Opportunity in the Midst of Disaster

In the wake of hurricanes in Texas and Florida comes possibility of righting past inequities during redevelopment, says Fletcher alumna
damaged road in Florida
“Issues like transit, housing costs, land use, and density are policy choices that communities may have more latitude to address in the aftermath of a disaster,” said Sarah Labowitz. Here, a road in Big Pine Key, Fla., on Sept. 17. Photo: J.T. Blatty/FEMA
September 19, 2017

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Sarah Labowitz, F09, wasn’t supposed to be facing down a hurricane in Houston. She had hoped to be working for the first female president in U.S. history—her former boss at the State Department. But after Hillary Clinton lost her bid for the White House, Labowitz moved from New York City to Texas this spring to be near friends and family—and soon found herself on the front lines of a disaster.

An expert on supply chains and business ethics, particularly regarding low-wage apparel workers in South Asia, Labowitz co-founded and for four years co-directed the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. Before that, she worked on cyber issues and human rights at the State Department.

Sarah Labowitz, F09, right, and Erica Bauer Nevas, F09, volunteered in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah LabowitzWhen Harvey descended on Houston in late August, Labowitz was lucky—her neighborhood didn’t flood. She volunteered to help with relief efforts, bringing along both her organizing acumen and her expertise on social inequality and ethical investment. Working at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which housed about 10,000 people at the height of the storm, she organized the ad hoc volunteer network that helped staff the shelters and establish systems to distribute donated goods. 

As the floodwaters receded in Texas, and communities in Florida and the Caribbean assessed the damages left in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Tufts Now caught up with Labowitz to discuss natural disasters and how our responses to them can provide opportunities to address inequality.

Tufts Now: You’ve said that storms like Harvey in Houston, and the recovery efforts that follow, can either make previously existing inequality in communities worse or can help tackle those problems. How is that?

Sarah Labowitz: With a huge infusion of federal, state, and philanthropic spending, disasters are an inflection point for communities. Naturally, there are lots of interests and entities that seek to benefit from that money. The question is, who’s first in line? Real estate developers or low-income communities? Of course you need developers to rebuild, but you also need safe and affordable housing for communities that are most affected by the intersection of poverty and natural disasters. 

Both Houston and Tampa have been characterized by almost limitless growth over the last half century. Mimi Swartz and Dexter Filkins each wrote beautiful essays last week about this phenomenon in their respective childhood homes in Texas and Florida. Cheap housing is one of the appeals of both states. It’s what makes Houston a city of opportunity. But the question now is how growth can be sustained in these ecosystems, while addressing the challenges presented by the storms, like flooding, land use, and inequality. 

How does disaster aid fit into that equation?

There’s one model where disaster recovery money simply replaces every flooded home or broken reservoir with a new one, with the straightforward goal of getting to status quo ante. 

There’s another model where communities use the transformational level of resources to consider how they grow and organize themselves. They create incentives to reduce environmental impacts and address things that exacerbate inequality. For example, strong public transportation networks are important for people to get to work without a car. This is especially true when the cheapest housing is far from areas with high concentrations of jobs. Issues like transit, housing costs, land use, and density are policy choices that communities may have more latitude to address in the aftermath of a disaster. 

What have you seen in relief and recovery efforts in Houston that’s positive?

Pretty much everyone gives Houston an “A” for how it responded in the immediate aftermath of the flood. City officials have been strong leaders, search and rescue efforts saved thousands of lives, and the community came together to support evacuees in all kinds of ways.

Not to say that any of that was easy. Like a lot of my friends and neighbors here, I’ve never been more exhausted—physically, intellectually, and emotionally—than at the end of that first week after it started raining. But the answers are more clear at the height of a crisis: get your neighbors to safety, give people food and shelter, “muck and gut” flooded homes, extend kindness and grace to strangers. 

What needs to happen next?

That’s the hard part: making policy choices about how to rebuild. For a lot of us, Katrina is the vivid image of disaster relief in America. But the country has come so far since then in how it responds to disasters.

After Sandy, for example, then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan chaired a multi-state regional task force to coordinate resources, listen to affected communities about how they wanted to rebuild, and develop a recovery plan. Sandy recovery is not yet complete and by no means perfect, but it shows that there’s a way of organizing resources and hearing from communities themselves about how they want to rebuild.

Harvey and Irma will be a new test for federal, state, and local governance in a fraught political climate. So far, political leaders are emphasizing cooperation, coordination, and a get-things-done attitude. That’s a hopeful sign, and one that I hope will be sustained on the long road ahead for both Texas and Florida. 

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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