Living In A Shell: Hurricane Harvey Impact Lingers In Rural Texas

The impact of Hurricane Harvey lingers for families with little savings and tight budgets in rural Texas. On the anniversary of the storm, one family shares their story—and their hope.


It’s difficult for Gordon Hatthorn, a Gulf War veteran, to ask for help.

“We’ve always tried to survive on our own, no matter what,” said Gordon’s wife, Tiana.

Since Hurricane Harvey hit their small town of Danbury, Texas, that’s been harder to do. The storm flooded their house and the office where Tiana worked, leaving her jobless.

The couple lives in their hurricane-ravaged house with their 14-year-old daughter. The walls, once infested with mold, had to be gutted. Their kitchen cabinets and flooring, exposed to more than a foot of dirty flood water, were destroyed, too.

“We’re living in a shell,” said Tiana about four months after Harvey hit.

Harvey impact lingers for low-income families in rural Texas

The Hatthorns’ predicament isn’t rare. One year after Harvey’s landfall, about 30% of Texans who suffered Harvey losses aren’t getting the help they need, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation/Episcopal Health Foundation survey. Those numbers are higher for minorities and families who live in Southeast Texas, outside of Houston, on small incomes—50-60% say they’re still suffering.

The Hatthorns live outside the 500-year floodplain and didn’t have flood insurance. This, too, is common: Less than 2 in 10 Harvey-impacted homeowners had flood protection, according to the Consumer Federation of America. The Hatthorns received aid from FEMA after months of waiting. But it only covered about one-fifth of what they needed to fix their house. In Texas, roughly half of all Harvey-related FEMA requests were altogether rejected, according to FEMA figures. A FEMA spokesperson said claims were denied for a variety of reasons from missing documents to lack of home ownership to existing insurance coverage.

Hope from an unexpected source

The Hatthorns didn’t have a solution in sight until they met Cheryl Jones, a GlobalGiving project leader with the American Homeless Families Foundation. The foundation focuses on supporting veterans like Gordon, and Cheryl is committed to raising the funds the Hatthorns need to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. The foundation has helped them buy new appliances, gut mold-infested walls, replace electrical wiring, and more. One year post-Harvey, hope is there—but not from the sources the Hatthorns expected.

Harvey’s heavy toll on families like the Hatthorns, who live in small towns with little savings and tight budgets, is no surprise to Bessie Schwarz.

“In the US, when a major hurricane hits, we are in many ways just as vulnerable, especially in the poor parts of this country, as people in developing countries,” said Schwarz, the chief strategist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the cofounder of Cloud to Street.

Expert says risk mitigation is vital for future

Cloud to Street combines data analysis, satellite imagery, and crowdsourced information to create layered flood-risk maps that pinpoint the most vulnerable communities. If deployed before Harvey, the software may have pinpointed Dickinson, Texas, as a place of need. It’s home to the Vita Bella Nursing Home. A few days Harvey hit, a photo of the nursing home’s residents stranded in waist high flood water went viral.

With real time data in hand, Schwarz hopes first responders and emergency planners can better protect the most vulnerable communities from disasters. Once they identified at-risk communities, they could choose a range of interventions, from sending additional first responders to ensuring more medication is available after a disaster to launching an insurance awareness campaign. Schwarz studied flood risks in Texas after Harvey and found women, the elderly, and people in rural communities will be disproportionately affected by future floods.

“To me, an important first step is actually having accurate—and, at a minimum, not misleading information—about who needs what, and then we can figure out a way to address it,” said Schwarz.

For GlobalGiving partner Sara Brown, helping the most at-risk communities in Houston is a full-time job. Sara works at the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.

“I think of about how I’ve struggled to deal with the hurricane and aftermath as someone who is pretty well-resourced. I have support systems. So, to just be able to help people take that first step to getting back to some kind of normalcy—whether it’s now their kids can go to school again, now they can get employment again—it’s just been so incredible. It really has,” Sara said.

Since Harvey hit, the coalition has launched several information-sharing initiatives to help people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in the Houston area, including the development of an app that sped up the exit process for Harvey evacuees in shelters. The coalition continues to focus on ways to improve data exchange and coordination between local governments, federal agencies, and NGOs before the next storm hits.

The Hatthorns are trying their best to stay hopeful, post-Harvey.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Tiana. “But it didn’t just rain on us. We weren’t the only ones affected, so you can’t hold yourself down with that. There was nothing we could do about it. You save what you can, and pick up, and try to go on.”


— This story was originally published in ForbesWoman on Jan. 24, 2018 and updated for this publication on Aug. 20, 2018. The original feature can be found here.

Featured Photo: Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo by Flickr user under Creative Commons.

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