WRITTEN BY JAYMI NACIRI
This morning, the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Sherriff’s Department, among others, were using helicopters to conduct air rescues of people and pets that remain trapped in waterlogged Houston, swooping in to pluck them off of rooftops in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This, while numerous government agencies, rescue groups, and good Samaritans continue ground rescues of those who Harvey has displaced and endangered. In all, more than 13,000 rescues have been made since the storm hit – a staggering number that comes with staggering consequences.
Pictures of the Cajun Navy and regular citizens in boat-hauling trucks heading toward Houston to do their part, and people like Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture just outside of Houston, who opened his 160,000-square-foot showroom to those in need of shelter, have warmed the hearts of those in search of a little humanity among the tragedy. But, a sad and sobering reality awaits. As the rain clears, thoughts remain focused on helping those who are still in need of rescue and relocation. Once the water recedes and all the missing have been accounted for, thoughts will turn to rebuilding the city. And that may be a challenge as deep as the floodwaters.
As we send our best wishes to all of those in need of help and hope, we look at the impact not just to the people of Houston and the Gulf and all the homes and possessions lost, but also to the future of the fourth-largest city in the nation. And we identify a few important lessons that can help us heal, grow, and learn.
The New York Times reports that, “Only about 15 percent of homes in Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, are covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.” That is a staggering statistic when you consider there are millions of people in the county.
“Private homeowners’ policies generally cover wind damage and, in certain cases, water damage from storm surges. But for almost half a century, all other homeowners’ flood coverage has been underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program that itself faces financial uncertainty,” they said. Another staggering statistic: “Hurricane Harvey may inflict as much as $30 billion in damages on homeowners, according to preliminary estimates. But only 40 percent of that total may be covered by insurance.”
Homeowners who live in an area that has been designated as a “100 year flood” zone are required to hold policies from the National Flood Insurance Program, “but in practice, the requirement is difficult to enforce and most people – including in eastern Texas – fail to buy coverage or let their policies lapse by not keeping up on the premiums,” they said.
With coverage costing an average cost of about $700 per year (varying depending on individual flood risks), the policy is, quite literally, a small price to pay.
Getting to know your neighbors
Neighbors taking care of each other – and strangers taking care of each other – have shown us heartwarming and moving moments in a literal sea of tragedy. Social media has been a huge asset in helping people in distress reach out (Side tip: Another vote for joining Nextdoor in your neighborhood, if you haven’t already, to give you another connection to those who live among you).
But, the fact that neighbors were aware of others’ personal circumstances – who was pregnant, who was disabled, who was home alone with multiple children and pets – eased rescue efforts. The more your neighbors know about you and your family and any special conditions that might make rescues challenging in an emergency, the better. It’s a call to all of us to reach out.
Thinking differently about where and how to build
This one is a challenge for the building industry, but one that should be on all of our minds in light of the loss of life and livelihood—not to mention the incredible financial cost of the hurricane. “In order to save even more lives in the future, it’s time to start coming to a hard realization that these deadly floods aren’t just an act of God; they’re disasters that Americans aren’t doing enough to prevent in the first place,” said CNBC.
Part of the problem lies in the term “100 year floods.” In fact, “Houston has suffered at least three disasters described as ‘100 year floods’ since 2001,” they said. “Let’s face it, Houston is a city susceptible to major floods every few years. If insurance agents want to continue using actuarial terms for floods that make them sound much less common than they really are, that’s literally their business. But normal people and their families need real statistics to plan their lives accordingly.”
“Luckily, there are ways to do this better and a city’s regular asphalt or concrete can be replaced with more natural ground cover in many areas or with newer materials like semi-permeable pavement. Not one brick or street should be replaced in Houston until its city planners take a good hard look at what the Chinese are doing or at least at all the alternative building materials now available. The added costs of doing a smarter rebuild will have to be compared to the costs of these all-too-frequent flood events. But one look at what Houston is dealing with today seems to make that trade off easy.”
Finding construction workers?
Slate asks the very pointed question: In rebuilding Houston, where will all the construction workers come from? It’s an important query not just because of the sheer number of homes and structures that have been compromised from the flood and the work that will need to be done to bring Houston back, but also because the country is already facing a shortage of skilled workers.
“It takes a lot of labor to remove debris after a storm and then reinstall Sheetrock and drywall, rebuild floors, and fix electrical and plumbing systems. The work is resistant to automation,” they said. “And it is but one way in which
Houston, which was poorly situated to deal with a hurricane, may also be poorly situated to recover from it. The issue is that the United States is suffering from a shortage of workers generally, and specifically from a shortage of workers with some of the necessary skills to assist in disaster recovery.”
To put it bluntly, “It’s harder to find labor in the U.S. right now than at any point in recent history. But that’s not the whole story. There are particular shortages in the types of trades that get called into action after a disaster. America’s construction labor force has undergone a sea change in the past decade.”
That’s due to a combination of tradespeople moving on to other careers in the wake of the last housing bust and the immigration crackdown that has kept skilled but undocumented construction workers from outside our borders away, either willingly or by deportation. “The result: As the U.S. housing and construction recovery has chugged on, it has become more difficult to hire construction workers.”
Just how bad is it? There were already 225,000 available construction jobs across the country before the storm. Numbers from the National Association of Home Builders show that “77 percent of builders are facing a shortage of framing crews while 61 percent are grappling with a shortage of drywall installation workers and 45 percent report a shortage of weatherization workers.” The situation is even worse in Texas, where “the housing industry has been powered by consistent population and job growth and whose service industries are disproportionately reliant on immigrant labor,” said Slate.
Now add in an acute and long-term need in a post-natural disaster area. According to FEMA Administrator Brock Long, “FEMA is going to be there for years,” and recovery could require “tens of thousands of people.”