The Long Road of Long-Term Recovery

August 2020 marks the three year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey hitting the Texas Gulf Coast. This anniversary means different things to different people. For some, it means remembering a time when communities came together in heroic ways. It is a time that can seem almost idyllic if not for the mass disaster. For others, it means marking time passed and movement towards more normalcy. This movement towards normalcy is one of recovering personal and economic losses and reestablishing rhythms of daily life that do not revolve around recovery. It means progress towards healing.

But then there are those among us who have spent the past three years drowning in the red tape of systems that if we are being honest, are intentionally designed for difficult navigation. It is important to note that the average FEMA payout per household for home repairs after Harvey was $4,203. FEMA estimated our unmet needs for our approximately 2,000 affected households in Wharton County at $11.5 million. That was the dollar amount needed after FEMA or insurance benefits. This dollar amount also does not take in to account the county’s economic impact. Or biopsychosocial impact on individuals and the community as a whole.

Wharton County has made great strides in long-term disaster recovery, but that means little to the families that still can’t live in their homes or do so at great health risk. It means little to the children and youth who are food and/or housing insecure and carrying the physical, mental and emotional burden of trauma. It means nothing to the parents who work full time jobs and spend what amounts to another whole job trying to figure out the next step in their recovery.

Over the course of this month, we will continue to unpack what long-term disaster recovery looks like in our community. We will unpack the long-term challenges and heartbreak of what it means to be affected by disaster. We will do so knowing that many people would rather forget the painful memory of Harvey. Even if the memory is painful, we ask that you not look away from the reality of the present. We hope that in shining a light on the realities of recovery, we will grow awareness of the need for whole community engagement. We believe the well-being of our community depends on it.


When Good Enough Isn’t Even Close

Hurricane Harvey Recovery Update: August will mark three years since the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Texas Gulf Coast. With a developing storm moving into the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward Matagorda Bay, we find ourselves watching the weather reports with
wariness and weariness. You see, some people are saying “I can’t take another disaster, we just finished recovering.” Others are saying “We haven’t even recovered yet” And others, due to lack of equity in a system already difficult to navigate, are still wading through red tape to try to figure out what a “recovered home” is going to look like. These three years have felt much like a running timeclock on how quickly the resources will disappear. And the truth is, they are mostly gone.

For those of you who don’t know how long-term disaster recovery works, when we talk about long-term recovery, we are talking about years. How many years depends on a lot of factors—such as magnitude of the disaster, availability of resources, advocacy for the community from elected officials, media coverage, etc. During and after Harvey’s impact, I have to admit, I cast a skeptical side eye at every person who earnestly said “I/we am/are in it for the long haul.” My skepticism was rooted in the knowledge of how complicated and draining long- term recovery work is. I knew that because I had been doing it for 18 months when Harvey hit. And I was tired—a weary in my bones kind of tired.

When people and agencies asked how long I thought it would take to recover our community after Harvey, I said five years. Many of them verbally committed to those five years. But the truth is five years in the recovery world does not feel like a normal five years. It feels like an eternity. And now with Covid-19 causing yet another disaster for communities impacted by Harvey, for many people still working recovery, three years is starting to feel like “good enough.” And maybe it is for those of us not affected. But for those survivors still navigating the recovery systems, our good enough is their heartbreak. It is their hopelessness.

In the Spring, philanthropic disaster organizations and foundations intentionally started focusing community support on the pandemic. And we are grateful. But we can’t forget that communities like Wharton that are still recovering from disasters already had elevated needs and lacked resilience. When we talk about COVID needs, we are also talking about disaster recovery needs. How we think about community needs matters. And how we intentionally respond matters even more.

Common Good in Uncommon Times

It seems fitting that our very first Hesed House blog is being written and posted during a disaster. Hesed House of Wharton exists because of needs that became evident during response and recovery efforts in multiple flooding disasters within our community. Disasters teach us a lot about individual and communal vulnerability, as well as resilience. Hesed House is here because we believe in the ability to increase personal and communal resilience in times of disaster–whether personal or communal, and in times of calm.

Yes, this pandemic is a public health and economic disaster. For families that have had to close the doors of a small business or for those who have experienced loss of employment, you are bearing the burden of an unknown economic future.  There is loss of life and livelihood, and there is nothing to point at to say, “See, that’s what did it.” or “Look at this rubble of my home, that is my loss.” This is new territory. For people who regularly respond to disasters, this is unprecedented and requires us to shift the way we think and act. In most disasters, we often see regular people act in ways that are of benefit to neighbor and the common good. That ability to act is also what helps people cope when the unimaginable is happening. We make sense of situations by acting in some way. We ask questions like: What can I do? And then we act. We run toward the hurt and by providing help, we also heal.

Right now we have responders in this crisis who are essential. They have to provide transportation, resources, care, or public service. They are acting in ways that are exhausting and heroic–ways that would have gone virtually unnoticed before. Watching this action from afar can make other people feel helpless. And possibly also frustrated, afraid, angry, sad, ashamed, and hopeless. For those of us “Safer at Home,” this feels like inaction. Impotence. 

But what if there is not an either/or? What if we shifted the way we think about self-isolating and sheltering in place as radical action rather than inaction. What if we began to understand solitude and stillness as action that is not simply of benefit to ourselves, but also the common good.

Yes, we need to do what we can to make sure we are prepared. But we can choose not to listen to our panic or that of others. We can listen to voices we trust and in which we can find comfort. We can also choose to accept that right now, we can’t change this situation. We can only act in a way that mitigates the damage. And we can learn something. What if we sat with our physical, mental, and emotional discomfort and asked what it can teach us? Maybe in the interest of common good, we can get alone, be still, and there in the silence, find a depth of peace that we haven’t previously needed or allowed ourselves to find within ourselves. And in doing so, we can increase our personal resilience. 

Maybe the first connection we can make is with our ourselves and if we can get outdoors, we can connect with creation. We can connect with loved ones in creative ways. And in making these deeper connections, we can grow in our understanding that we are ALL intimately connected whether we are together or apart. Maybe our heroism and radical action is in being right where we are willingly and fully. 

Do we need people? Of course. And in times like this, we need good tools for coping. You aren’t alone. Hesed House of Wharton has resources to help you cope and we would love to visit with you or someone you know who might be struggling. You can call us at 979-531-3030 or email us at hesedhouse.wharton@gmail.com