How can real-time feedback from survivors shape recovery? Looking back at Winter Storm Uri.

Photo by Donald Allen on Unsplash

This week, Harris County’s Community Services Department and Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research published the Harris County Winter Storm Uri Resilience Assessment, a research report highlighting the effects of Winter Storm Uri on Harris County residents. With its 9,000 survey responses, researchers used Connective’s Winter Storm Survey Assessment as a primary data resource for their analysis, as well as ReadyHarris survey and FEMA data. According to the report, the storm’s prolonged presence over Harris County affected wealthy and low-income residents differently.

The report finds that while both wealthy and low-income households suffered burst pipes and floods, “the worst damages fell on the poorest residents, as is the case with all weather disasters.”

Poorer areas of town with older homes (and older pipes) tended to have a larger share of reported Winter Storm damages — as well as a larger share of renters, who usually fare worse in storms.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, surveys like this allow us to understand who was most impacted, which ZIP codes have the most need, and what kinds of assistance to provide (home repair, food distribution, mental health services, etc.) Then, we work with funders and our partners to design recovery programs for their specific needs.

Our Data Process

After each community disaster, we release a needs assessment survey to determine the most pressing needs of residents. Survey results inform our response to the disaster–what resources to advocate for, how to best distribute them, and where to focus our efforts. Absorbing real-time feedback gives us a clear picture of what people need and lets us serve them more equitably.

We also perform related qualitative research, like focus groups and informal surveys. Some of our most insightful findings come from listening carefully to long-term residents who know their communities best.

Those long-term residents helped us understand the effects of compounding disasters for Build With Us!, our human-centered research report focused on Harris County residents impacted by COVID-19. Through this research, we learned that disasters are becoming more frequent and their strength more unpredictable: each household has experienced an average of 2.2 storms since 2000. Understanding Houston research supports this finding. Their data on natural disaster risks in Houston notes that 26 federally declared disasters have affected the Greater Houston area in the past 41 years and that eight of those have occurred since 2015. Many of these disasters are not hurricane-adjacent but rather a direct result of climate change.

History of Disasters in the Greater Houston Area, 1980–2021, Understanding Houston 2021.

Winter Storm Uri

When last year’s Winter Storm dissipated, our assessment data told the story of widespread power outages, a litany of home damage, and an urgent need for the basics — food, water, and temporary shelter– less than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the data showed that we were vastly underprepared. The state power grid was ill-equipped for such high demand, and most area homes were not built nor maintained to sustain such low temperatures, which led to more than 40 deaths in Harris County.

Our survey results showed that 61% of respondents did not have any form of homeowners or renters’ insurance. This large percentage of underinsured residents confirmed a need for home repair and reimbursement assistance–folks who had depleted savings to make emergency repairs could not often quickly replenish the lost funds. Unemployment rates from COVID-19 also remained high in early 2021, affecting people’s ability to support their households. So, with disasters piling up, how would we know what problem to address first?

Our data helped prioritize our community’s needs and informed a swift response to the Winter Storm. The Winter Storm Relief Fund, a joint effort between the City of Houston, Harris County, United Way of Greater Houston and the Greater Houston Community Foundation, offered home repair and reimbursement assistance to households that survey data flagged as most in need. As a result, over 1,200 households received repairs, and the Fund granted over $7 million in aid since March 2021.

At Connective, we know that the future holds unpredictable and destructive weather patterns that will catastrophically affect our community. More frequent storms mean less time to bounce back, rising debt, and loss of social capital.

Many of the resident insights in Build With Us show the long-term effects of compounding trauma that multiple disasters bring. Half of the families impacted by past storms dipped into savings or borrowed money to get back on their feet, affecting their ability to prepare for the next disaster adequately. Therefore, investing in reducing our risk to these inevitable future climate threats is essential. Blue-sky planning is vital to disaster services, and using trauma-informed strategies will improve recovery efforts.

As we reflect on the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri, we’re also reflecting on our work since then to improve our response efforts. We know that continuously collecting qualitative and quantitative data after disasters grants us a comprehensive picture of our community and its needs. Prioritizing a human-centered approach to data collection is vital to deeply understanding and providing for our communities.

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