Weather & Natural Disasters

The 'second disaster' following hurricanes: Years of stressful recovery

Key Points
  • Recovery for many people can take years.
  • There's a complicated process for getting money from insurance and government aid.
  • Some communities, and people, are far better equipped than others.
Steve Culver cries with his dog Otis as he talks about what he said was the, 'most terrifying event in his life,' when Hurricane Harvey blew in and destroyed most of his home while he and his wife took shelter there on August 26, 2017 in Rockport, Texas.
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Rescue crews are still pulling people out of the feet-deep waters that have flooded Houston and the surrounding regions.

But for many surviving victims and communities, Hurricane Harvey's wake leaves a long, difficult, deeply stressful process of rebuilding homes, communities and lives.

The process can take several years and piles of paperwork, resulting in confusion, frustration and despair.

"Recovery is a long-term process, and it is one that doesn't necessarily have a definable beginning end point," said Alex Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. Greer spent time interviewing victims of Superstorm Sandy about their experiences collecting insurance, securing aid, and coping with the aftermath of the storm.

Money makes a big difference

Rebound can occur faster for some victims, mostly the fortunate or well off.

"Recovery occurs in pockets," Greer said. "Some people were back in their homes very quickly because they didn't have a lot of damage, or they had savings, good insurance, or some other advantage."

The arduous process of recovery can be so stressful that it amounts to a kind of "second disaster" for victims, Greer said.

Some of the victims he and fellow researchers spoke with in Sandy's wake had appealed their insurance claims because they felt they didn't get the funds they had been promised.

Others were confused about rules regarding how they could use government aid funds. Some were concerned that if they started work on their homes before they got their grants the work wouldn't be covered by the funds.

Still others, some with six-figure credit card debts, simply walked away from the aid application process because it was too complicated and stressful.

The lingering stress can be enormous. While mental health services are often offered immediately in the wake of a disaster, they tend to end too early to treat some of the lingering effects of the disaster, Greer said.

Even small things years later can trigger some victims.

"People would say things to me like, 'When it really hit me is when I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner and I went to get a certain dish towel, and then remembered it had been lost in the storm,'" Greer said.

People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after it the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
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Big storms can change everything

Many people end up leaving an area entirely. And some can never go back, because the communities they left have changed — they may not know anyone there anymore, or they may not be able to afford housing or find a job.

"After an event like this there is a tough decision households have to make as to whether they are going to stay or go," said Joe Trainor, Disaster Science and Management program director and an associate professor of public policy and administration at the University of Delaware. Trainor served as one of the faculty members who led the project Greer worked on as a doctoral student at Delaware.

Homeowners face a whole raft of separate challenges in figuring out what to do with a house that might be ruined.

There is also the question of how communities respond together. Apart from their individual struggles, people as community members have to deal with the conflicts and tensions that arise over local or municipal decisions, often made by governments. For example, people may not be able to return to their homes as soon as they might like, or there may be arguments over how much money should be directed toward things like future risk management or environmental cleanup.

Then there's all the red tape

Much of the government aid money comes from the federal level but is distributed through state and municipal programs.

The trouble for many municipalities, in addition to individuals, is that the money comes from several agencies and the actual process for delivering those resources is pretty complicated. That can slow down the recovery process for many municipalities, especially smaller cities and towns that may not have extensive in-house staff dedicated to disaster recovery efforts.

Further, a lot of these programs have strict eligibility requirements, to guard against abuse or waste.

The trouble for some of these municipalities is that they want to begin handing out funds to begin the recovery process — to do things like fix roads, help homeowners and get the local economy going again.

But many local governments worry that if they accidentally run afoul of these eligibility requirements, they will never recover funds they hand out. This can amount to millions of dollars lost, Trainor said.

"There is really a need for the state federal and local governments to put together a system that is navigable for themselves and for the everyday, average homeowner who is not an expert in disaster recovery or policy," Trainor said.

This is a strong indication of just how important it is for the federal government to make sure communities around the country are thinking about these disasters before they happen and start to put in plans to facilitate recovery, or, even better, reduce the risks their communities face.

As for Houston and the surrounding region, Hurricane Harvey's unprecedented severity will introduce a multitude of new challenges for the region.

"Houston is not going to go back to the way it was before," Trainor said. "This is the beginning of setting the new normal for this area. This community will never be where it was before, it will be something different."