Profiles in Recovery and Rebuilding: Habitat for Humanity of Jefferson County
By Monica Gonzalez, Senior Program Director, Gulf Coast
In 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria wrought destruction across communities from the Gulf Coast to Puerto Rico, disrupting lives and destroying homes. As part of our recovery and rebuilding work, Enterprise created the Enterprise Hurricane Community Recovery Fund to support short-term relief and longer-term efforts in the most heavily damaged areas.
This is our fourth post in a Q&A blog series with leaders from nonprofits that received funding support to serve low-income residents displaced by the storms. Previously, we've talked with Lucha Contra el SIDA (LUCHA), The Alliance for Multicultural Community Services and Centro Campesino Farmworker Center, Inc.
- Organization: Habitat for Humanity of Jefferson County
- Location: Beaumont, Texas
- Grant amount: $30,000
Founded in 1978, Habitat for Humanity of Jefferson County is the nation’s sixth oldest Habitat affiliate. The organization serves the Coastal Plain region of Southeast Texas and has built over 122 homes for more than 500 people.
What were the needs following Hurricane Harvey?
Miriam Morgan, Executive Director: In the Golden Triangle – the Texas cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange – 63 percent of homes were damaged. There was nowhere to go. One-hundred miles in each direction, homes were damaged, and people were displaced. There was a lack of alternative or temporary housing due to the devastation from Harvey. Immediately after the storm, it was about helping people muck and gut their homes to prevent further damage. It was also making sure people had food, water and the basics.
How did Habitat get involved?
MM: This was not our first time doing disaster recovery work. In 2005 after Hurricane Rita, and then in 2008 with Hurricane Ike, we were involved in disaster recovery work in our area but it was different. Rita and Ike were windstorm events so we were building new homes. But Harvey was a flooding event. This was our first time dealing with flooding, and mucking and gutting. There are more issues to consider with rehabs.
As Harvey was happening, I was able to evacuate but I was getting calls from homeowners who were calling for help due to the flooding. They were not in a floodplain so this was unexpected. Thirty-eight Habitat families were displaced along with so many others in the community. We had to jump right into disaster recovery mode.
What were the biggest challenges in getting recovery started?
MM: Because we hadn’t dealt with a flooding event, figuring out how to approach it, staffing up and getting contractors were our biggest challenges. It has been difficult finding qualified construction staff to assess projects and lead volunteers. There is a shortage of contractors since there is so much damage throughout the region. Attracting and maintaining volunteers has been an issue since we didn’t have a place to house them.
With so much housing damage, places where we normally housed volunteers like churches were not an option because they were dealing with their damage and clean-up. We just didn’t have the housing stock or option to house volunteers.
Where have you made progress?
MM: We have helped 38 families get back home and another 30 homes are in progress. Staff was also affected but now they all have stable housing – some were living in cars but still coming to work. We have had to staff up to support our disaster recovery work. Before Harvey hit, we had seven employees, including our ReStore staff, and now we are up to 19 and are recruiting an additional six AmeriCorps positions. Staff is fully trained and we have a disaster recovery plan for when this happens again.
What needs to be done now?
MM: We need capacity building, especially for doing repairs in rural areas. There really isn’t another organization doing the work in this area. We have staffed up but could use additional staff to support our work and make sure rural areas are being supported. Enterprise was one of our first funders after Harvey and helped us get started but we have maxed out our funding resources. Plus, we have to make sure our staff doesn’t burn out. Many are dealing with their own recovery and this is going to be a long process.
What is needed to protect your communities from the next storm?
MM: We need to do a better job of educating residents so they can be prepared. Our community does have flood protection to handle large amounts of rain. However, we must educate residents on the value of flood insurance to protect their property, and on making responsible choices when building, and the importance of where to build and elevating. Many of the families affected by Harvey didn’t have flood insurance.
We need to make sure they are not caught off guard again. A key part of our recovery work is to require homeowners maintain flood insurance for at least five years after we repair their homes.
What have you learned from this experience?
MM: To always expect a disaster. We had gotten complacent. We had a disaster plan after Rita so we were ready when Ike happened. But it had been such a long time between disasters, we just hadn’t thought about it. We forgot to plan. When Harvey hit, we didn’t have a plan or budget for it. We are not a disaster recovery agency but going forward we have a disaster recovery plan in place. We don’t want to be caught off guard again and not have any funds or resources in place to get to work immediately after a storm.
As we put together our strategic plan and budget, we will incorporate disaster recovery/preparedness going forward. We need to be more prepared – and always keep in mind disasters can happen.