Unfortunately, natural disasters in Houston are nothing new. Whether you’re a lifelong Houstonian or a recent transplant, chances are you’ve either experienced a natural disaster firsthand or experienced some extremely close calls like those from the very busy 2020 storm season. And as the data has made clear, these disruptive events aren’t expected to let up any time soon.
Whatever your experience may be, the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters in Houston isn’t something our region can afford to overlook. In our recently published Disaster topic and subtopic pages, we examine the ongoing risks, vulnerabilities and response patterns affecting natural disasters in Houston across more than 50 unique data points. Below are the core points that every Houston-area resident should be aware of.
1) Houston’s flooding risk is high (and getting higher)
When it comes to natural disasters like hurricanes, extreme precipitation and resultant flooding, Houston’s risk level has always been high and is only projected to grow. As of January 2021, Greater Houston has been the site of 25 federally declared disasters in just 40 years, nearly one-third of which have occured since 2015. All but one of these seven recent disasters (the COVID-19 pandemic) have involved flooding and/or hurricanes.
While much of Houston’s elevated natural disaster risk level can be attributed to its geography and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing effects of climate change and decades of ill-informed planning also play a significant role. When developing properties and planning communities, builders and developers consult FEMA Flood Zone maps in order to avoid building properties in areas at significant risk of flooding. However, these maps have been imperfect; about 75% of Houston-area flood damage between 1999 and 2009 occurred on properties built outside of FEMA-designated flood plains. Similarly, around 75% of homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside flood zones, as were 55% of the homes flooded during 2016’s Tax Day flood.
“Seven federally declared disasters have occurred in Houston since 2015.”
All-in-all, 322,000 residential properties in Houston’s three-county area are at some risk of flooding. That’s more than one-in-five. While the issue of increased flood risk may be widespread in Greater Houston, the severity of risk disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic and low-income residents. Decades of discriminatory housing policies have seen many low-income communities placed in low-lying lands that subsequently receive insufficient investment toward flood mitigation.
With the dangers posed by extreme rain events projected to increase in coming decades, the number of Houston properties at substantial risk of flooding is also poised to grow.
By 2050, one in seven properties (286,036) in the three-county area will be at substantial risk of flooding. By pure volume, Harris County is projected to bear most of the burden. Fort Bend County is projected to have the highest proportion of properties at substantial risk of flooding at nearly 20%.
2) Houston’s population is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters
Houstons’ geographic placement is one of the driving factors behind Houston’s high natural disaster risk levels, but the extent to which these disasters impact our region is a different story. Beyond our inherent risk levels, socioeconomic inequalities and man-made environmental factors increase our region’s vulnerability to negative effects of natural disasters — impacting our ability to withstand and recover from natural disasters when they happen.
One of the most valuable tools we have in evaluating vulnerability is The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). SVI measures the social vulnerability of counties and census tracts on a scale from 0 (indicating the lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability). Counties and census tracts with high SVI scores often face higher levels of human and economic suffering/loss in the wake of natural disasters. Factors that contribute to higher rates of social vulnerability include lower income levels, higher proportions of non-Whites, language barriers, housing segregation and other elements of discrimination and inequality.
Harris County has an SVI of 0.72, meaning Harris County is more vulnerable to the negative effects of disasters than 72% of counties in the country.
Communities with an SVI of 0.5 or higher are deemed to have medium-high vulnerability to the negative shocks disasters cause. In total, 3.4 million residents in Houston’s three-county region live in a medium-high risk census tract — that’s 58% of the region’s population.
“58% of Greater Houston residents live in a census tract with medium-high vulnerability to the negative effects of disasters.”
As established earlier, Black, Hispanic and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted when disasters strike. These vulnerable populations are more likely to experience food insecurity, job/income loss, housing insecurity, transportation challenges, reduced access to healthcare, and more. Compounding these issues, many in Houston’s most vulnerable communities never receive the federal assistance they need to properly recover. About 50% of FEMA claims made in the three-county region since 2005 have been declined, and renters — who are more likely to be in a highly vulnerable group — were less likely to be approved for assistance than homeowners in seven of the last nine disasters.
Greater Houston also faces environmental vulnerabilities that impact public health on a large scale following natural disasters. During flooding events, sewage, debris and chemicals mix with flood waters, and as waters rise, they can carry pollutants into water bodies, residential homes and our drinking water supply. Because many refineries and chemical plants are located in low-lying areas, this added vulnerability is largely carried by already-vulnerable communities of color. These plants also contribute to lower air quality during natural disasters. Industrial facilities in Greater Houston generated an additional 340 tons of toxic air pollution during Hurricane Harvey, at minimum.
All-in-all, these and other environmental factors negatively impact our physical health. After Hurricane Harvey, 63% of respondents to the Texas Flood Registry reported experiencing at least one negative health symptom such as runny nose, headaches/migraines, problems concentrating, shortness of breath, or skin rash.
3) Houston’s ability to recover from natural disasters is highly uneven
On their own, natural disasters do not discriminate. They can affect anyone in their path, and the immediate consequences of a hurricane or flood can ripple throughout all corners of the region, even if some groups bear more risk and vulnerability than others. The long-term effects of these disasters are ultimately determined by our region’s ability to recover, and the response we receive from the public and private sector. And while Greater Houston is often recognized for its generosity — especially in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — the response often leaves Houston’s more vulnerable populations without the assistance they need to fully recover.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) addresses urgent basic needs after disasters through the Individual and Household Program (IHP). When federally declared disasters strike, residents may apply for financial assistance from FEMA to help with essentials. However, those who may need the most financial assistance don’t always get it.
With the exception of Hurricane Rita, homeowners have consistently received more federal assistance than renters, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Following Hurricane Harvey, renters received an average of $2,018 in IHP assistance compared to an average of $6,586 for homeowners. While homeowners are liable for more costs associated with storm damage, nearly half of Houston-area renters are significantly cost-burdened which limits their ability to pay for damages out-of-pocket. This disparity in financial relief can contribute to slower recovery times and the exacerbation of pre-existing wealth and income inequalities.
Federal programs aren’t the only resource available to aid natural disaster mitigation and recovery. Local government also plays an important role, although many are dissatisfied with their performance.
In the three-county area, 74% of residents rate local government efforts to protect Houston homes from flooding as poor-to-fair, with only 5% of surveyed residents rating protection efforts as “excellent.”
All-in-all, these barriers to recovery ultimately burden economically vulnerable and disadvantaged residents the most, and widen pre-existing inequities and wealth gaps. A recent study found that the wealth gap between Black and White residents in Harris County grew by $87,000 as a result of impacts from natural disasters. Similarly, 31% of Black Houston-area residents surveyed reported worse quality of life one year after Hurricane Harvey compared to 18% of White residents.
Understanding disasters in Houston can strengthen us for the future
The existence of natural disasters may be beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless against them. By taking the time to understand their risk to and impact on our region, we can be better equipped to prepare for and address the consequences of disasters before they strike, ultimately enabling a smoother recovery toward an opportunity-rich region for all.
This new Disaster content is just the first stage in an ongoing expansion of the Understanding Houston platform. As a community-driven nonprofit, our mission to connect Houston leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions relies on the action and generosity of people like you. Consider exploring how you can get involved with Understanding Houston, and stay tuned to our social media for new data, insights and program updates.
Join us February 25th for an in-depth virtual discussion of disasters in Houston! Click here to register.