Living on the wrong side of the tracks was about yesterday, but on the bad side of the floodplain is the new and constant misfortune for the poor.  As one of Monk’s neighbors said, it will just be a case of another area where riverfront property is opened up for rich people “to walk their dogs.”

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Hurricane Harvey, One Year Later

New Orleans   Given Houston’s experiences with its own flooding and hurricanes and its welcoming and sheltering of thousands after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it would have seemed safe to assume that if any city could respond well to disaster, it must be Houston.  A year after Hurricane Harvey, the answer is clear:  not Houston either.

I was supposed to be in Houston when Harvey hit, and wisely delayed my trip, going only once reports were in that water was off of most of the interstate, though I found it still lapping the shoulder around Beaumont and Port Arthur.  In Houston, organizers told me of the lack of response in apartment complexes where the residents were largely Hispanic and often undocumented.  Philanthropists were generous, but uninterested in discussing the lessons of Katrina, as if it were ancient history, rather than a still open wound.  Houston could handle it.

And, they have, just not all that well.  There is still no real plan to protect the city in the future.  A $2.5 billion bond issue passed overwhelmingly by an 86% margin, but in dealing with a disaster of this scale that’s almost chump change, and only for the Houston area, while Harvey’s footprint was much larger.

As one of the largest cities in the country, the damage in Houston is not as stark and inescapable as Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans.  Maybe that makes Harvey easier to ignore, if you were lucky.  Certainly, that’s been the case in terms of critical state or federal response.  Governor Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana was as intimately involved in the recovery in New Orleans and Louisiana as the Mayor or City Council was, sometimes making the right decisions and sometimes, making the wrong ones in delaying housing funds and allowing school charters.  Governor Greg Abbott on the other hand has been a virtual bystander in Texas offering little more than bootstrap platitudes and precious little money.  Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both targeted billions for Katrina recovery.  Though it was inadequate, it dwarfs the little that President Trump has provided other than emergency relief and a recovery package that is also supposed to handle the devastation in Puerto Rico.  Harvey may teach Houston and Texas Republicans the limits of what conservative provincialism really means when citizens demand and expect their government to also be responsive to their needs and not just step out of the way.

The recovery has not been equal even when it has moved forward.  A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted with the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that 70% of Texans now say their lives are largely normal, “but of the people who reported still being affected by the storm, more than 40% say they aren’t getting the help they need to recover.”  Not surprisingly, the “survey found that those who said they weren’t getting enough assistance were more often African-American, poor and lived in the state’s so-called Golden Triangle area…which includes the cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange.”

All of this sounds too familiar.  Given the regular and recurring disasters, worsened by climate change, it’s becoming almost trite to keep asking, “When are we going to learn?”

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