Vulnerable Communities Have a Tougher Time Recovering from Disasters

/ Blog Post

By Delmarie Alicea, 2018 Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellow at Florida Legal Services, Inc.

Photo of Delmarie Alicea
Photo of Delmarie Alicea

After months of stalling, lawmakers have passed a disaster relief package to provide much-needed support to communities in desperate need of recovery funding. The delay in advancing the disaster relief measure has caused hundreds of thousands of low-income households in Puerto Rico—a U.S. Territory, where 3.5 million American citizens reside and 43 percent of the population lives below the poverty line—to lose vital food assistance.

Puerto Rico, unfortunately, is not alone in their lack of recovery services—people all over the country need disaster relief. Survivors of the Midwestern flooding, 2018 wildfires in California, and hurricanes in the Southeast alike continue to live in tents, cars, or overcrowded homes. Delays in long-term recovery funding have caused families to live unhoused or in precarious situations for far longer than is necessary.

Due to delayed disaster relief, many of my clients affected by the 2017 storm Hurricane Irma are still waiting on house repairs. One of my clients, for example, is a woman who lives in Bartow, Florida, a small town between Orlando and Tampa that’s home to nearly 20,000 people. For context, Bartow has a poverty rate of around 22 percent—relatively high compared to the rest of the state—and very few of the town’s residents have received education beyond high school.

My client, the woman who lives in Bartow, was sick before Hurricane Irma struck. Her husband, who had just helped nurse her back to health, died shortly after the hurricane. She simply had too much on her plate to deal with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She knew the FEMA process would not be easy so she decided to wait until she was financially able to fix her house herself. However, this woman was dependent on a fixed income, and therefore struggled to balance repairs and her medical issues. When she called my office. I could hear her desperation. I panicked a little myself, as she called me a day before the Rebuild Florida program, created by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to help Florida’s long-term recovery efforts from the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma, was set to end. Rebuild Florida is a program that helps people who still have unmet needs from Hurricane Irma. My client had never heard of the program, and thought that all available disaster aid had been used—in reality, very little of the the federal aid from the Community Development Block Grant has been distributed to Irma survivors.

When I tried to register my client for the Rebuild Florida program online, the option was no longer available. I did not want to give up, so I called the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in hopes that I could explain my client’s situation and still get her registered. Luckily someone answered the phone and told me that they were still accepting phone registrations. I was ecstatic and immediately called my client. She has not received any assistance yet, but just being on the list to receive help is enough to make her incredibly relieved.

Before law school, I was a fair housing advocate at a legal aid program and saw firsthand the inequities in our housing and financial systems. Large banks became absentee owners for large portions of neighborhoods, leading to neglected properties in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Because of these unfair practices, many communities have become run down and property values have plummeted even further. Affluent and white neighborhoods, however, began bouncing back much quicker than low-income and minority communities. From 2007 to 2009, the median white household wealth exhibited minimal loss, while the typical black household had a wealth loss of over 40 percent.

When a natural disaster happens, the effects of delayed disaster recovery are felt stronger in low-income and minority communities. Hurricane Katrina revealed gaps in our collective knowledge of how populations recover after a disaster, and how mechanisms driving housing recovery often produce unequal social, spatial, and temporal population recovery. Part of that disparity is intensified by all of the red tape tied to disaster funding, and the subsequent hurdles disaster survivors must face to receive aid.

Thanks to programs like the Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, more people are able to obtain the disaster aid that can seem out of reach for many disaster survivors.

To learn more about Delmarie Alicea’s project, visit her profile.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has received philanthropic support from the American Red Cross, Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Sharon and Ivan Fong Family Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Delays in long-term recovery funding have caused families to live unhoused or in precarious situations for far longer than is necessary.

Delmarie Alicea /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow