RICK WEISS: Hello, everyone. And welcome to SciLine’s media briefing on the lasting toll of hurricanes on communities. I’m SciLine’s director, Rick Weiss. For those of you not familiar with us at SciLine, we are a philanthropically funded, editorially independent free service for journalists and scientists based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science. Our mission is pretty straightforward. It’s just to make it easier for reporters like you to get more scientifically validated evidence into your news stories. And that means not just stories that are about science, per se, but any story that can be strengthened with some science, which, really, in our biased view at least, is just about any news story you can think of.
Among other things, we offer a free matching service that helps connect you to scientists who are both deeply knowledgeable in their field and are excellent communicators. We do that for you on deadline. Just go to sciline.org, click on I need an expert. And while you’re there, check out our other helpful reporting resources. Today’s topic is, of course, tragically relevant to the situation this week in Puerto Rico, which is now struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. The sad truth is that the suffering caused by these extreme events goes on much longer than reporters typically stick around. And of course, it’s not experienced uniformly across divisions in race, ethnicity and other factors.
So, today’s panelists are going to talk about what social science and related research disciplines can tell us about this important intersection of extreme weather, physical infrastructure and civil rights. It’s an intersection that’s only going to become more challenging with climate change in the future.
A couple of quick logistical details before we start. We have three panelists who are going to make short presentations of five, seven minutes each before we open things up for Q&A. To enter a question, either during or after their presentations, just hover over the button for Q&A at the bottom of your Zoom window and enter your name and news outlet and your question. If you want to pose a question to a specific panelist, be sure to note that. A full video of this briefing is going to be available on our website probably by the end of today or at least by tomorrow. And time-stamped transcript will follow soon after that. But if you want a raw copy of this recording more immediately, just submit a request with your name and email in the Q&A box, and we can send you a link to the video before the end of today. You can also use the Q&A box to alert SciLine staff of any technical difficulties.
To get started, I’m not going to give full introductions for our speakers. Their bios are on the SciLine website. I just want to let you know that we will hear first from Dr. Ali Mostafavi, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Texas A&M, who will explain some of the ways that infrastructure damage can trigger unexpected, unplanned, cascading effects throughout a community, how those impacts affect different populations differently and how community members and leaders can do more to prepare. Next, we’re going to hear from Dr. Sara Hamideh, an assistant professor of coastal resilience at Stony Brook University. She’s going to focus on particular impacts on housing, one of the most economically and, I think, psychologically challenging kinds of infrastructure loss after a hurricane and one that, again, does not affect everyone equitably. And third, we’ll hear from Dr. Cassandra Davis, a professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And she’s going to describe what research has documented about how hurricanes damage and disrupt schools, educators, students and how these interruptions affect not just the short-term educations of these folks but also, really, long-term learning outcomes and evidence-based advice for how schools can play a more positive role in communities’ recovery. So, OK, with that, let’s get started. And over to you, Dr. Mostafavi.
Impacts of hurricanes on infrastructure services
ALI MOSTAFAVI: Thank you, Rick. Thanks, everybody, for joining. Just to double-check, can you see my screen?
RICK WEISS: Perfect.
ALI MOSTAFAVI: Perfect. So, today I would like to talk briefly about some of the research we have done on the impacts of hurricanes on infrastructure services and talk about what we know about how hurricanes impact infrastructure, what societal impacts they cause, and why the experienced service losses are different for different subpopulations.
To begin with, let’s talk about how hurricanes impact our infrastructure services. Hurricanes impose significant threats on infrastructure services through their wind and flood hazards. Wind causes significant damage to power grids, buildings, and flood cause catastrophic road and critical facility damages. And by critical facility, I mean health care facilities, hospitals, dialysis centers and facilities such—like that that communities rely on for their well-being and daily activities. These failures in infrastructure services typically manifest themselves in a cascading and compounding way. For example, power outages lead to disruptions in pumping stations for sewage systems that could cause a sewage backup that instead—it will impact our drinking water quality and cause boil water notices. And you can see that these impacts cascade and usually they manifest themselves to communities as a surprise.
Or flooding could cause disrupted access to critical facilities. When people thinking about an impending flooding, they might not think about, you know, their access to a dialysis center, for example, or a hospital being disrupted because of the flooding. But this is usually the way that hurricane impacts on infrastructure services reveal themselves to communities. The interdependencies among infrastructure systems make the impacts of hurricanes on these infrastructure services greater than some of the individual services. And this is one of the important things for communities to recognize, that when we prepare for these events, we don’t just think about power outage. We also think about how power outages could lead to other cascading failures that impact the communities.
Another important thing to note is—about the impacts of hurricanes on infrastructure services—is that we cannot solely understand the impacts based on hurricane category. Essentially, a hurricane category does not tell us much about what infrastructure impacts we expect. And the Hurricane Fiona that we had in Puerto Rico a few days ago is a clear example of that. It was designated as not a hurricane Category 4 or 5, but it caused a devastating power outage across the island. And hurricane category only inform us about the hazard intensity. Infrastructure service disruptions, however, is a function of hazard intensity and physical vulnerability. And physical vulnerability vary based on geography and based on the characteristics of the infrastructure, such as, you know, the condition and aging of infrastructure. And that’s another important point for communities to keep in mind as they prepare for impending hurricanes, is to understand their physical vulnerabilities and don’t just rely on hazard intensity or hurricane category to think about what infrastructure service impacts they will experience.
The next point is about the impacts that are not confined within the boundaries of hazard impacts. And by that I mean we don’t look at just into the hurricane path or which areas will be flooded to estimate what type of infrastructure service disruptions we can anticipate. We have scientific evidence that shows us that the impacts of a hurricane is—either through winds or flooding, is region-wide and goes beyond just the impacted areas. For example, the impacts of flooding on community traffic networks and access to critical facilities goes beyond flooded areas. Even nonflooded areas will experience significant disruptions in their access to critical facilities. And that’s another usually misunderstood aspect of the impact of hurricanes and flooding on infrastructure services. People think that if they are outside the floodplain or outside the hurricane path, they will not be impacted, which is not the case.
Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about the impacts and how they disproportionately impact different subpopulations. Our research has shown that the extent of societal impacts for infrastructure services is not homogeneous in a community. Vulnerable populations—in particular, low-income households, racial and ethnic minorities, elderly people—would experience a greater extent of hardship and well-being impacts. Two days of power outage does not mean the same level of well-being and hardship impact on a nonvulnerable population versus a vulnerable population. And this is usually misunderstood and not taken into account by infrastructure owners and operators in terms of prioritizing restorations.
There is a need for growing recognition by infrastructure managers, owner and operators regarding the incorporation of social equality into infrastructure resilience plans, restorations, investments, etc. We understand that resource constraints exist and infrastructure organizations need to prioritize and optimize their resources. But at the same time, it’s critical to incorporate social equality in such resource allocations to reduce the disparate impacts of infrastructure disruptions on vulnerable populations.
Another important aspect of considering societal impacts is that initial infrastructure resiliency investment is needed to make our infrastructure hardened to withstand hurricanes and reduce this infrastructure service disruptions. The investments are significant, and usually in the absence of proper incorporation of societal costs, the economic evaluations of resiliency investments do not justify the large upfront investment, and we need to better quantify and take into account the societal impacts in our infrastructure resiliency investment analysis conducted by infrastructure owners and operators.
And finally, let’s talk briefly about what differentiates different subpopulations and households in terms of their impacts that they experience. And there are various factors reported in the literature. Our research has found that the most important factor or one of the most important factors is resourcefulness. Usually we understand resourcefulness based on the income of the household, which is the case. You know, lower-income populations experience greater impacts because they have less resources to prepare for, to cope with the impacts of hurricanes as infrastructure service disruptions. But our research also shown that resourcefulness depends also on other factors, such as the access to facilities. So, if a community has only, let’s say, one grocery store in—within two miles of five-mile radius, and if that grocery store runs out of supply or their access is disrupted, and if they don’t have a substitute, that affects their resourcefulness. Another important aspect of resourcefulness is the social networks, and we are talking about social connectedness, that people can rely on the individuals and households in their social networks so that when their infrastructure services are disrupted, they can get resources from their social networks to cope with these impacts.
So, with that I pause here, and I would be happy to answer questions in the Q&A.
RICK WEISS: Thank you, Dr. Mostafavi. It’s very interesting, and it’s making me realize, if I were a local reporter, one thing I’d be curious about—I feel like in my community, when power goes out in a large way, the priority goes to the circuits that have the most people on them to get the most people back. But I wonder if there is a system for—that a utility would pay more attention not just to the numbers, but who is most in need and which neighborhoods are most desperately in need. It’d be an interesting thing to learn about one’s own community and one’s own local utility. We can get into some of that in the Q&A perhaps. But…
ALI MOSTAFAVI: Absolutely.
RICK WEISS: I’d like to switch over to Dr. Sara Hamideh to talk about housing.
The housing toll from hurricanes
SARA HAMIDEH: Thank you so much. Let me just jump into—I have—I can build upon some of the things that my colleague Ali just talked about and link that to housing. So, to begin with, thinking about a housing toll, the types of losses that housing experiences out of one sector out of many sectors in a community from hurricanes—there are two ways and two levels that we need to think about when we think about housing tolls from hurricanes. Number one, at the community level, at the community scale, building damages, housing—residential building damages, especially in big disaster events, account for the majority of—a large percentage of the physical damages in a community. But beyond physical damages at the community level, the financial losses also sum up to become a major part of losses, sometimes insured losses, sometimes a combination of insured and uninsured, unfortunately.
In addition, for a community, when we have housing damages and residential buildings are not habitable for a certain period of time, that means population loss for the community for short periods of time, or sometimes, many communities, as we have seen, will just struggle to restore their pre-disaster population for decades, or forever, because of the slow pace of restoring their housing. And finally, very, very importantly, it just speaks to some of the interdependencies that Dr. Mostafavi was just showing. The interdependencies between housing, as one sector, and the other sectors in the community means housing damages do have ripple effects and domino effects at the community scale way beyond housing, going into impacts on whether or not we have enough students and staff for our—in terms of teachers to reopen our schools after a disaster—many, many other interdependencies that we can talk about, also.
Then the second level of housing tolls would be the more tangible one—of course, the household level. For most families that do own a home or do pay rent on a monthly basis, housing is the biggest cost, the biggest investment that they make. So, loss of that housing means the loss of that big investment. Also, very, very importantly, here comes the more complex aspect of household-level impacts. For a household, a house is not just a physical thing. It’s not just a physical structure. A house is a home to a family, to a household. So, when you lose your shelter, when you lose your permanent home, that means you’re losing your stability in terms of your health, your access to your job, your access to school and many, many other services that are related to that stability of housing.
The next thing I want to talk about beyond just these tolls on—of hurricanes on housing has to do with the unfortunate fact of the inequalities of that toll—inequalities of the housing effects from hurricanes. There are three types of these unequal effects that we can—we need to pay attention to deal with those inequalities. Number one, when it comes to the physical, the most tangible aspect, the physical damages to housing, often, you see low-income people live in low-lying lands in low-quality housing that are not well maintained, that are not physically robust to withstand the hurricane—the different types of damages from hurricanes. So, there’s disproportionate impacts in that area. Number two, financial losses—the average—relative average amount of losses of the value of a home is significantly larger in average lower-income and low-value neighborhoods before disasters, partly because of the pace of recovery, partly because of the larger collective amount of losses that would occur with the same level of damages to low-income, lower-value neighborhood—houses in those neighborhoods. And number three, it comes to the interdependent—the domino effects. There are significant disproportionate effects of housing losses on households with respect to health impacts. Displacement from your house would have different health impacts depending on how much damages your house received, would have differential impacts on access to social networks, to income sources and to job opportunities, which are different along the socioeconomic lines. The important point here is to think about disproportionate housing effects from these hurricanes not just at the physical—in the physical aspect, but also in the financial, economic way, housing values and all of the other spillover domino effects in other aspects of life of a household.
So naturally, after this, we need to talk about recovery—restoring that very, very valuable asset of a household, namely, housing. We know from years of research, myself, and decades of literature before I even started doing this research, that housing recovery is a complex—very complex, very unequal and a very nonlinear process. Why is that the case with housing recovery? I want to start with my reasons because of the way national disaster recovery policy is set up. Our national disaster recovery policy is set up based on an assumption that is not actually true on the ground, the assumption that housing recovery is a market-driven process and the assumption that most of our houses are insured, which is not true after we see—given what we have seen. Community after community, there was very, very big unmet needs compared to what our disaster policy and assistance programs.
Number two, housing recovery is very unequal and complex and nonlinear because access to resources for repairing and rebuilding and reconstructing houses is very, very unequal. Access to private resources such as insurance, the quality of the insurance that households have as well as access to resources—to public resources are very, very differential. I’d be happy to give you more examples if those interest you in the Q&A. Number three, housing tenure—we know through repeated evidence and studies that renter households compared to owner households have very limited control, voice and say and agency in many factors that are related to their housing recovery, in factors such as maintenance and repairs before disaster, factors such as when to evacuate, when to come back, how long they would be displaced and so on and so forth. And, last but not least, perhaps maybe the most important and the most wicked part of these factors is the fourth one—growing inequalities in our society, also known as social vulnerability in the disaster studies. I want to highlight two points, two factors of social vulnerability—minorities and immigrants. We have seen many, many, many empirical studies that after disasters, when it comes to housing recovery, minorities, especially racial and ethnic minorities, do have way more limited access, much more limited access to resources, to decision-making processes and to information about housing recovery resources after disasters, which goes back to historical exclusions and marginalization but also lack of education and resources in our communities more recently.
And the other group that I wanted to highlight are the immigrants. The transient populations that are new in the community many of the times do have language barriers. And those language barriers, among other cultural unfamiliarities, does have very significant impacts on their access to information about resources, very importantly on how much they trust sources of information and sources of assistance and how quickly they act on information and available assistance before that window closes. And with this, I think I’m going to pause. And I’m very much looking forward to your questions.
RICK WEISS: Thank you, Dr. Hamideh—lots of difficult barriers there to recovery to talk about. We’ll move over now and hear from Dr. Cassandra Davis.
How hurricanes disrupt schooling
CASSANDRA DAVIS: Well, hello, everyone. Thank you so much for attending and are here and present to listen to this great conversation. Just a little bit, something about me—my name is Cassandra Davis. I’m an assistant professor here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of Public Policy. And so, just some things that I really focus on which I’m, like—I am taking notes on my two colleagues here that are providing such an interesting and also a part of the story. But my focus is—I focus on advancing opportunities for marginalized communities that are impacted by environmental disruptions. I am interested in the kind of social justice in emergency management, especially as our different agencies are thinking about equity in this space. I’m also interested in kind of really understanding more about how hazards are widening inequalities specifically for marginalized populations. And then lastly, the disaster recovery for schooling communities—so I define schooling communities as schools are in the center. And then just the houses, the students who attend it, the educators who are working there and the families of everyone that are situated near that school—what does disaster recovery look like for that group?
So, today I’m really going to touch on kind of three different points. My first point is, you know, looking at how hurricanes are disrupting schooling. And then I’m going to touch on the long-term impacts of hurricanes and then kind of follow up policy as policy goes, some practices and policy recommendations to support recovery. So, firstly, how hurricanes are disrupting our schooling—with a group of colleagues and myself, we conducted a study where we were interested in looking at how educators were talking about disruption. We find that in the literature, there is not that much information that specifically looks at from a schooling angle. If anything, we might see a little bit of talks about the emotional well-being of students, but that’s pretty much it. We don’t find information on how the storms are impacting them academically, behavior-wise, attendance-wise or even the educators themselves. So, we sought out to—we interviewed 115 educators that were in both North Carolina and Texas across 20 districts. And if you’re looking at this image, the blue bars or the bars on the left represent the educators from North Carolina. The yellow-orangish bars on the right are the educators that are representing from Texas. We essentially asked them, like, after a hurricane—so for North Carolina, it was Hurricane Matthew, and for Texas, it was Hurricane Harvey. We asked them, to what extent are these different things being severely impacted by your storms?
And we found really overwhelmingly a majority of educators in both North Carolina and Texas really talked about how their storms disrupted kind of the displacement of students, also the displacement of educators. We even found about a little bit more than three-quarters of educators in both states talked about how it impacted the actual structural building, their schooling building, and damages to the equipment. Some things that we noted was just the differences in the ways that educators spoke about these different topics. We found that within North Carolina, almost 90% of educators talked about how the storms had disrupted their transportation, their access, and we found a little bit over half of the educators in Texas. What we found from kind of digging a little bit deeper, we noted that the counties within Texas, some of them were identified as transitional counties that—or evacuation counties. So, they were essentially closed and shut down so that individuals can travel through. That was not the case in North Carolina. So, we found that educators were essentially scrambling to figure out ways to bring in students and to transport educators and people to the school. Another difference that we found is kind of in that personal disruption.
And this is something that my two colleagues were definitely talking about. I can mention that the counties in North Carolina were more rural. They were also counties that represented low-income households. The counties in Texas were counties that had a little bit more suburban, a bit more wealth, a bit more urban. And so essentially, having a bit more resources to then provide to the educators. So, it makes sense that we would see about half of our educators in North Carolina said that the storm had a severe impact to them, personally. On the long-term impacts of hurricanes, in another study, we were, again, interested in figuring out the extent that storms are impacting the academics and the behaviors of students. So, we wanted to first look at what does the—what do the student outcomes say? So, we looked at after Hurricane Matthew and then two years later, and we looked at the districts that were largely impacted by Matthew and then those districts that weren’t impacted at all so we could see the difference.
Overall, we found that students do not get back on track after a storm, which was really surprising. We found that specifically in elementary test scores, they continue to decline two years following Hurricane Matthew. In addition to looking at student outcomes, we also surveyed educators. We had about 4,000 responses. Educators were really interested in telling us their story, about 4,000 responses from about 15 districts in specifically North Carolina. And so, we asked them kind of their perceptions of how they believe that their students were academically on track. We found that 23% of the survey responses said that their students’ academic performance worsened over two years after Hurricane Matthew, which is interesting that a quarter of the survey respondents said that they had worsened, and the data is telling us that, overwhelmingly, especially for the elementary students, that their test scores continue to decline two years after. We also then wanted to look at the behavior. To what extent has the behavior changed? What we found in the data was that students were less likely to be suspended following a hurricane. However, when we interviewed the educators, about 12,000, little bit over—12,000—a little bit over 1,200 responded. And of that, 1.3%, or 17, stated that students’ behavior had improved since Hurricane Florence and Matthew.
This is also interesting. We’re finding that there are less indicators or notes about student suspensions and their behavior, but we’re also finding very few educators that are saying that students’ behavior actually improved following the disasters. Another thing we wanted to ask educators their perceptions of students’ overall recovery after Matthew two years later, and I’ll say we surveyed different types of educators. This is, again, 15 different counties within North Carolina. And almost half of those educators who were largely impacted by Hurricane Florence had said that their students had not recovered after Matthew, again, two years later. So, we stop and think about that, that Hurricane Matthew happened. A couple of years later, Hurricane Florence then happened. And educators—almost half, 1 in 2—were saying that—a little bit less than that—1 in 2 were saying that their students had not recovered from a storm that happened two years before that point. That’s troubling. What does that mean for schooling and education as a whole, especially for those schools and students and families that are impacted by repeated storms?
So, I’ll leave you with practices and policy recommendations to support recovery. This is based off of a number of studies, just kind of going through the notes, thinking about what my colleagues and I kind of come and our recommendations out. So, these are some of what—practices can schools use to assist with recovery. Our suggestion is, from the academic perspective, curriculum support for constrained instructional time. This was key. I’m sure that you all can imagine also hearing this absolutely through with COVID shutdowns. We found that whenever schools were closed for weeks or for even months, that educators needed to have and really requested for that support in how to get back on track academically because, in some places, we’re seeing a need to get students ready for—to take tests at the end of the year. Also, online instructional support. Number two, social, emotional—really having mental health specialists for educators and students. The literature is clear. Students—it talks a lot about the emotional needs for students. What we don’t see in the literature is an emphasis on the need for mental health specialists for those educators. In addition with that, staff training on how to deal with trauma inside schools.
Lastly, on a physical structure piece, recommendations on funding for school upkeep, as well as mold mitigation assistance. Last but not least, what policies can support schools to assist recovery? Academic flexibility with school testing and accountability. We found that teachers were burned out after an event, absolutely burned out. This is something that we can see today, where we’re hearing that teachers are leaving the field in droves, only thinking of another layer of adding, you know, besides the pressure of being within classrooms—I was a former classroom teacher myself—with the pressure of classrooms, all of these other pieces, but then putting on that layer of being hit by an event and then trying to navigate your way throughout that and support students. So, really, having flexibility with school testing and accountability. Addition—another one is social, emotional. Having that mental health specialist embedded within schools and communities. Some of the places talked about having support maybe two weeks after the storm, but we’re finding the need of having those mental health specialists for not just weeks, not just months, but years after. We had instances when students were being very emotional. It would start raining outside in April, and students would almost stop and be very emotional about it, thinking that a storm is going to come. Well, you know, hurricane season isn’t in April. Why would that happen?
The point is that these acts are triggering students and faculty members. So, having that mental health specialist embedded in schools and the communities is vital. Last but not least, physical structure. I’m sure my colleagues will definitely agree with this, but having affordable and clean long-term housing for displaced families and educators. It’s great to have a clean school. It’s great to have ready educators. But if students and if educators are not—don’t have a place to go home to or if they’re living in FEMA trailers that are really not meant for months of use, it’s really debilitating in terms of actually schooling for the students. So, those are some of my points. Thank you so much. I’m definitely here for any questions.
What is being done well in press coverage of these issues, and where is there room for improvement?
RICK WEISS: Fascinating. Amazing to think how long the repercussions of these things really do seem to go on and the need to keep that aid of various kinds going longer than, I think, a lot of people assume. So, a reminder to reporters—if you have questions, feel free to enter them through the Q&A icon at the bottom of your screen, and we will address those here. Meanwhile, I do like to start these Q&A periods on our briefings with a question from myself to get things started. And I’m going to ask each of you in sequence to talk directly to reporters here and relate something that either you think reporters in general have been doing well as they cover the aftermath of these kinds of disasters and/or something that you think there’s—where there’s room for improvement in the way these things are covered by journalists and journalism these days. And so, I’ll go back to you, Ali—we’ll switch to first names here and get casual—if you could address that question.
ALI MOSTAFAVI: Absolutely. I think one of the things that definitely reporters do very well is in the aftermath of these hazards and disasters, you know, there is very good coverage of infrastructure service disruptions. For example, power outage—everybody’s talking about it like right now in Puerto Rico and, you know, if there is a boil-water notice. But as you mentioned at the beginning, I think the duration that these, you know, problems are being talked about is shorter than the duration that these outages, you know, linger, and people experience the impacts. And more importantly, you know, we don’t continue reporting on the underlying, you know, causes that led to infrastructure vulnerabilities, right? So, for example, you know, we had a power outage in Texas because of the winter storm in 2021, which was catastrophic, highly inequitable. And there was a broad media coverage on that for one or two weeks. But then it stopped.
And then the question is, you know, what has the state and the power infrastructure owner and operators, ERCOT, and other agencies have done to mitigate those vulnerabilities in the future? I think if we don’t continue talking about our infrastructure vulnerabilities and just limit our discussions in the aftermath of the event in reporting the impacts and don’t pay enough attention to how we are addressing those vulnerabilities so that these impacts and service disruptions get—don’t get repeated or at least the impacts, you know, reduce for future events, and I think that’s an area that I think media reporters have—you know, can have a great role because, you know, their voice is heard by the public, and also it’s heard by decision-makers and policymakers. So, we don’t—you know, I have had some interactions with some really great media reporters on the power outage in Texas. But I think, you know, right now nobody’s talking about power outage vulnerabilities in Texas until the next hurricane is on their radar, right? So, we have to also think about, I think, talk more about our infrastructure vulnerabilities and, you know, make that on the forefront of, you know, people’s minds and policymakers’ and decision-makers’ minds so that they can address those issues, and those don’t go under, you know, the—you know, not become priority, you know, in the aftermath of events.
RICK WEISS: Yeah, it’s interesting. I have to wonder whether some of the issue is the structure of journalism itself because there are certain reporters who are chasing those storms and writing about the storms, and it’s often another branch of the newsroom that does accountability reporting or investigative reporting to really see about those underlying issues. And maybe there’s some more communication that needs to go on connecting those parts of journalism as well. Sara, over to you for the same question.
SARA HAMIDEH: Absolutely. To answer that question, let’s start with the good stuff. I think there are two things that reporters are doing well and increasingly better, as I have been watching it myself, especially in terms of housing. Number one, reporters paying attention to events, like Ali was saying, and to these disasters. I see an increasing recognition and awareness of linking these events to a bigger trend, being climate change—the frequency, the magnitude of losses, the magnitude of the catastrophes themselves. That is one of the really encouraging and transparent things that I’m seeing it’s happening.
The other thing that I see is happening that is encouraging, which falls in that area investigating reporting, as you would put it, Rick, has to do with these here-and-there reports that come out of looking at significant inequalities in how we are spending taxpayers’ money for these big disaster recovery programs and how unequal they are. Unfortunately, from assistance-providing agencies, we do not have household level data to systematically quantify the racial—different types of inequalities. But I have seen just a few, and I’m encouraged by those just a few, looking at trends of different types of households depending on their ZIP code aggregate. I know, but good start. And they are getting different levels of assistance. What is not happening, what they are not doing so well, which I think there is much room for improvement, are two other areas. Number one, I would put this under this bigger label of I wish, I hope that our news community would pay more attention, would get more interested not so much just in disaster events, but in disaster resiliency, if they get interested in disaster resiliency, study of infrastructure, which takes years, if not decades to study. And, I mean, tracking and—the study has to be our job. Tracking and reporting to the public by reporters of this years, if not decades of housing recovery would not stop a few weeks after a—catastrophic events.
And that, I think, speaks to a little bit of change of framing and change of interest or expansion of framing and interest from disaster reporting to resilience reporting. And that means, you wouldn’t leave these communities after just a few weeks. We are interested to see how the recovery is unfolding. There’s so much important and interesting material there to report on when it comes to all of these inequalities in displacement, in what happens to the populations who become homeless, moving across the state, so on and so forth. So, yeah, these are the two things that I see room for improvement.
RICK WEISS: Great. Thank you very much. And Cassandra.
CASSANDRA DAVIS: Yeah. So, I might have a—I have a different opinion, a different perspective. So, I absolutely, as a foundationally qualitative researcher, what—things that I really enjoy are the different stories and learning about different people. You know, I have—I am from Pittsburgh through and through, blue-collar town. I’ve lived overseas. But I think it’s a great job when I can learn about something that’s happening to someone in the middle of rural Kentucky. And I feel like the journalists really do a great job of capturing these stories and people in their places and providing the context of what’s happening to a person that I will likely never run into. So, I really want to commend you all with highlighting these different types of stories of different types of people and how they are faced with events and how they’re dealing with them.
One bit of perspective—again, as a qualitative person who’s very critical of certain things, words to me matter largely. I struggle with certain terms. Like, I struggle with the term resiliency. I do. I struggle with the term recovery. I even struggle with the term vulnerable when it’s placed as a noun. I guess my encouragement is from my perspective, it almost—it feels as if that—terrible situations can be wrapped up with—in a—with a bow. And unfortunately, the way that things are right now, as the data shows, as the data from all of us show that disasters are and hazards are widening inequalities of groups of people. So, I just—I would just be careful with the words—and being very intentional about words, as corny and cheesy as that sounds. But, yeah. No, I really enjoyed the stories. I would just be very particular and not wanting—I don’t know, like, wanting people to walk away feel-good. But sometimes we need to be enraged in order to really make change. So, yeah.
How do populations shift after a hurricane?
RICK WEISS: Yeah. That’s fascinating. Two things I’m picking up on here—you know, one is it is possible and, arguably in journalism, you know, advantageous to mix that personal—those personal stories with these sort of more objective research-backed—you know, hard research-backed quantitative work so that those stories get through to people. And I will admit personally here that I have issues sometimes with the term resilience or resiliency also. I don’t know if it’s quite the same issue. But it sometimes does seem to imply that it’s up to individuals to make sure that they can get through this and power through it, when we know—and I know that Sara has studied this closely—there is a whole federal recovery infrastructure that, as you alluded to, Sara, does not treat everybody fairly, is not equally accessible to everyone, is difficult to access, even if you are, you know, a native English speaker and a highly educated person. And if you are an immigrant with a language issue, you’re never going to get through to the bureaucracy to figure out how to get the help that you need.
So, there are some really deep-seated societal problems here that I agree would be wonderful for journalism to dig into. OK. So, with that, let’s get into some questions from journalists. We have a question here from Jamie Jiang, who’s a reporter at North State Public Radio, who says, I saw one claim somewhere that floods and hurricanes often result in immigration—that is, people moving into the area afterwards—as opposed to wildfires, which encourage out-migration and leave places maybe less inhabited. Does anyone have any evidence about whether this is true? Are there population shifts that you’ve heard about that might be different for different kinds of disasters?
SARA HAMIDEH: One thing I can say from my quantitative and qualitative studies of population displacement and especially housing after hurricanes and floods is that depending on what population, socioeconomic population groups or subgroups you’re talking about, we do see out-migration in the form of displacement, in the form of having to stay in temporary housing for a long time outside your own community. Unfortunately, it does happen for people who do not have a choice. The difference, I think—I think what this reporter has heard has to do with this—the fact that with hurricanes, with flood events, the majority of the infrastructure of the community would be in place, would be repaired at certain point and sometimes—depending on the amount of damages, comparatively—sometimes at a faster rate compared to wildfires.
And I’m thinking here about extreme cases, such as Paradise, Calif. Ninety percent of housing stock is just gone. And it takes a long time to restore all of that. So, there’s no place to come back to, even regardless of the existing inequalities. The other thing I also wanted to add in terms of immigration or moving within a community—lower-income migrants, minority households do move in together more often for a longer time when they have housing damages after disasters compared to middle-income, higher-income households, who can afford to and sometimes make the choice—having the choice is really the key word here—I want to emphasize that—have the choice to rent a place outside the affected community because they want to restore their daily routine faster. Like I said, it’s not just the house. It has connections to all the other services within a community. So, that could be also part of what this reporter is alluding to.
RICK WEISS: Interesting. Unless anyone else wants to chime in on that question, I will ask a question that—oh. Cassandra?
CASSANDRA DAVIS: Yeah. No. I will say really quickly—in some of our work that we’re finding to absolutely mirror what was just said is that we’re finding, especially in rural communities, that it’s not—there’s a question of like, why don’t people just kind of pick up and go and move? Well, in these—in certain cases, especially within low-wealth households, you might have your auntie living down the road, your grandmother living right next to you, or you’re living in a multigenerational home. So, it’s not a matter of me, being an individual person, leaving. It’s essentially leaving or stepping away from a community of people who’s probably my babysitter, who’s probably also helping me with food, who’s helping me in all these capacities. So, just leaving as an individual is something that’s just not possible or feasible, especially when we’re looking at—as we’re looking at certain communities, communities of color and lower-wealth communities.
How are rebuilding efforts after a hurricane coordinated and implemented?
RICK WEISS: Great. A question here that I think would be good for you, Ali—we often hear about utility workers coming to hurricane-damaged areas to help put that infrastructure back together. Who coordinates that, and does that work smoothly when you’ve got workers coming from all different places? And I—you know, maybe this also can bleed into a little bit of a discussion of what’s going on in Puerto Rico because supposedly they just had a rebuild of infrastructure there that does not seem to have held up very well. But does this work get done well and in a coordinated fashion, or is it a little bit haphazard?
ALI MOSTAFAVI: Well, I would say it depends on the extent of damages. Usually before the events, the utilities have some, you know, pre-stored equipment, and they have locations that the crews are ready to deploy. But if the extent of damages exceed the, you know, resources for which they have planned, you know, then there is a need for, you know, external support. And as we know, any type of coordination in the aftermath of hazards is challenging, not that it’s—you know, there is no intent for that to be done as smoothly, but it’s challenging because, you know, the teams have not worked together. There is no, you know, well-defined, you know, plan in place. So, it’s kind of—a lot of improvisation is happening. And improvisation in a decision-making and infrastructure restoration is an important aspect.
So, there is definitely need for improvement, especially in wider-spread damages, in the sense that how we prioritize restorations, how we better coordinate, you know, resources between different agencies coming from different locations and how we measure the coordination of success so that we can document it, you know, for, you know, planning for the next event, right? We always, you know, hear that every time a hurricane happens, they say, wow, we were caught off guard, right? So, we barely hear that, oh, we were prepared. We knew this would happen, and we did this, you know, to reduce the impacts as much as possible. So, these elements of, you know, surprise, you know, comes—it has some, you know, implications that we probably do not, you know, document lessons learned from previous disasters, right? And also, this is a tendency that we think that, you know, hey; we had an event, like, recently, so it’s not going to happen again, right?
And, you know, one thing that, you know, as a researcher of flooding makes me always, you know, concerned is I was in a meeting with several, you know, decision-makers and engineers in Houston. And somebody asked, who do think that—who do—how many of you think we will see another Harvey in our lifetime? And only a handful from hundreds of people raised their hands. Again, nobody can bet for that, right? But the idea that many of the decision-makers and peoples in the position of decision-making for infrastructure systems believe that we are not going to see another Harvey—well, it’s kind of concerning because again, if this happens, God forbid—hopefully it will never happen again. But, you know, then we, again, come and say we were caught off guard, right?
So, I think going back to the question of coordination, I think, you know, we need to better document lessons learned from coordinations after these events, especially for, you know, power restoration so that we can improve the coordination for future events. And talking to—at Fiona, I haven’t looked at our data today, but as of yesterday, still around 80% of the islands are shown to be without power, which is catastrophic knowing that Maria happened a few years ago. And this was a situation back then, and this had a number of years to do better.
Are there permanent community de-population effects from hurricanes?
RICK WEISS: Right—number of years. And it’s not like anyone in Puerto Rico would have said, we don’t expect another hurricane to hit us again ever. Of course not. Fascinating. So, here’s a question from David Mitchell from The Advocate in Baton Rouge. It talked—it borders along some of what we were talking about a little bit earlier. But are any of the panelists aware of research that has looked at permanent de-population effects from hurricanes, particularly in riverine areas that are not directly on the coast? We’re seeing some inklings of these population shifts in our area in Louisiana, and I’m interested if there has been any research in other communities.
SARA HAMIDEH: I can give you two examples. And it’s really sad to think that—I mean, I have been doing this research only 12, 13 years. I don’t count it as too long, but I can give you two very explicit examples that I have studied, sadly. This is not the entire community, but I think it’s important because it’s a really explicit marginalization. When Hurricane Ike happened in Galveston, Texas, 569 units in four complexes were decided to be demolished by the housing authority. And very, very quickly, very, very hastily, there was a commitment made to HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to rebuild the place one-for-one—those units one-for-one. It took four-plus years, very, very ugly and racially driven fights to block any replacement, even one unit of replacement. After four-plus years, very slowly, a small proportion of government assistance units were replaced in the form of mixed income in those neighborhoods.
And that is—that has been a big change. That means permanent displacement of a community, a community within a community. We are talking about 569 units. So, that’s one example. The other example—for the past few years, since 2016, I have been involved with this big center, Center of Excellence for [Risk-Based] Community Resilience Planning. And we have Lumberton for the study—Lumberton, North Carolina, after Hurricane Matthew and then, unfortunately, Hurricane Florence in 2018. So, we had the sample of 569 housing units. We go to them every year. We have done five waves of data collection with the same housing units so far. It’s clear, at this point, the trend. After the wave three, we said, yeah, it’s very clear. We have 100-plus houses—housing units that became vacant because of Matthew and remain vacant. They are—yes, they are somewhat scattered. But when you look at entire community, there are not that scattered. They are more or less concentrated in the—like what I had in my—one of my slides—lower-income, lower-lying, lower-maintained neighborhoods of Lumberton.
And since you asked, river flooding—yes. After Florence and Matthew, Lumber River, which goes through the city of Lumberton, did flood. And most of the lower-lying neighborhoods are, again, where some of the public housing complexes are located in. They ended up deciding not to repair any of the units in one of the big complexes because the elevation was so low—historically, elevation has been low. Historically, those complexes should not have been located in those lower-lying areas. But beyond public housing, there are also many private markets, housing that became vacant. And those populations have left and have not returned to the city.
How can reporters appropriately cover the challenges of schooling and education in the aftermath of a disaster?
RICK WEISS: OK. I know we’re running just short on time. We’re getting close to the top of the hour. I know some of our panelists have to leave pretty much on time. But I want to try to squeeze in one more question, a follow-up actually, from Jamie Jiang—it’s kind of interesting—from North State Public Radio, who says in terms of schooling, Cassandra, I’m curious about how you think reporters should cover the difficulty of schooling in the aftermath of a disaster. In some cases, we were told that the “inspiring,” quote-unquote, human interest angle that many reporters took of students recovering from this disaster actually made the students feel awful about not meeting that image of being resilient because they still felt terrible, I guess. What advice do you have for an education reporter covering a community that’s recovering from a disaster?
CASSANDRA DAVIS: I was actually typing my response to that question, but—so, again, it just goes back to my question is, who’s being inspired by the story? If the people who are inspiring are the viewers and not the actual people being interviewed, then it’s probably not a good idea to do it. What we’re finding, especially as we’re looking to marginalized populations who are impacted by these events, it’s a weathering. They’re constantly—you know, we had Matthew 2016. We had Florence 2018. It’s a constant—you’re constantly being reminded that you don’t have any resources, that you are, in some extent, not cared for, kind of left behind by your state or by whomever. So, I would just—I would be very—again, I kind of mentioned earlier, the word resilient makes me a little uncomfortable.
So, I would—as an educated—education reporter, what I’ve also found to be really useful is that we received, like I said in one study, over 4,000 responses from educators in North Carolina. We only open the survey up for a week. That’s unheard of. And we didn’t provide any incentives, which is a shame on us. But the idea is educators really want to tell their story. Community members really want to talk about their story, about what’s going on and the direction. And by framing it as if things are just positive and happy and we’re ready to send the story off in a bow, for a lot of disenfranchised communities, that’s more offensive and more harmful. So, I would—again, going back to just being careful with your words, really recognizing who’s being harmed in this process and who’s being helped, and being truthful and honest with that with your own self. Unfortunately, in this disaster, business is very—it can be a very oppressive and racist space. So, just really being mindful of our own actions—even as academic and researchers, being mindful of our own actions in this process as well.
What is one key take-home message for reporters covering this topic?
RICK WEISS: Fantastic warning there and admonition to be careful here. I know we’re just about out of time, so I want to do the last thing, which is just to ask each of you in just 20 seconds each, a little take-home message. You know, if there’s one thing you want reporters to walk away with today from the topic at hand, what’s that one thing you will leave them with? And I’ll go around in order and start with you, Ali.
ALI MOSTAFAVI: Sure. I would say my take-home message would be we need to better communicate our infrastructure vulnerabilities with the public and tell them about the different pathways that failures in infrastructure services may affect them so that they can be aware of them and also demand better infrastructure from their—you know—policymakers and decision-makers.
RICK WEISS: Yeah, maybe a part of this is to get some activism going. Interesting. Sara, how about you?
SARA HAMIDEH: My request would be please keep looking for and try to expose, please, the inequalities in how our public assistance, taxpayer-supported assistance, is discriminatory and is not serving who it is supposed to serve.
RICK WEISS: Great point. And Sara and I were talking a little bit earlier. It’s incredible. The alphabet soup of federal and state, you know, support agencies and how they operate—it’s a complicated, hard story for a journalist to dig into, but there are some great stories waiting for you in that space, reporters. Finally, for you, Cassandra.
CASSANDRA DAVIS: I had an idea, and then—I think I—something that I say a lot—we think that when a hurricane comes and goes and the ground is dry and things presumably feel like they’re back to normal, they’re mostly not – right?—especially for our marginalized groups. So, don’t forget about these different stories and how people are being impacted in these different ways whether it be infrastructure, housing or schooling.
RICK WEISS: Fantastic. I want to thank all of our panelists today for some really insightful, research-backed takes on what’s going on in the aftermath of these disasters. It’s so important to get this mix of human story, of social science, and of some of the hard, you know, facts on the ground of what’s going on. I really appreciate you taking the time to do that with us. Reporters, I think you have some great fodder for some wonderful stories here. As you do leave us today, please do check out the short survey at the end of this media briefing, just three questions to help us keep organizing these briefings for you in ways that are most useful to you. Also, please follow us on Twitter—@RealSciLine. Check out our website, sciline.org. Thanks to all of you for presenting and attending today. We’ll see you at the next SciLine media briefing.