Rich, White Texas Towns Got Disproportionately More Hurricane Relief Than Poorer Minority Areas

Rich, white towns in Texas are getting a disproportionate amount of federal relief funds after Hurricane Harvey devastated the eastern part of the state according to a new report by CityLab.

The most egregious part of the report shows the disparity in federal funds to Taylor Landing and Port Arthur.

Taylor Landing is home to just 228 residents, with an average household income of $69,000, a 0 percent poverty rate, and zero African American residents. The storm is reported to have affected 10 percent of the population – 22 households. According to the report, the town stands to receive $1.3 million in federal funds designated to help move residents from homes destroyed by the hurricane, roughly $60,000 per every resident.

Port Arthur is a very different town, with 54,000 residents who saw some of the worst effects of the torrential flooding. The median household income in the area is $32,000 and its poverty rate is 29 percent. More than a third of the town's population is African-American.

Texas officials estimate that virtually all of the residents – 50,000 – were affected by Hurricane Harvey. The town is set to receive just $4.1 million from the feds, however, which works out to roughly $84 per person.

Many of the impacted towns are still waiting to receive their recovery funds, even as this year's hurricane season approaches. “Across Southeast Texas, residents in a handful of small, white, affluent towns stand to reap far more Harvey recovery funds than those just a few miles away, in far more populous but poorer majority-minority cities—resulting in huge racial disparities in the distribution of recovery funds,” wrote CityLab's Kriston Capps.

Experts say the numbers highlight the process that is used to formulate who gets how much in recovery aid.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development has designated more than $5 billion in  Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds for Texas. CityLab reports that Southeast Texas will get $157 million from the program with the aim of buying out properties destroyed by the storm and to build new infrastructure to avoid such devastating floods in the future.

While HUD decides how the money is divided up, it has no say over who gets what on the ground. Instead, the General Land Office, a state agency, allocates funds to 24 Councils of Government, each of which represent multiple counties.

“The Southeast Texas [method of distribution] is by far the most problematic of all the methods of distribution,” Amelia Adams, a disaster-recovery researcher and planner at the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service told CityLab.“Some of [the Councils of Governments] are extremely powerful and large, with great capacity. Down in South Texas, their capacity is much less. Some have said, ‘We don’t have the capacity to deal with disaster funding. We’re not Houston–Galveston. We’re not one of these big COGs that can do that.’”

This is a huge problem because while Houston got much of the attention in the aftermath of the storm, Port Arthur and a similar city, Beaumont, were among the hardest hit. According to the National Hurricane Center, the Port Arthur area is estimated to have received more than 70 inches of rain during the hurricane.

“By almost any statistic, either number of FEMA applicants or the amount of real property lost that FEMA has seen, areas like Port Arthur are really, really high up on that list,” Adams said.

There are multiple other reasons for the disparity. The commission said in its distribution plan that “All communities within the Southeast Texas region received the same type of damage (rising water) that is comparable, therefore, impact was the only factor selected for use.”

The commission identified properties that received more than six inches of flooding, regardless of whether the home was damaged or completely destroyed. “And while the commission applied a factor for population size, it’s based on population percentages, which doesn’t account for the difference between a town of hundreds and a city of many thousands,” CityLab reports.

Madison Sloan, the head of disaster recovery and fair housing at the social justice nonprofit Texas Appleseed, slammed the formula in a letter to the commission.

Sloan wrote that the commission “has allocated funds based solely on level of inundation and total population in the inundated area without considering unmet need, ability to recover, or the relative population of the impacted area. This distribution is blatantly inequitable and inconsistent with damage data.”

“Port Arthur will receive only about twice as much funding as cities with less than 1% of its population. Beaumont will receive less than twice the funding of cities that are 0.5% of its size,” she explained.

For example, China, Texas, where 27 of the mostly-white town's 908 residents were affected by the storm, will receive $40,000 each. In Nome, where 23 of the 588 residents in the mostly-white town were affected, residents will receive an average of $49,000. On the other hand, the 92,000 affected residents in the half-black city of Beaumont will get just $40 per resident.

“The three cities with the highest black populations are also the three cities with the very lowest funding,” Adams said. “And we know that those cities had a lot of people who were impacted who were extremely low income.”


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