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

In some cases, this assistance was robust enough to help flooded residents fully repair their homes even when they did not have significant financial resources of their own.

For example, one older Friendswood resident, despite not having insurance, was one of the first in her neighborhood to move back into her repaired home because her brother provided building materials, financial assistance and labor.

“My brother fronted the cost for me until FEMA came through,” she told us, adding, “Had it not been for my brother, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Other residents relied heavily on networks through church, work or their children’s schools for help rebuilding. But not everyone was connected to a broad network that could provide support.

Many of the residents who still had major repairs left two years after Harvey tended to be in the lowest-income brackets and those without robust social networks.

They also typically did not have flood insurance or access to an SBA loan to help cover repair costs. Some of these households applied for SBA loans but were denied. SBA determines eligibility based on a number of factors, including credit scores and ability to repay, which means that some households with the greatest need for assistance are denied loans. With access to fewer financial resources, most in this group had relatively little room in their budgets and were uncertain when, or if, they would ever be able to complete these repairs.

Social scientists refer to this as the “Matthew Effect” – a term that captures the pattern when those who already have advantages tend to accumulate more, while the disadvantaged fall further behind. This creates a growing disparity between the advantaged and disadvantaged during the recovery process.

To avoid these problems, we believe policymakers could do more to inform homeowners of their flood risks and available insurance options. But the U.S. cannot insure its way out of this problem.


We believe it’s also important to support and expand managed retreat policies, which provide resources for residents and communities to move away from the most vulnerable places. In addition, the U.S. could design more equitable approaches to disbursing FEMA aid and SBA loans to ensure low-income and nonwhite households have better access. This would help minimize the inequalities that emerge both within and between communities in the wake of disaster.

Even in a middle-class community like Friendswood, which seemed well positioned to recover from disaster, residents still fell through the cracks.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Anna Rhodes, Rice University and Max Besbris, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like this article? subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Read more:
Hurricane Ian flooded a hospital and forced evacuations from dozens of nursing homes – many health facilities face rising risks from severe storms

Recovering from disasters: Social networks matter more than bottled water and batteries

Anna Rhodes receives funding from the Russell Sage Foundation.

Max Besbris receives funding from the Russell Sage Foundation.


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