Uneven Recovery from Harvey: A Story of Cash, Contractors, Quality, Confidence, and Delayed Aid
I drove through my village this week and saw ten homes in desperate need of help. More than 18 months after Harvey, some families still have not finished repairing their homes. Worse, some still have not started. On the positive side, some fully repaired their homes within three months. Why such an uneven recovery?
As I talk to people, their stories take many forms, but they usually involve some combination of five things: cash, contractors, confidence, quality and delayed aid.
Cash is King
In a disaster, such as Harvey, ready cash trumps everything. Those without insurance or the savings of a Bill Gates felt Harvey’s sting first. Many people compared repairing a flooded home without insurance to the unplanned purchase of a second home – out of pocket. Not many can afford that, especially younger people who stretched to cover the mortgage on their first home.
On the other hand, those who could afford to pay contractors weekly – in cash – got attention. Those who could not, did not. Their contractors showed up between faster paying jobs.
Available Pool of Quality Contractors
Of course, the available pool of quality contractors limited the pace of recovery. Some so-called “contractors” decided to get into the contracting business the day after Harvey. They picked up unskilled labor when and where they could find it. Their customers/victims, desperate for help, accepted bad contracts and argued constantly about substandard workmanship and materials. They felt re-victimized at every turn. They just could not get the results they expected. I’ve heard of some fly-by-night contractors who skipped town with deposits. The more common story? Do-overs and endless punch lists created delays that cost months…not to mention cash that couples didn’t have.
Those who found good, reputable, experienced contractors (and there are many) found a lifeline to sanity. Generally, they quickly returned to beautiful homes…some in just three or four months.
Some people decided to sit out Round One of renovation. Rather than fight for quality contractors and materials, they decided to wait until supply caught up with demand. They started after the con men moved on to Florida or North Carolina or the wildfires. They paid a price in inconvenience for many months. But many are now finishing up restoration and moving back into beautifully restored and updated homes – without appliances from scratch-and-dent sales.
Confidence in Recovery
I know one lady who lost her husband to cancer shortly before Harvey. Already in a state of shock, her home next flooded badly. As time went on, it became clear that she deeply, deeply feared getting flooded again. Many older people fell into this category. Even though she is a very strong woman, the fear paralyzed her in some ways.
She could not afford to restore her home twice on one income. So she waited … to see when government officials would begin mitigation efforts. Passage of the Harris County Flood Bond on the anniversary of Harvey gave her hope. She began restoration after waiting a year.
Then came perceived delays in starting the projects, followed by debate about where the County would start. Stress precipitated cardiac problems. Now she has even more worries. Sadly, the stress hospitalized her.
Lack of confidence in recovery efforts can create a downward spiral just as in a recession. However, confidence in recovery efforts can reverse that. Confidence is especially crucial for vulnerable populations, such as the retired, sick, widows or those with low incomes.
Delayed aid means delayed starts. It comes in many forms:
- Insurance adjusters who itemized everything rather than accepting IRS-approved, per-square-foot guidelines
- Adjusters who move from disaster to disaster for higher paying jobs leaving Harvey clients in the lurch
- Insurance companies that argued endlessly
- HUD money showing up 18-months after the disaster
- Buyout offers that come long after people have already repaired and moved back into their homes
- Multi-layered, slower-than-snails flood mitigation processes
- A legislature that meets every other year
- A rainy-day fund that turned out to be anything but that for 18 months
- Cities that don’t or can’t budget for disasters
- Having to apply for grants to quality for matching grants
- Filling out a state application for the right to fill out a federal application
- Deserving people who made just enough money to get shuffled into low-priority categories for aid while the government sought to “fill up” quotas in higher priority (low income) categories
- Federal dollars appropriated by Congress that still haven’t shown up
- Studies that can add three to four years to the timetable for any flood mitigation project.
This list is far from complete. However, it explains why some repairs and mitigation projects happened right away and other efforts have not yet begun.
Things Government Can Influence
At the March 21st town hall meeting in Kingwood, Congressman Dan Crenshaw addressed the need to streamline government business processes to accelerate flood mitigation and aid. This certainly is a daunting task, but a noble and necessary one.
If he can do it, he will help tens of millions of people – not just Harvey survivors, but also survivors of disasters that haven’t yet happened.
Accelerating aid so that people can get back to normal sooner is crucial to restoring the psychological health of the community as well as its image.
Confidence in the certainty of aid and mitigation helps restore optimism in the future. It encourages people to invest in repairing homes quickly, rather than waiting to see what government will do.
Most people are more than willing to do their part if government does its.
There are not many un-repaired homes in the Lake Houston Area as of this writing. But there are enough to make buyers wonder. What happened here? Why? Could it happen again? Could it happen to me? And until those doubts disappear, home values and tax revenues will continue to be less than what they could be.
Posted by Bob Rehak on April 9, 2019
588 Days since Hurricane Harvey