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Back from disaster

After a disaster strikes, why do some communities improve, while others never fully recover?

Houston communities are working together on a second round of disaster recovery after Hurricane Ike.

According to Harvard Professor Douglas Ahlers, far too often the initial emergency money helps begin a recovery, but by the time the disaster money is spent, the community isn’t back to where it was before the disaster.

And if a community was struggling even before the disaster struck, it simply can not afford to lose ground.

Part of the problem is a single-issue approach to recovery, with a focus on only housing or education or another issue.

Healthy neighborhoods, of course, require many elements to work well, from decent housing and safe streets to employment opportunities, good schools, and access to shopping, health care and other services. Because all of these elements are inter-related and interconnected, Ahlers believes that the only way to recover from a disaster is to work across all of these issues.

Is it possible to invest recovery funds in a way which is not only strategic, but also gives special attention to low-income communities, where homeowners may not have the resources needed to make necessary repairs? In a way which catalyzes further investment and fuels recovery? How are spending priorities determined and what is the role of neighborhood associations in developing recovery plans?

These are some of the questions being asked in four Houston communities.

"Houston fair housing advocates argued that the initial federal disaster funds awarded to the city did not reach low-income communities."

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike struck the southern region of the United States, causing billions of dollars of damages. Houston fair housing advocates argued that the initial federal disaster funds awarded to the city did not reach low-income communities where significant damages occurred and that the poorest residents were being left without help.

To ensure a more equitable distribution of future funds, the advocates negotiated an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the State of Texas. The agreement requires targeted, strategic investment of more than $150 million in the second round of recovery funds in four designated low-income, minority communities.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker intends to direct additional city resources to these communities to further catalyze recovery of the designated target areas. And community residents and neighborhood associations have been invited to help identify priorities for these investments.

I went to Houston in July for a day-long workshop on planning and community revitalization hosted by Houston LISC. The purpose of the workshop was to share best practices from around the country in order to spark creative thinking about revitalization strategies in Houston’s target areas.

I found residents frustrated and wary, yet still willing to take time to find out how other communities are working to revitalize neighborhoods in Phoenix, New Orleans and Chicago, and then think again about what might happen in their own neighborhoods.

For residents of these communities, it has been a long wait. But, if Doug Ahlers is correct, having this chance to identify spending priorities and develop integrated and holistic plans to guide the recovery of their communities will pay off in the long run.


Read an interview with Doug Ahlers and Henry Lee of the Belfer Center about the successful efforts to use resident input and community planning to bring back the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Posted in Engaging, Planning, Houston, Thinking Out Loud

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