It’s been almost two weeks since Hurricane Harvey began its assault on southeastern Texas, and communities throughout the region have set off down the long, hard road to recovery. FEMA administrator Brock Long and Texas governor Greg Abbott both said last week that it will take years to rebuild homes, salvage businesses, shore up infrastructure, and rehouse droves of displaced residents. Their inauspicious projections have left many Texans wondering what a multiyear recovery effort could entail for them and their communities.
So WIRED spoke with experts about what that recovery could look like in practice.
Obvious caveats apply: Every disaster is unique. So, too, are recovery timelines. The experts WIRED spoke with were careful to point out that they cannot predict the future. But most were willing to speculate about what comes next for Houston, based on years of experience studying, leading, and participating in disaster recovery efforts. From their feedback, a number of common observations emerged.
One Week Later: Damage Assessment
Harvey’s most destructive feature wasn’t wind but water; the storm dumped upward of 50 inches of rain in parts of southeastern Texas. One of the most pressing—and ongoing—orders of business will be assessing not just the immediate damage that rain wrought but the pernicious conditions it will leave behind: Where floodwaters recede in the days and weeks ahead, dampness will linger. Walls, floors, insulation, and internal structures of once-flooded buildings will give rise to breeding grounds for mold and mildew if they are not properly managed.
Some damage assessment will be handled by emergency management agencies and local building officials, who will use colored tags to identify which structures are safe to occupy, which are in need of repairs, and which are beyond saving. More important than who does this work is how quickly it’s performed. Communities will need to act quickly to limit the spread of fungal overgrowth.
In practice, that means assessing the damage to infrastructure and buildings throughout Greater Houston—the first of countless undertakings the metropolis will need help with in the months and years ahead. “Local officials often try to mount recovery efforts with their usual staff. That ain’t gonna work here,” says Ed Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association and a disaster recovery specialist with 35 years of field experience. “They’ll need to hire some folks, or ask for help from somebody who’s gone through disaster recovery before. People from Vermont. Or North Dakota. Or New Orleans. They need people and organizations with that skill set, who can help a municipality and its people through the recovery process, whether it’s through contractors, emergency management agencies, or mutual aid agreements with neighboring states.”
“We’re looking at a Texas-sized disaster,” Thomas says. “They’re gonna need a Texas-sized recovery operation. And for that, they’ll need to pull together.”
One Month Later: Municipal-Level Triage
By some estimates, Harvey displaced more than a million people from their homes and caused upward of 42,000 to seek emergency shelter. Census reports won’t confirm these numbers for months or years, but by the end of October most of the people Harvey drove away will have returned to their communities to survey the destruction.
The transition by some residents from damage assessment to damage control, and the ensuing race to rebuild, will create entirely new businesses in and around Houston. Look to the medians of formerly flooded streets for their advertisements: mold removal, teardown services, construction.
“Many people in the community who had different jobs before—in tourism and small businesses, for example, both of which will take a hit—will slide into these industries,” says Lucy Arendt, professor of business administration management at St. Norbert College and author of Long-Term Community Recovery from Natural Disasters.
Nevertheless, demand for these services will likely exceed supply. That’s what happened in Colorado in 2013, when torrential rains led to catastrophic flooding across the state. “Timelines for home repairs shifted to a multiyear schedule,” says Chantal Unfug, Colorado’s director of the division of local government, who led multiple recovery programs in the wake of that disaster. “And if we have a limited number of construction materials and people, we’re going to put a hospital back in place before we replace your house. It’s municipal-level triage.”
It takes a mental, physical, and emotional toll that’s more real than people realize.
Properties deemed uninhabitable will go untended for months or years, forcing homeowners to seek shelter elsewhere. Some will relocate to hotels, others to trailers set beside their ruined homes, still others to mobile home parks. A major challenge with temporary housing will be determining where to put it, but it usually winds up on the outskirts of cities, where there’s space. The remoteness of these communities will pose a challenge to anyone lacking reliable transportation; Houston is a car-dependent city, and auto industry experts say Harvey may have destroyed as many as a million automobiles throughout the region.
Adding insult to injury: Many of the nonmonetary donations pouring into Houston will have become a burden. “People in the US can be generous to a fault,” Arendt says. “We’ll send money, sure—but we’ll also send clothes. We’ll send electronics. We’ll send teddy bears. We’ll send, oh my God, you name it.” But flood-struck Texans can’t use any of those things to rebuild their houses or buy a new car. “Survivors will have to sort through truckloads of this stuff that very well-intentioned people have sent without thinking about how victims on the receiving end will deal with it.”
6 Months Later: Preparing for Future Disasters
Six months out, reconstruction efforts will be underway. Money requested in the weeks following the disaster will begin to arrive in the form of insurance and grants from the likes of FEMA and the Small Business Administration. (Two expedited aid relief packages, to the tune of $15 billion, are currently working their way through Congress, though Abbott has said he expects the recovery will ultimately cost “probably $150 to $180 billion.”.)
Despite improvements on these fronts, the pressure and anxiety associated with orchestrating a recovery of this magnitude will begin to overwhelm local governments. “It takes a mental, physical, and emotional toll that’s more real than people realize,” says Colorado’s Unfug.
That stress can lead to turnover among local officials—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “People who can retire will retire. Some will decide, you know what, I don’t need this, and resign,” Arendt says. Depleted ranks might be replenished, and ideally supplemented, by people from other communities who have dealt firsthand with major recovery efforts.
You’re competing with what most people really want after an event like this, which is to get things back the way they were as quickly as possible.
In the wake of Colorado’s floods, for example, the state sought out disaster experts from places like Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi who could manage recovery grants for the Department of Local Affairs. They found David Bowman, who had spent the previous nine years directing research and strategic initiatives at disaster recovery units in Louisiana, including the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the governmental body created in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “It looked like a job where I could step in and really help out,” Bowman says. “So it wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
People with prior recovery experience will be valuable to have on hand, given that most communities will be arguing over where and how to rebuild.
Of course, the obvious move will be to restore the community so that it is better prepared for future disasters … right?
“That is an enormous, enormous challenge,” says NHMA president Ed Thomas. “You’re competing with what most people really want after an event like this, which is to get things back to the way they were as quickly as possible.” Deciding how to prepare Houston for future storms will require time, money, and political will—all of which will be in short supply.
“What Harvey gives us is a really good data point on flood risk,” says Wesley Highfield, professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston and an expert in demography and development in the context of disaster recovery. “We need to use it. Revise our flood maps. Redesign our infrastructure. Require people to build more resilient houses—or not to build at all. And in an ideal world we would. But we’re not talking about an ideal world here.”
In the wake of Hurricane Ike in September 2008, private consultants under contract to FEMA revised the flood map for Galveston County, where Highfield lives. FEMA distributed the map to the community. “It’s been sitting around for years, unimplemented,” Highfield says. “The biggest complaint is: I’m not in a floodplain now, but when you put this map into effect I am, which triggers an insurance requirement, which costs money, and I don’t want to pay for that.”
That mindset partly explains why some 80 percent of the homeowners hit hardest by Harvey lacked flood insurance. “In six months, the ones with means will have found places to live, made it back on their feet, probably they’re back to work. They’ll start to regain some sense of normalcy,” Highfield says.
One Year Later: The Great Exodus
One year on, traces of the flood will likely persist. You might not see lines on the houses like you did in New Orleans, because Houston’s not a bowl and the water will have drained relatively quickly. But debris might still be collecting at the curbs. The construction industry will still be booming. And people will still be struggling to remove festering mold, rip out rotting drywall, and elevate their low-slung homes, on account of contractors being booked months or years into the future.
People think, oh, a disaster came though, I should be able to buy a house for a song. Wrong. It’s gonna cost you more than it did before.
That’s assuming they can afford to have their homes repaired in the first place. “I mean, the people without resources, they’re going to founder, economically. And they are going to end up in other cities, other towns, maybe other states,” Highfield says. “You saw that with Katrina. People who were displaced had nowhere to go and wound up starting their lives somewhere else.”
In a 2014 study examining the location of displaced New Orleans residents following Hurricane Katrina, University of Michigan demographer Narayan Sastry found that only about half of the adults displaced by the storm were back living in New Orleans one year later, and that fewer than a third were living in the homes they’d lived in before the storm.
“Most of the displaced adults likely faced considerable economic and institutional barriers in being able to move back to the city, such as the lack of affordable rental housing,” Sastry writes.
The shortage of housing stock may also cause real estate prices to spike. “That often surprises people,” Arendt says. “They think, ‘Oh, a disaster came though, I should be able to buy a house for a song.’ Wrong. It’s gonna cost you more than it did before.”
While local governments might be unable to implement mandatory preventative measures, many individual communities by now have resolved to band together and rebuild with resilience in mind. “In these communities you’ll often find multiple, respected sources delivering various versions of the same essential message,” Thomas says. He points to communication surrounding aboveground shelters in Oklahoma, a state long bedeviled by tornadoes. “You have weather forecasters talking about the importance of shelters. You’ve got senators linking to them on their websites. You have local credit unions offering zero-interest loans to build them. You have local emergency management offices hosting workshops on how to select the right contractor to construct it,” Thomas says. “Suddenly, people are having discussions around their dinner tables saying, ‘Gee, are we gonna put in granite countertops, or are we going to build an aboveground shelter?’ ”
Residents in Houston will grapple with similar questions in the years ahead: Should I buy a pier-and-beam home? Do I need flood insurance regardless? Do I even want to live in Houston?
Five Years Later: The Housing Crisis
By 2022, Greater Houston still won’t feel quite right to anyone who lived through Harvey. “An outsider will be hard pressed to tell that there had been a major flood half a decade earlier,” Arendt says. “But people who are from there? They’ll be able to show you exactly what’s changed.”
There’s a tradition here of lots of development and lots of pavement. As long as the economy supports it, that tradition will continue, and Houston will spread.
Many locally motivated resiliency projects and initiatives spearheaded in the first year will likely have petered out, due to lack of funds or community support. “Lots of people will say: ‘Here’s a tremendous opportunity to come back stronger than we were before,’ ” Arendt says. “And that’s a great way to think! But the chances of the political will lasting as long as it needs to in order to effect real change are not great. I’m all for optimism, but recovery is a very long game.”
Putting people into homes will likely remain the biggest challenge. “Housing stock probably won’t start to come back for three or four years, at least,” Highfield says.
“Our flood happened in September of 2013,” says Unfug of Colorado’s disaster, which damaged or destroyed roughly 20,000 homes—half the number estimated to have been affected by Harvey. “We’re still building houses to bring back displaced people—still very much in the throes of recovery.”
10 Years Later: Urbanization Marches On
Given what we know about Houston’s urbanization trends, “the city with no limits” will have a larger population and a more sprawling geographic footprint 10 years from now than it does today. Harris County, where Houston is the county seat, grew from 4.1 million people in 2010 to 4.6 million in 2016. In fact, between 2008 and 2015, Harris County added more new residents every year than any county in the US. As for the Greater Houston metropolitan area, which today comprises some 6.7 million people, the Texas Demographic Center projects its population could exceed 8.3 million by 2025. And all those people will need somewhere to live.
“There’s a tradition here of lots of development and lots of pavement. As long as the economy supports it, that tradition will continue, and Houston will spread,” Highfield says. “I say that as someone who is part of the problem. I’m living in an area built in 2013 that used to be the hinterlands.”
“Assuming there have been no other major storms—and that’s a bold assumption, but let’s just go with it—Houston will probably look, in many respects, like Harvey never happened,” Arendt says. There will be more mitigation than there was pre-Harvey, but nowhere near what the region needs. “Remember what I said about recovery being a long game? Most people don’t play the long game. They just don’t.”
Some communities in the region will have thought carefully about zoning and how to build structures with the understanding that Houston occupies a major flood zone. But Highfield, Thomas, and Arendt all predict many of Greater Houston’s newly built environments will once again occupy low-lying, flood-prone areas.
Some of those areas will be physically impossible to mitigate; people who don’t want their dwellings flooded simply shouldn’t live there. Shouldn’t build there. But they will. “And that means more people will be affected the next time this happens,” Highfield says. “And it will.”