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Researchers: What Can Hurricane Harvey Teach Us About the Next Natural Disaster?

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Hurricane Harvey hit Port Aransas, Texas on Aug. 25, then moved north to Houston where it dumped 51.8 inches of rain, a record for a single tropical storm in the continental United States. It caused in excess of $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, putting it on par with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

Kevin Fitzpatrick

Matthew Spialek

How do people get their lives back together after such an overwhelming disaster? What social ties and resources do they rely on? Do poor neighborhoods recover as quickly and fully as wealthy ones? Those are the kinds of questions Harvey raised for U of A researchers Kevin Fitzpatrick and Matthew Spialek, who are writing a book about the storm and its aftermath. Fitzpatrick, a University Professor and the Jones Chair in Community in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, has spent his career documenting the relationship between  where people live and their health and economic wellbeing. Spialek, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, studies the relationship between civic engagement and resilience in communities that experience trauma.

“We really wanted to know more about what evacuation and recovery looked like depending on where people were living at the time Hurricane Harvey hit the southeastern coast of Texas,” said Fitzpatrick. “We suspected that place matters a great deal for these outcomes.”

The authors received a $124,000 Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation to answer these and other questions. RAPID grants provide money to quickly obtain data that might otherwise be lost. In this case, Fitzpatrick and Spialek wanted to reach Houston residents while they were still seeking aid and refuge in shelters, hotels, churches and friends’ couches. Fitzpatrick and a team of researchers were in the area to do interviews by mid-October.

Their initial reception was less than warm. “We got down there and couldn’t get in a single shelter,” Fitzpatrick said. “No one would let us in.” Though he sought permission ahead of time, bureaucratic tangles meant no one at the FEMA shelters knew the team had been cleared to do the interviews. The situation was the same with Red Cross. “I was definitely distressed when I came back to Fayetteville. I was thinking that we were going to have to give the NSF their money back.”

Instead, the team worked to get into smaller shelters, homes and hotels in cities all along the Gulf Coast to conduct interviews. A survey company found additional Houston residents to survey online, bringing the total to 316 interviews. They were also granted access to another 1,600-plus interviews conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation for its own online post-Harvey survey. “We had more data than we knew what to do with,” said Fitzpatrick.

The data points to the idea that, just like Katrina in 2005, Harvey hit poor and minority neighborhoods harder than rich, white neighborhoods. From infrastructure to prevent damage in the first place, to resources that help residents put their lives back together in the aftermath, how Harvey affected Houston residents had a lot to do with who they are and where they live. Spialek noted that while people living along the Texas coast generally felt connected to others and invested in where they live, the sense of community did not translate into disaster preparedness. “We suspect that social capital was there before the disaster, but people decided not to spend it until the disaster struck,” he said. “In general, people tend to be relatively unprepared because we have a myopic view of risk.”

Fitzpatrick and Spialek are working to get the book out by late summer/early fall 2020, hurricane season. Both authors want it to be a narrative, rather than academic, effort, accessible to anyone with an interest in how communities recover. “An important part of the narrative should be that if place matters, we should get serious about paying closer attention to how and why it matters or we will continue to repeat the disaster responses that we have with the Katrinas and Harveys,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are really not learning anything if we continue to segregate people in places that can’t respond and recover, because the outcome will always be the same.”

About The Author

Bob Whitby writes about bioscience, geoscience, physics, space and planetary sciences, psychology and sociology. Reach him at 479-575-4737, or whitby@uark.edu.

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