When Disaster Strikes A deadly tornado ripped through Lee County Alabama this past Sunday. An NPR investigation found that white Americans and those with safety nets often receive more federal dollars after a disaster than people of color and Americans with less wealth.
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When Disaster Strikes

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When Disaster Strikes

When Disaster Strikes

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

A deadly tornado with 170-mile-per-hour winds ripped through Lee County, Ala. this past Sunday.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: At least 23 people were killed in Beauregard, Ala., where the county sheriff says it looks like someone took a giant knife and scraped the ground.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And on Monday morning, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey got a phone call.

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KAY IVEY: About 8:15, President Donald Trump called my cellphone wanting to know about the devastation.

DEMBY: During a press conference, Ivey said she told the president there was a lot of property damage in her state and a tragic loss of life.

MERAJI: She also told Trump she was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get him to expedite aid for recovery.

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IVEY: And we'd sure appreciate your support.

MERAJI: Soon after, the president tweeted, FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A-plus treatment to the great state of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the tornadoes.

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MERAJI: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: Maybe you're wondering what disaster recovery in Alabama has to do with race. Well, a lot, if federal disaster aid programs have anything to do with it. An NPR investigation found white Americans and those with safety nets often receive more federal dollars after a disaster than people of color and Americans with less wealth. We came to that conclusion after months of reporting and an analysis of previously unreleased FEMA data.

DEMBY: In Lee County, Ala., where tornadoes just reduced homes to splintered wood and to rubble, 70 percent of the population is white, and 23 percent is black. The story you're about to hear can serve as a case study on what may happen there.

MERAJI: It comes to us from NPR's Rebecca Hersher, who worked on the NPR investigation into federal disaster aid. And she's been on the CODE SWITCH podcast before, so you've heard her. And this time Rebecca takes us to Houston, Texas, and introduces us to two families - one black, one white - who lost everything after Hurricane Harvey.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The two families are the Papadopouloses...

JOHN PAPADOPOULOS: OK. John Papadopoulos. And I live on 10723 - well, lived, right? Yeah - 10723 Bayou Glen Road.

HERSHER: John is a family guy - two kids, a wife, works at Microsoft. The second family is the Evans family. Janice Perry-Evans has three kids, works at the post office.

JANICE PERRY-EVANS: I love my job. I'm one of them people that - them rare people that love their job. (Laughter) You know, sometime we make people day.

HERSHER: Janice and her family rent a house on the east side. John and his wife own their house on the west side. They bought it back in 2007. And within a couple years, the floods began.

PAPADOPOULOS: So our house (laughter) - so we flooded four times in a decade. You know, so our house flooded in '09 and then 2015 and 2016.

HERSHER: And then the big one - August 2017.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Good morning, everyone. Let's get straight to the breaking news - Harvey provoking an unfolding flooding disaster in America's fourth-largest city, Houston, Texas.

HERSHER: The morning the storm arrived, both families woke up to more than a foot of water in the house. John and his wife carried their sleepy children to a neighbor's house, and they eventually went to a hotel. Janice's family waded through chest-deep water until they were rescued by a dump truck. They ended up at the convention center downtown. Both of their homes were destroyed.

PAPADOPOULOS: My house was - it looked like a washing machine inside. I mean, we lost 99 percent of everything.

PERRY-EVANS: If you guys had seen what the neighborhood looked like, we lost all that in just one day. We lost everything.

HERSHER: And when families lose everything in disasters, they turn to the federal government for financial help. But when the Evans and Papadopoulos families started applying for federal aid, they had radically different experiences, experiences that are emblematic of a trend - widening inequality after disasters exacerbated by federal disaster spending. We'll start with the Papadopoulos family. Right away, a lot of things went right for them. John's job was really helpful.

PAPADOPOULOS: I didn't have to use any time off. Technically, my manager was like, don't even worry about it, man. Just take care. We got you.

HERSHER: With John's wages secure, they turned their attention to applying for federal money. First, they applied online for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA. FEMA gives grants. The money doesn't have to be paid back. The Papadopoulos family got $30,000 because they owned a home that had been destroyed. The second place they applied was the SBA, the Small Business Administration.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the wake of a disaster, SBA provides low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes and private nonprofit organizations.

HERSHER: The Papadopoulos family got a $25,000 low-interest loan. A few weeks after the flood, the family moved into a temporary rental house. But there was still the question of what to do with the flood house, as their 6-year-old calls it - repair it? Sell it?

PAPADOPOULOS: I ain't touch the house for months. I just left it there full, the whole bit. That water sat in there for two weeks. I'm not bringing kids into it. The heavy metals alone, you're not going to Febreze or bleach them out of that wood. (Laughter) I don't care what you think.

HERSHER: In the end, the money from FEMA helped them pay to knock the house down. And there is one more longer-term way that FEMA could help. The family has applied for a buyout. They want the federal government to buy their empty lot and turn it permanently into open space.

So you still own the lot?

PAPADOPOULOS: I do.

HERSHER: The local flood control district says it's likely that properties like theirs will get offered buyouts eventually, if the owners can wait until the money is available, which could take years. But the Papadopoulos family can wait. They're doing OK financially. They're looking for a new house to buy.

Meanwhile, the Evans family has had a totally different experience. For the first few days after the storm, the family slept at the convention center. And as the relief at surviving wore off, Janice had one big concern.

PERRY-EVANS: My main thing was I had nowhere to lay - for these kids to lay their head. That bothered me so much.

HERSHER: So when her co-worker offered a spare room, she took it. Even though it was one room for the whole family, even though when she put food in the refrigerator, it disappeared somehow, even though it was a 45-minute drive from her kids' school and from her work, and her car had been destroyed in the flood, she took the room because she felt like she had nowhere else to go. And then, like the Papadopoulos family had, she started asking the government for help.

PERRY-EVANS: I applied for everything. And they gave me - the first time, they gave me $2,666 to get somewhere to live.

HERSHER: Two thousand six hundred sixty-six dollars specifically for housing. In Houston, it would have been enough to cover a deposit and first month's rent on a new place. But Janice needed that money for something else.

PERRY-EVANS: I had to go to work, and I had to get the boys back and forth to school. So I took that and put it for a car.

HERSHER: She used the money for a car. And then, with her immediate transportation under control, she called FEMA back to see about applying for more money, for housing - and got reprimanded.

PERRY-EVANS: When I talked to one of the representatives, that's what they told me. They were - some of them was kind of rude. Some of them felt sorry for me because I would be crying. I would be crying about, hey, I have nowhere to go. I don't have no money. You guys - you're not helping me like I thought I was going to get the help that I was going to get.

HERSHER: FEMA gives grants for specific uses so it can keep track of who's been paid for what. That money was supposed to be for housing. The system was too rigid to handle Janice using it for something else. FEMA didn't bar her from reapplying for housing money, but after the scolding, she did not reapply. And this entire time, Janice never missed a shift at the post office. Often, she worked six days a week. But her paycheck just wasn't cutting it, and her co-worker said the family needed to move out. So she applied for a low-interest SBA loan.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: SBA will conduct a credit check before scheduling an on-site inspection to determine your total verified losses.

HERSHER: Janice says when they checked her credit score, it was too low. She didn't qualify. Time was running out. A FEMA representative suggested she see about getting help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which required using her day off to go to an informational class. But she says she didn't qualify for that either because her income was too high.

PERRY-EVANS: It was like every time I tried something, it was a obstacle in the way.

HERSHER: Six months after the flood, Janice did the only thing she felt she could - she moved into a rental house that's more expensive than her old place and smaller. And the Evans family is not alone.

KATHY PAYTON: Recovery for vulnerable families look a lot different than it does for more affluent neighborhoods.

HERSHER: Kathy Payton is the executive director of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation in East Houston, just a couple miles from where Janice lives. She says she's watched low-income families struggle to apply for federal aid because of all of the barriers that Janice ran into and more.

PAYTON: They don't always have all the paperwork. They don't always have a tax return. They don't always have the last two pay stubs. They don't always have driver's license. They don't always have all of these things.

HERSHER: As a result, Payton says she's watched richer, whiter parts of Houston recover more quickly. Private insurance accounts for some of that, but she thinks it's also because they were more successful at getting federal money. And national research backs that up.

Junia Howell is a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Howell is one of a handful of researchers who are taking a close look at who gets public money after disasters and who doesn't. And a pattern is emerging - after disasters, rich people get richer, and poor people get poorer, especially when the federal government steps in.

JUNIA HOWELL: We see these same patterns of wealth inequality being exacerbated in communities that receive more FEMA aid. But that's particularly true along racial lines, along lines of education, as well as home ownership versus renting.

HERSHER: Richer people, white people, they're more likely to be homeowners, and those same people are more likely to get aid after a disaster, in part because of programs like buyouts that specifically help homeowners who have lost their houses. Poorer people, people of color, people who are more likely to rent, people arguably who need cash the most after a major disaster, are less likely to get it from the federal government.

NPR analyzed more than 40,000 FEMA records from one federal disaster aid program, home buyouts, like the one the Papadopoulos family are hoping to get, and the one the Evans family doesn't qualify for. We found that most of them were in neighborhoods where the population was more than 85 percent white. David Maurstad runs the buyout program for FEMA and says it's working as designed. He says every potential buyout is assessed using the same basic criteria.

DAVID MAURSTAD: Buyouts have to be technically feasible. They have to be cost-effective. They need to be aligned with providing risk reduction for the community.

HERSHER: Last year, Congress agreed to increase FEMA's funding for so-called risk reduction. But it's largely up to local governments how to use that money - for example, to build flood walls, update drainage.

MAURSTAD: I think a general conclusion would be there'll be more buyouts. But, I guess, that's what - you know, we'll see how that unfolds in the future.

HERSHER: Sociologist Junia Howell says that trend is a wake-up call.

HOWELL: It's disturbing - like, deeply disturbing that we are spending billions of dollars a year. And those billions of dollars are adding to our inequality and, to me, calls for a deep reinvestigation into FEMA aid.

HERSHER: If inequality is being exacerbated a little bit now, she says, it will be exacerbated a lot more in the future. Climate change is driving more extreme rain in most of the country, which means more and more flood risk, which could mean more families like John's and Janice's. Take John. Within a year after the flood, his family was fine.

PAPADOPOULOS: I still got money in my pocket. You know, I'm not looking for a bunch of the handout stuff. I had some. I didn't like it, (laughter) really.

HERSHER: It being specifically federal disaster aid. When he looks at all the federal help his family has gotten since the storm, he is grateful and a little uncomfortable because he knows that other families have not gotten the same leg up, families like the Evans.

PERRY-EVANS: So it's a struggle now. It's really a struggle now to stay afloat. I went to a bankruptcy lawyer. And I paid them to pay it down. I'm going to go ahead and file bankruptcy and get rid of some of this debt.

HERSHER: If the storm hadn't happened, do you think you'd be facing bankruptcy?

PERRY-EVANS: No, 'cause it wasn't that bad.

HERSHER: It's not just the storm itself. It's everything that's happened since - the higher rent, the new car payment, the hours and hours spent filling out applications for money, most of which, it turned out, wasn't meant for families like hers. And Janice's job as a mail carrier means she sees a lot of other neighborhoods. She's watched other areas, other families, recover more quickly.

PERRY-EVANS: And that's where the money went to, to out there - rich people. It's not fair. But, you know, that's just how America is. It's not right. But most of the time, white people get the advantage before we do anyway. So it's like we already know (laughter). That's just how it work.

HERSHER: If she'd gotten more money, she says, she would've moved - bought a house on higher ground.

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MERAJI: That was NPR's Rebecca Hersher reporting from Houston, Texas. And you can search for FEMA buyouts in your zip code or any other part of the country by going to npr.org.

DEMBY: All right. So you just heard the story about race and place and disaster recovery. OK. So what happens when billions of dollars are spent to protect a town before a disaster strikes? Everybody wins, right?

MERAJI: Wrong - more on that after the break.

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MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH - we're heading east now from Houston, Texas to Bound Brook, N.J. According to the most recent census data, Bound Brook's a little over half Latinx. And it's about an hour away from Manhattan by train. And Bound Brook's got a new taxpayer-funded flood system, which developers love. But it also has some people in the Latinx community nervous. NPR's Robert Benincasa takes us to New Jersey.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: One way to understand the immense flood-control system built around Bound Brook is to climb to the top of it.

So we're walking up a big, grassy berm here. This is like - how - this is, like, maybe 30 feet of grassy berm almost straight up, right?

ABEL GOMEZ: Yeah.

BENINCASA: From the top of the hill, town Councilman Abel Gomez and I can see water through the trees on the other side. It's just one of several smaller bodies of water, plus the Raritan River that flank Bound Brook.

And there is - what? What body?

GOMEZ: And this is actually the bound brook. The town is actually called Bound Brook because it's bound by brooks. There's brooks throughout all the perimeters of the town. And then there's a brook that runs right through the middle of the town.

BENINCASA: The hill we climbed is no ordinary slope. It's a flood levy. It's part of this town's defense against climate change, which has been making New Jersey warmer and wetter. The levees, along with a system of gates and pumps, are supposed to protect Bound Brook and other nearby towns from the kind of flood that ripped through here in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd. And ever since then, businesses have been wary of coming here knowing they could lose everything in a major storm.

GOMEZ: Without flood control, it was only the next natural disaster before you were wiped out.

BENINCASA: But 20 years later, if there were a climate change lottery with public funding as the prize, you could say Bound Brook hit the jackpot - a sweeping $650 million flood control project whose local portion was completed in 2016. Now developers are betting tens of millions of dollars that new apartments, restaurants and other amenities just over an hour by train from Manhattan will attract new residents to this town of 10,000.

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BENINCASA: In a ride around town, Councilman Abel Gomez showed me old industrial properties that will be torn down for hundreds of new luxury apartments and restaurants. But the town's own research suggests the newer apartments may be too pricey for some in the Latino community, who make up about half of Bound Brook's population. A local analysis found that those in the most heavily Latino neighborhoods had the lowest incomes and the highest housing costs as a percentage of income.

How does the Latino community figure into these plans?

GOMEZ: We hope - we really, really hope - that the Latino identity that's here remains here, in fact becomes part of that future vision of this town because that's key to this. It sets us apart.

BENINCASA: Francisco Morales Mora, who emigrated to Bound Brook from Costa Rica in the 1990s, owns a Central American restaurant downtown. He says more development will be good for business and will make the town more vibrant. But he worries about affordability.

FRANCISCO MORALES MORA: (Through interpreter) The new apartments that are already here, the ones that are already built, they're too expensive for the people of Bound Brook. The people of Bound Brook are poor. And unless the new ones are cheaper, people will leave.

BENINCASA: Morales' concerns aren't new. In 2004, the Justice Department sued the town, saying its housing policies discriminated against Latinos. And for years, Bound Brooks' housing and development practices were regulated by a consent decree. But if Bound Brooks' safer status with the flood control system ends up favoring the wealthy and leads to gentrification, that wasn't the project's intent, says Robert Greco, the project's manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.

ROBERT GRECO: We're protecting a highly dense area. Those are not what you would consider wealthy neighborhoods.

BENINCASA: Well, at least they're not wealthy now. And Greco acknowledges with some pride that his project is changing the town.

GRECO: They're really bringing the area up, so to speak. There's businesses that are coming in. There's a lot of reconstruction work. And it's beautiful, actually.

BENINCASA: Beautiful or not, the pricing-out of some current residents may be already underway. Those new apartments Morales mentioned? Some one-bedroom units rent for over $1,600 a month. That's $200 more than the town's median rent. But as a place adapting to climate change, Bound Brook is hoping to fend off the floods. And in 2011, the partially completed flood control system stood up to Hurricane Irene.

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MERAJI: That's Robert Benincasa from NPR's Investigations team reporting from New Jersey. And these stories were brought to us by NPR's series Climate Change Winners And Losers.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: And for our regulars, we just wanted to give you a heads-up that we had a really good team retreat last week where we were thinking up new and exciting ways to inform and entertain you 52 weeks a year, (laughter) which is a lot. So...

DEMBY: That's a whole lot.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah (laughter). So sometimes we bring you stories from our colleagues who are also working on race coverage, like we did today. And remember, you can always stay informed with what we're doing by signing up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

DEMBY: Speaking of staying informed - OK, so you know your boy Barack Obama has been out there doing that finger-wagging thing he does towards black people and that black people love for some reason. So next week, we're going deep on the politics of respectability.

MERAJI: I'm looking forward to that. This episode was produced by Meg Anderson and Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Bob Little and Nicole Beemsterboer. Barbara Van Woerkom contributed to the reporting. And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Leah Donnella, Sami Yenigun, Steve Drummond, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kat Chow. Our intern is Tiara Jenkins.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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