Affordable housing disaster prep helps with hurricane and pandemic needs

A home in Lake Charles, LA that was damaged by Hurricane Laura. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio on

Hurricane Laura came ashore last week near the Texas-Louisiana border as one of the strongest hurricanes on record. Laura’s 150 mph winds left a trail of devastation hundreds of miles inland. Following on the heels of hurricane Marco, thousands of low-income renters now find themselves displaced. Affordable housing agencies will be working overtime to help their residents return and their communities rebuild.

Although officials are still assessing the hurricane’s toll, Laura caused widespread damage and disruption. At least 1.5 million people were ordered to evacuate. Laura left 16 dead, with power out to at least 880,000 customers. As of last weekend, 220,000 households did not have drinkable water.

Gulf Coast affordable housing organizations face huge challenges in the months ahead. Public Housing Agencies (PHAs), nonprofit housing organizations, and other owners of affordable housing will be stretched to the limit as they rebuild. More than 1.5 million residents had been ordered to evacuate. In the aftermath of the storm, at least 880,000 customers were without power, with hundreds of thousands without drinkable water in Louisiana alone.

The Gulf region is no stranger to natural disasters, with communities facing the threat of hurricanes, flooding, and tornadoes each year. This has pushed public agencies and affordable housing organizations to develop detailed plans for disaster response. It has also led to strong networks that help housing organizations bring critical resources and social services to their residents. 

Developing and keeping good relationships in the community is key to helping residents return home and rebuild after disasters. Affordable housing providers meet regularly with local officials, first responders, and social service organizations to review disaster plans and keep them up to date.This helps create “organizational memory.” If key people leave, their replacements have a plan to guide them and get up to speed through the regular meetings. 

People working in these networks have often been through many disasters together. They have developed strong bonds and even friendships over the years. This trust is critical when trying to get people into safe places so that they can rebuild their lives.

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Vivian Ballou is Executive Director of Legacy Community Development Corporation, with offices in Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas. Port Arthur was devastated in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey. She highlighted the importance of strong relationships in preparing for disasters, whether serving residents after a hurricane or during the current pandemic. “When you work through disasters, you develop relationships; they’re not just work-related. You’re working in intense situations; not as intense as this pandemic, but you’re dealing with people’s lives, trying to get them out of dangerous homes.”

Rural Neighborhoods in southern Florida has used its experience with disaster response to help its residents during the coronavirus pandemic. Rural Neighborhoods was created to rebuild communities in the early 1990s after Hurricane Andrew. According to Executive Director Steve Kirk, they are able to provide drive-through food distribution and other services during the pandemic because of solid relationships with local food banks and other aid groups. “We’ve been through that drill scores of times post-hurricane,” Kirk said.

Even in the best of times, it can be discouraging trying to find aid, and frustrating to apply for it. When low-income renters return to damaged homes after a disaster like Hurricane Laura, it is even more confusing. Many affordable housing groups with disaster experience make it a priority to help residents figure out how to connect to all the assistance they will need.

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One example is the housing resource center set up by the Affordable Housing Alliance in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. After a disaster, people do not necessarily know everything that they will need, let alone where to apply for it. And applications for FEMA and other public assistance can be very complicated. The housing resource center provided a site where people could get help applying for all the assistance needed. According to Donna Blaze, CEO, “We said, ‘Just come on in and tell us what your problem is, and we’ll help you figure out the solution.”

Hurricane Laura came ashore in Calcasieu Parish, moving north along the Texas-Louisiana border after landfall. This is a very rural area. On the positive side, the hurricane missed the two large population centers of Houston and New Orleans, putting fewer people in danger. But widespread damage is likely to make it very difficult to provide relief and rebuild these rural communities.

Rural communities generally have fewer emergency services, often provided by volunteers. The few small hospitals are spread far apart. They have more limited infrastructure, and it can take longer to restore power and water to remote communities. These are some of the problems that have hampered rebuilding in Puerto Rico to this day, three years after hurricane Maria. 

Preparing for hurricanes and other disasters has helped affordable housing organizations continue serving their residents during the pandemic. For example, many affordable housing groups have moved their files online to the cloud so that they can continue working during disasters. This is now essential technology with stay at home orders during the health crisis. 

But the COVID-19 outbreak will also hamper relief and rebuilding efforts. Texas and Louisiana were both seeing infection spikes prior to the hurricanes. It will be impossible to maintain social distancing and hygiene in emergency shelters. Many people who evacuate stay with friends and relatives in crowded conditions. They will be returning home after risking exposure to the coronavirus. Applying for assistance in person will be gambling with one’s health.

Community-based testing in Louisiana has been widely disrupted, and the federally funded “surge” testing sites have also been closed. Southwest Louisiana, where Laura hit first, has the highest rate of recent positive COVID-19 tests coming back. Tens of thousands of these residents spread throughout Louisiana and neighboring states as they evacuated.

For low-income renters in areas affected by the recent hurricanes or wildfires in California, Affordable Housing Online’s Housing Guide for Victims of Natural Disasters has a lot of useful information and links. Affordable Housing Online is also monitoring the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and has an extensive list of Coronavirus Resources for Low-Income Households.

For those displaced by disasters, it can be frustrating when help is not immediately available. Affordable housing organizations are all committed to helping everyone find a safe and affordable place to live. They have been affected as much as everyone else by the disaster. The big difference is that many have planned for the worst, and will be in a better position to help their residents when disaster strikes.