How Hurricane Ian and other disasters are becoming a growing source of inequality – even among the middle class

Anna Rhodes, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Rice University and Max Besbris, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Conversation on

Published in Business News

This is what motivated us to examine recovery in Friendswood, a middle-class, majority-white suburb outside of Houston that flooded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. We interviewed 59 households multiple times over two years after the storm to understand the recovery process and the financial consequences of disaster for residents in a well-resourced place.

After Harvey, we found that Friendswood residents were on three different recovery trajectories.

About 47% of the households we interviewed two years after the storm had fully recovered – some had even grown their net worth. A second group, making up just under a quarter of our sample, was mostly recovered, with some repairs remaining but most of the work completed. In this group, many were likely to have new outstanding debts taken on during the repair process. A third group of residents, around 18%, was still living in homes without complete walls or floors – repairs they were uncertain they would ever be able to afford. And a small percentage had moved after the storm.

Pre-flood advantages like having a higher income certainly helped determine which group households ended up in. Residents with more financial resources before Harvey tended to fare better than their less-well-off neighbors.

But we also found that a few additional factors played a key role in determining whether a given household had completed repairs.

One of the most important was flood insurance. We know from past research that higher-valued homes are more likely to be insured. We found this to be the case in Friendswood as well.


When Harvey hit, insured households were eligible for payouts of up to $350,000, while households without insurance were eligible for FEMA aid capped at only $33,300. In other words, insured households, who tended to be financially advantaged before the storm, could get around 10 times more than the uninsured.

While uninsured households could apply to the Small Business Administration for low-interest home repair loans, not all disaster-affected residents were deemed eligible. And we found that many who did take out an SBA loan ended up with over $100,000 in new debt.

One year after Harvey, when a resident had to start repaying her SBA loan, she told us that it made a big dent in her family’s monthly budget – “That’s a $400 payment every month that we have to make,” she said. “So, I mean, it’s just tight.”

Another key factor in recovery was assistance from social networks. This included cash donations, labor and building materials to help repair homes, child care and food preparation, as well as emotional support that came from family, friends, neighbors and other community groups that people were connected to.


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