Natural disasters leave survivors who will never recover from the
impact or never own a home again.
News coverage of Hurricane Irene showed ravaged communities and
homes that disappeared under the floodwaters of swollen rivers.
Atlantic seashore communities; inland Paterson, New Jersey; and
towns all over Vermont were damaged by the storms deluge. Even
towns far from the Atlantic Ocean felt the effects. Hundreds of
homes were damaged or destroyed; millions were without power.
These images and facts are the latest reminder that natural
disasters cause homelessness. Infrastructure commuter rail, covered
bridges, and roadwayshave been destroyed. The U.S. Federal
Emergency Management Agencys (FEMA) disaster fund fell below its $1
billion safety level, ending funding for all federally funded
non-emergency work for FY2011.
This years Midwestern flooding, East Coast earthquake, and
tornadoes also took a toll on the nations housing units. These
disasters are not the first to cause people to lose their homes and
the prognosis for these recent disaster homeless is not good.
Homelessness in the United States is often the result of economic
hardship, addiction, or mental illness, but sometimes it is also
the result of disasters. No matter the cause there are financial
limitations on federal funding and legal requirements to be met
before money is available for repairing or replacing homes, whether
owner-occupied or rental units.
The Robert T. Stafford Act of 1988, as amended, dictates the types
of programs and amounts of funding that victims of a disaster may
receive. Regulations, such as the U.S. Housing and Urban
Developments (HUD) definition of overcrowding, also influence the
ability to permanently re-house families after disasters.
California and Louisiana history provide a window on the costs of
Elderly Victims of the Whittier Narrows Earthquake
Orange, California, flourished before World War II. Small cottages
housed young residents who settled, raised families, and formed a
community. Fifty years later in 1987, when the Whittier Narrows
earthquake struck Orange, the residents had retired, many of the
men had died, and their surviving widows were elderly, sometimes
disabled, and often frail. However, these women lived independently
in their one-story cottages, long since paid for, even when their
disabilities left them blind and mobility impaired. Their familiar
surroundings and supportive neighbors and church colleagues had
The cottages had been built before California had a seismic
building code requiring homes to be bolted to the foundations. The
earthquake destroyed many of the cottages and, suddenly, these
women were homeless. They were taken to hospitals because they
could not meet the standard for independent self-care required of
the American Red Cross general population shelters. A social worker
for Orange County followed these elderly women as they moved from
hospital to nursing homes. Because they lived on low fixed incomes,
they could not qualify for Small Business Administration loans to
rebuild their homes.
Although earthquake insurance was available, most could not afford
the extra premium on their small Social Security or pension checks
to obtain coverage. Tracking their mental deterioration,
depression, and rapid demise, the social worker noted that, within
two years of the loss of their homes, more than half of the elderly
women had died, and the rest were in welfare-assisted nursing homes
or assisted living centers, having lost their independence and
their privacy when the earthquake took their homes. These women
were disaster homeless.
Loma Prieta Earthquake Breaks Watsonville,
When the shaking stopped in Watsonville, California, in 1989, the
economy of the town was changed forever. It had been a farming
community with a large cold-food-storage industry and a population
including a large number of migrant workers and their families
living in overcrowded conditions due to low wages. It was not
unusual for a whole family to be living in a garage, or for two
families to be sharing a two-bedroom apartment. The Loma Prieta
earthquake damaged or destroyed the overcrowded and often
substandard housing, leaving thousands of migrant workers homeless.
FEMA brought its entire stock of trailers to Watsonville to provide
The earthquake also damaged or destroyed many of the cold storage
warehouses. Since it was fall and the harvest was underway, growers
decided to put their produce on rail cars and send it to Mexico for
cold storage, because the cost of shipping to Mexico, storing for
months, and reshipping back to U.S. markets proved to be less
costly than storage in Watsonville.
The workers lost not only their homes, but also their livelihoods.
Their welfare payments could not cover the cost of housing that met
HUD standards for occupancy a maximum of one person per roomso they
remained in the FEMA trailers, often with multiple trailers for one
family. The migrant workers were first overcrowded, then homeless
in temporary shelters, and then temporarily housed in trailers that
became their permanent homes.
Oakland-Berkeley Hills Firestorm Destroys Homes of a
The Oakland Hills neighborhood overlooks San Francisco Bay, with
the gleaming towers of San Francisco in the distance, along with
views of the Bay Bridge and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. These
were homes to aspire to, and in the 1960s and 1970s a neighborhood
of unique, individually built single-family homes developed on
hillside lots. The streets were narrow to discourage cut-through
traffic. Most of the homes were paid off and their residents were
retired by 1991 when a wild fire burned the area to the ground.
Residents of the Oakland Hills were fortunate to escape with their
lives from the wind-driven conflagration that consumed a whole
ridgeline in Oakland and Berkeley. They evacuated to hotels paid
for by their fire insurances temporary housing coverage. They
confronted the loss of their homes contents, but began planning to
rebuild on their paid-for lots. Some lots had eroded when fire
fighters poured water into residential areas. The fire department
response was slowed by the narrow roads and evacuating residents.
Post-fire community meetings heard battles over whose front lawn
would disappear to widen the road, and which lots would be
grandfathered to permit rebuilding on the eroded lots that were too
small to meet the zoning requirements. Insurance adjusters arrived
to estimate the value of losses and provide policy limit payouts.
A neighborhood of prosperous homeowners suddenly became a
neighborhood of homeless people, a shock to them and to the city.
Most of the homes in the fire area had been purchased in the 1950s
and 1960s and paid off in 20 years. By 1991 their insurance
coverage was often 10 or more years out of date. In addition, since
the homes were more than 50 percent destroyed, current seismic and
building codes applied, adding to the cost of reconstruction. The
owner of a home that would cost $200,000 to rebuild often had a
fire insurance policy that paid $100,000 or less on a total loss,
Because most of the owners were 10 or more years into retirement,
most did not have the income to qualify for a Small Business
Administration loan to supplement the insurance payout. Most could
not afford the payments on a new mortgage to supplement the
insurance money, even with the equity in the valuable view lots.
Some owners found that their lots were too eroded to permit
construction of a new home on the property, rendering their lots
almost valueless. Overnight, residents of uppermiddle-class
professional neighborhoods found themselves homeless.
With their insurance proceeds and some money from the sale of their
lots, fire survivors moved to Sacramento to seniors-only
communities. Soon they discovered that while they could afford to
purchase a condo, they could not afford the annually rising
community association dues on their fixed incomes. Within a few
years they had to move again, often to assisted living facilities.
Their decline in health, while related to aging, was accelerated by
depression over the loss of their community, homes, and
possessions. One woman said, I spent a lifetime building a
lifestyle, and in one day I lost it all. I am completely alone in a
strange place. She was no longer a proud homeowner, but instead the
resident of a senior home that took her entire pension and social
security check each month. In fact, her fixed monthly income no
longer qualified her for a private apartment. She anticipated
sharing an apartment with a stranger, and ultimately ending life in
a nursing home bed instead of the expected retirement in her home
overlooking the city by the Bay.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans
in 2005. As the locally owned levees failed along the canals,
neighborhoods were lost to the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. The
residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were particularly hard hit,
because their community was below sea level, and, lacking deeds or
tax bills, they could not qualify for federal assistance. In
Louisiana, people do not pay taxes on their homes unless the value
exceeds $75,000. Therefore, most residents of the Lower Ninth had
no tax records to use for proof of ownership.
In many cases, the homes had been in the same family for
generations, with ownership passing informally, and no one had a
deed. Many of the homes did not have city utility services, so they
had no utility bill. Lacking any proof of ownership of the damaged
property, it was difficult or impossible to get help with
rebuilding. In addition, incomes were so low that even those with
proof of ownership often could not qualify for loans to make
FEMA requires that all flooded homes rebuilt with federal funds
meet federal flood insurance policy standards of construction.
Along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, the homes have been raised
above flood level, often rising 10 to 20 feet above ground level,
with the first level used only for storage or garages. In the Lower
Ninth, this meant that some homes would have to be raised as much
as 25 feet above ground level, and the cost and aesthetic
considerations prevented rebuilding.
Even in middle class areas like Lakeview there are still many homes
boarded up. Older homeowners on fixed incomes, like those in Orange
and the Oakland Hills, cannot qualify for federal loans or new
mortgages. Some homeowners not in the flood plain did not have
flood insurance. The cost of rebuilding exceeds the maximum
assistance available through FEMA. Some owners are still in
lawsuits with the insurance companies, and the government cannot
provide federal aid until insurance settlements have been reached.
Mitigation: The Lesson of Disasters
As demonstrated in the case studies, mitigation against disasters
helps ensure that a family will have a home after a disaster. There
is no government or private program that will make a family whole
after a community-wide disaster.
Risk-based zoning and strict building codes are important
mitigation measures. Communities should forbid construction of
multi-unit residential properties in flood plains, on active fault
lines, or in other unstable or dangerous areas. Single-family homes
should have risk-related mitigation requirements in geologically
unstable areas, flood plains, wild land urban interface fire zones,
and in areas with significant weather threats.
Residents should develop vital records folders for their emergency
kits to ensure that they can prove ownership and contact insurance
companies. Such steps will lessen the likelihood that a community
will have to care for large numbers of residents made permanently
homeless by disasters.