Homes Wiped Away by Natural Disasters

By Edwards, Frances L. | The Public Manager, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Homes Wiped Away by Natural Disasters


Edwards, Frances L., The Public Manager


Natural disasters leave survivors who will never recover from the impact or never own a home again.

News coverage of Hurricane Irene showed ravaged communities and homes that disappeared under the floodwaters of swollen rivers. Atlantic seashore communities; inland Paterson, New Jersey; and towns all over Vermont were damaged by the storm's deluge. Even towns far from the Atlantic Ocean felt the effects. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed; millions were without power.

These images and facts are the latest reminder that natural disasters cause homelessness. Infrastructure--commuter rail, covered bridges, and roadways--have been destroyed. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) disaster fund fell below its $1 billion "safety level," ending funding for all federally funded non-emergency work for FY2011.

This year's Midwestern flooding, East Coast earthquake, and tornadoes also took a toll on the nation's housing units. These disasters are not the first to cause people to lose their homes and the prognosis for these recent "disaster homeless" is not good.

Homelessness in the United States is often the result of economic hardship, addiction, or mental illness, but sometimes it is also the result of disasters. No matter the cause there are financial limitations on federal funding and legal requirements to be met before money is available for repairing or replacing homes, whether owner-occupied or rental units.

The Robert T. Stafford Act of 1988, as amended, dictates the types of programs and amounts of funding that victims of a disaster may receive. Regulations, such as the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) definition of overcrowding, also influence the ability to permanently re-house families after disasters. California and Louisiana history provide a window on the costs of disaster homelessness.

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Elderly Victims of the Whittier Narrows Earthquake

Orange, California, flourished before World War II. Small cottages housed young residents who settled, raised families, and formed a community. Fifty years later in 1987, when the Whittier Narrows earthquake struck Orange, the residents had retired, many of the men had died, and their surviving widows were elderly, sometimes disabled, and often frail. However, these women lived independently in their one-story cottages, long since paid for, even when their disabilities left them blind and mobility impaired. Their familiar surroundings and supportive neighbors and church colleagues had enabled them.

The cottages had been built before California had a seismic building code requiring homes to be bolted to the foundations. The earthquake destroyed many of the cottages and, suddenly, these women were homeless. They were taken to hospitals because they could not meet the standard for independent self-care required of the American Red Cross' general population shelters. A social worker for Orange County followed these elderly women as they moved from hospital to nursing homes. Because they lived on low fixed incomes, they could not qualify for Small Business Administration loans to rebuild their homes.

Although earthquake insurance was available, most could not a order the extra premium on their small Social Security or pension checks to obtain coverage. Tracking their mental deterioration, depression, and rapid demise, the social worker noted that, within two years of the loss of their homes, more than half of the elderly women had died, and the rest were in welfare-assisted nursing homes or assisted living centers, having lost their independence and their privacy when the earthquake took their homes. These women were "disaster homeless."

Loma Prieta Earthquake Breaks Watsonville, California

When the shaking stopped in Watsonville, California, in 1989, the economy of the town was changed forever. It had been a farming community with a large cold-food-storage industry and a population including a large number of migrant workers and their families living in overcrowded conditions due to low wages. …

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