Uncovering JAPA

Making Disaster Recovery More Equitable

How can post-disaster recovery be more equitable? What does it mean to shift one's focus from a disadvantaged community's condition to the plans and policies that have produced its vulnerability? In "Procedural Vulnerability and Its Effects on Equitable Post-Disaster Recovery in Low-Income Communities" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 2), Danielle Zoe Rivera, Bradleigh Jenkins, and Rebecca Randolph explore these questions through a case study of the colonias of the Río Grande Valley in the aftermath of Hurricane Dolly.

Colonias Face FEMA Assistance Challenges

They explain that the colonias grew out of the Bracero Program, with migrant farmworkers settling on subdivided farms in rural, unincorporated parts of the valley. Typically, the land was sold without a home or utilities and without being re-graded from agricultural to residential use. While colonia developments were technically legal, they have been stigmatized as informal (hence, "illegal") settlements. The authors note social and physical marginalization in municipal underfunding, or "the reluctance of cities to annex low-income communities around them," as well as their situation in formerly agricultural lands prone to flooding.

Making landfall in 2008 as a Category 2 storm, Dolly caused severe flooding and roof damage in the colonias. However, FEMA rejected 85 percent of assistance applications from the colonias, primarily on the grounds of deferred maintenance, "damage that cannot be 'directly' attributed to the disaster declaration at hand." The authors suggest that FEMA had primed inspectors to find deferred maintenance in the colonias with maps warning of "sub-standard construction [and] deferred maintenance."

In response, La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) sued FEMA, seeking equitable application of its standards and compensation for the rejected applicants. The case raised two key questions:

  • What are FEMA's criteria for determining deferred maintenance in [FEMA's Individuals and Households Program]?
  • Are the deferred maintenance criteria unclear enough that they institutionalize economic discrimination based on anticipated housing disrepair?

With the court finding that FEMA had employed an unpublished definition of deferred maintenance, the case culminated in a settlement requiring that FEMA reconsider all of the rejected applications.

Colonias' Disaster Aftermath Exposes Systemic Biases

In discussing the case, the authors distinguish between legal approaches that require proving discrimination versus those that require proving disproportionate adverse effects.

Although the colonias prevailed based on an argument proving discrimination, this precluded a deeper reckoning with the colonias' historical marginalization (disproportionate adverse effects). Thus, the settlement failed to address the underlying procedural vulnerabilities like the anti-poor bias underpinning the concept of deferred maintenance and the vague inspection protocols that fostered racism and classism. Going forward, the authors advocate approaching disasters not as isolated incidents but as forces compounding existing spatial inequities.

I was struck by the author's assertion that standard stormwater management and green infrastructure could have prevented, or at least substantially mitigated, the devastation that Hurricane Dolly wreaked on the colonias. To me, the reluctance (negligence, I would argue) of Texan counties to install the requisite infrastructure underscores the critical role of regional planning. In the absence of action at the county level, regional planning bodies should amplify the call of the colonias by incentivizing and disseminating such interventions in rural, unincorporated areas.

Top Image: U.S. Coast Guard

About the Author
Noah Levine is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

April 7, 2022

By Noah Levine