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Trauma in the Long Term – A Commentary on and Advice to FEMA

Disasters come in various forms; there are hurricanes, earthquakes, monsoons, tornados, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of disasters in the modern day are correlated with the effects of colonialism, capitalism and climate change. The ways people experience disaster also varies based upon location, country, race and gender. Often times when disaster strikes a developing country that is either still colonized or that has recently been “decolonized”, the effects are exacerbated due to the fact that there are already standing issues within the country. This has been exemplified in countries such as Puerto Rico and more recently the Bahamas. For the United States and its territories, the agency that steps in to provide aid is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Their mission statement is “helping people before, during and after disasters”; unfortunately, the length of time the presume is okay to provide assistance after a natural disaster is not adequate. 

FEMA Logo

There are currently poor procedures in place to aid people who need help the most. FEMA provides aid to countries in need for a limited amount of time. There aren’t any procedures in place to provide help to these individuals in a long term manner. Arguably, this is because there is a limited understanding of the long term effects of trauma towards people of color. In disaster situations that impact a predominantly white population, there tends to be a sense of urgency to fix the problems caused by the disaster. Essentially, these people are given the opportunity to return back to normal in an expedited fashion. It is clear that FEMA has organized their timelines around privileged people,  whether that be racial or via class. 

Currently, FEMA has a multitude of services geared towards helping individuals and businesses get back on their feet. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the services provided to individuals. To try and highlight the issues within all of FEMA’s disaster support programs would take an entire novel. We will focus solely on FEMA’s housing assistance and the issues with the programs that fall under the temporary housing assistance category. FEMA does not provide as much help as the average person might consider. The things that fall under FEMA’s housing assistance include temporary housing, home repair assistance and home replacement assistance. At a glance, it seems that they have covered their bases, however that’s not true. 

Example of the temporary housing units FEMA has provide to past disaster survivors.

FEMA’s temporary housing is only for homeowners who are uninsured or underinsured that have been displaced after a natural disaster. This temporary housing assistance consists of initial rental assistance, utility outage rental assistance, inaccessible rental assistance, continued rental assistance and lodging expense reimbursement. The initial rental assistance covers an individual for two months; this is only given to people whose homes have been deemed uninhabitable or homes where people have been forcibly relocated. According to Forbes, 78% of workers in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck. The likelihood that a person requesting temporary housing from FEMA will be able to get their finances in order directly after a disaster is low. There are so many personal factors that this short time period does not consider. A person may lose their job and continued financial stability as a result of the disaster. Providing assistance for a mere two months is not only biased towards helping the gainfully employed individual, but it is also biased towards people who fall into very binary categories. 

FEMA’s temporary housing becomes even more complicated once we take a look at their utility outage rental assistance. This covers those that experience “extended” utility outage in their area, and thus need rental assistance for another home. The coverage is provided typically for one month. The period of time that qualifies as “extended” is unavailable on their website. So not only will a person who has relocated because of extended power outages have one month of rental assistance, but they might not even qualify for assistance and will only find out after requesting this assistance. This is not the only example on FEMA’s website of language being vague; this is important to note as it allows for the agency to cover its bases and still be able to be selective about which individuals will receive aid and support from them. 

Moving forward, there is inaccessible rental assistance. As inclusive as this title may sound, it is not. At a glance, one might assume that FEMA provides further assistance to those that need to relocate to a more accessible home due to disabilities they suffered before the disaster or as a result of the disaster. That is not the case; FEMA’s inaccessible rental assistance actually covers those whose homes are literally inaccessible to them as a result of the disaster. This inaccessibility to a home is usually due to flooding situations or issues where air quality is unsafe, therefore there is restriction to the home. This support is also only typically provided for one month. 

Example of how extensive flooding can be.

Interested by this short amount of time that support will be provided to disaster survivors in this case, I took a look into the reality of repairing a home after flooding occurred. The act of drying out a room after flooding can take anywhere from twelve hours to several weeks depending on the size of the flood; the average time it takes to dry out one room after flooding is 72 hours. Assuming it takes the average amount of time to dry out a room to dry out multiple rooms in a house, there still must be consideration of the time it will take to repair the damages caused by flooding. Often times, flooring must be pulled out and drywall must be replaced after being submerged in water to avoid mold. The entirety of this process can take a month if everything happens quickly and nothing goes wrong during the repair process. After flooding however, items within the house usually need to be replaced as well. Referring back to the statistic provided by Forbes, 78% of people in the U.S. are living check to check. It is unrealistic to assume that people will be able to repair their homes and then replace the items in their home within just a month. FEMA’s inaccessible rental assistance then proves itself to not be helpful in the long term.

Now, FEMA does provide continued rental assistance in some cases. This form of assistance can only be provided for up to 18 months from the date of the disaster declaration, not from the time that the award is given or requested. FEMA claims to take approximately two to three days to approve people for assistance. However, most people may not qualify for this long term assistance and even if they do, it does not cover the full cost of rent needed. It is actually a monthly allowance that is based on the market at the time. Again, this is not a long enough period of time given to disaster survivors.

There are many factors to consider in terms of trauma being experienced after a natural disaster. After a disaster, people experience loss in a range of forms. Some experience of family members, loss of a home, loss of access to clean water, long term financial loss depending on the severity of the disaster and in some cases loss of access to healthcare. Those losses affect everyone, but then there must be consideration of people who were previously disadvantaged before the disaster. Homeless and impoverished people experiencing these losses coupled with the financial loss that comes with experiencing a disaster are often overlooked in these plans to help people recover. 

Based on the information provided above, it is clear that these assistance programs not only neglect a vast majority of the in-need population, but also neglects the part of the population that was in need of assistance before the disaster. As I’ve highlighted the issues FEMA’s housing assistance program, I want people to consider that this a program that is based in the United States of America. If this is the quality of assistance that the U.S. government plans to give to its own, imagine how that quality of assistance diminishes when considering the support they should be providing to people in U.S. territories, or countries with high U.S. influence. This is something that needs to be fixed; this is a call to organizations and agencies such as FEMA to reform.

Recalling Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica

The evening of September 12th, 1988 has been stamped into the memory of so many people; it was the night that Hurricane Gilbert ravished the Jamaican island. There are very few Jamaicans who experienced Hurricane Gilbert that don’t reference it today. However, those individuals were old enough to recognize the severity and importance of the hurricane despite whether or not they’d be severely impacted. To have lived through Hurricane Gilbert has always been referenced to me as a blessing growing up as a young Jamaican woman. However, the unimaginable for so many Hurricane Gilbert survivors is living through another. Unfortunately, Tameika Halliman experienced both Hurricane Gilbert and Hurricane Sandy. I had the opportunity to interview her and be able to document her experiences. 

Images of ruins in Jamaica after the 1988 storm.

Ms. Halliman was only 9 years old when Hurricane Gilbert hit, and it’s amazing to see how vivid her memories of the event are. Her ability to recount these events and even recall the emotions that she was experiencing really put into perspective the long-term impact of trauma and traumatic experiences. 

For Tameika, the days leading up to Hurricane Gilbert’s arrival seemed to drag along. She recalls being a little girl and eavesdropping on conversations that the adults around her were having. The town she lived in was just outside of where Hurricane Gilbert would be doing its worst damage. She knew this because her parents ensured her that despite what other kids at school were telling her about how terrible the hurricane would be, they would be fine. In the U.S., people often receive hurricane warnings and are given access to resources that will help them prepare. When asked, Tameika said that she could not even recall buying extra food. At the time, her family had animals of their own, so the only preparation that was made was bringing in the goats and cows into the barn. During my discussion with Tameika, she stated that her siblings had enjoyed the night, but this was only because they could not actually comprehend what the hurricane would have in store for others. 

Hurricane Gilbert spanned the entire length of Jamaica.

The afternoon that Hurricane Gilbert hit, Tameika, her older brother and her younger sister went to the roof of their house. They had never experienced a storm like this, and thought it’d be fun to play in the rain. She vividly recalled the zinc flying around in the sky as she played with her siblings in the rain. The three siblings played in the rain on the roof and in the backyard until it got too dark and they went inside. They went inside that night without knowing how much the hurricane’s activities would impact them. That night, Hurricane Gilbert ravished the entire length of the island of Jamaica, resulting in over 50 deaths. 

Ruined police station post Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Jamaica was in despair after Hurricane Gilbert passed over the island. Houses were destroyed, electricity was lost, and water supplies for some became contaminated. Tameika recalls experiencing lack of electricity in her town; for her as a little girl, that meant that her and her siblings couldn’t play for as long as they were used to and bedtime was just earlier. Ms. Halliman discussed with me how she had a fear of the dark as a young girl and that was exacerbated during this time period. She discussed feelings of betrayal from her parents; they had told her that Hurricane Gilbert would not do any damage to them, but here she was experiencing the damage. Tameika recounted memories of sitting on her roof and looking down at the town below them that lay in ruin. The news reports surrounding Hurricane Gilbert documented the extensive damages that the island suffered. Over 100,000 homes were damaged, water and electricity supplies were damaged and many healthcare centers were damages as a result of Hurricane Gilbert passing along the length of Jamaica. 

Over thirty years have passed since Hurricane Gilbert struck the island of Jamaica. Tameika has since relocated to the United States and has started a family of her own. However, she has not shed the entirety of the trauma that she gained since experiencing Hurricane Gilbert. Though her immediate family didn’t feel what she called “devastating effects” of the hurricane, there were traumatic aftershocks that she endured. Examples that she gave me ranged from losing extended family members to losing her favorite teacher at school. Tameika also recalls family members from Kingston coming to stay with her for various ranges of time. Though these things at the time didn’t seem like a big deal, as an adult she often recognizes how the trauma has impacted her.

Image of ruins downhill after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Interestingly, while in discussion with Tameika, she stated that whenever there is a hurricane warning in NYC, she makes herself over prepared each time. When she experienced Hurricane Sandy a few years back, she stockpiled canned goods, invited family members living close to water to stay with her and ensured that her landlord have a backup power generator. Because of where she lived, none of these precautions were necessary and no one directly related to her felt any “devastating” impacts. However, it just goes to show that trauma can be long standing. From Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Tameika Halliman has continued to work through the trauma that comes with being a disaster survivor. 

Reflection on Hurricane Maria

Two years ago, Puerto Rico was plagued with debilitating Hurricane Maria. The hurricane tormented Puerto Rico for days, causing severe physical and emotional damage to the country. The hurricane destroyed homes and schools, led to the spread of illness and disease through contaminated water and has scarred those who experienced it for life. It has led to the creation of a new way of life for many Puerto Ricans. It has also exposed a great deal of injustices; a lot has been learned about natural disasters. Unfortunately during this time I, like many others, was greatly removed from this tragedy. At the time, I was living in the United Kingdom and the only information that reached me regarding the hurricane was Donald Trump’s insensitive reaction to the natural disaster. 

There have been many lessons to learn from Hurricane Maria. One of the most important, that so many government groups and officials have not learned, is that superpower nations have an obligation to help nations in need after these natural disasters. Of course, many would question why that would be the most important lesson to learn. This is precisely because superpower nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom have not only stagnated the growth of many nations due to colonialism/imperialism, but they have also been the largest contributors to climate change. Many find themselves asking “why is that relevant to a hurricane?”. Well, without delving too deep into the science of climate change, we can establish that climate change impacts sensitive areas first. Those sensitive areas include islands, mountains, etc. 

There have been many lessons to learn from Hurricane Maria. One of the most important, that so many government groups and officials have not learned, is that superpower nations have an obligation to help nations in need after these natural disasters. Of course, many would question why that would be the most important lesson to learn. This is precisely because superpower nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom have not only stagnated the growth of many nations due to colonialism/imperialism, but they have also been the largest contributors to climate change. Many find themselves asking “why is that relevant to a hurricane?”. Well, without delving too deep into the science of climate change, we can establish that climate change impacts sensitive areas first. Those sensitive areas include islands, mountains, etc. 

Two years after Hurricane Maria and there is still so much work to be done to help those recovering from the aftermath of the hurricane. In the Carribean, hurricanes and other natural disasters often have particularly devastating effects and the damages are frequently amplified. This is clearly exemplified in Puerto Rico post-hurricane. It’s a shame that two years after the hurricane, Puerto Ricans have not been able to recover even 50% of the way.  

When thinking about Hurricane Maria, many people don’t see the bigger picture. There is far more to consider than simply rebuilding infrastructure and distributing funds to individuals, though that is also not being done. One thing that is a part of the bigger picture when considering how countries like Puerto Rico can recover from a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria is disaster risk. This is a function of a place’s physical hazard exposure, which is how directly it is threatened by disaster; it also is a countries social vulnerability and how resilient the nation is.

Another important consideration and factor to reflect on during this two year anniversary is geography and gender; the intersection of the two actually plays an important role in how best to assist countries post natural disaster. What exactly does this intersection mean though? To start, poorer residents tend to live in more disaster prone areas. This is due to the housing of those disaster prone areas being far cheaper. The majority of these poor residents spend their income mostly on their livelihood, meaning food, water, shelter, etc. This limits their ability to be prepared for a disaster to come and disrupt their lives. Now, certainly as the reader you’re wondering what all of this has to do with gender. Well, women are disproportionately exposed to illness post-disaster when living in these disaster prone areas. This is because water sources tend to become contaminated when disaster strikes; due to gender roles, women have to do things such as tend to the house, harvest, and other domestic responsibilities. These responsibilities that women have lead to their exposure to illnesses such as cholera and yellow fever. On this anniversary of Hurricane Maria, and with consideration of the hurricane that just ravished the Bahamas, it is important to consider ways to reduce women’s exposure to these illnesses and to actually consider the different ways that women are impacted post natural disaster. 

While on the subject of gender and gender roles, a final thing I regarding gender and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is femicide. An interesting thing to note about Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria is that there was a huge issue regarding femicide. Once Hurricane Maria came, one can only assume that the rates either increased or it became easier to get away with the act of femicide. This is heart wrenching, but as we reflect on Hurricane Maria, it is necessary to consider those who lost their lives due to the storm and those who lost their lives because of the aftermath of the storm. It’d be interesting to have a study done to find out how the rate of femicide has been skewed after Hurricane Maria.

Finally, the most important thing to note as we reflect for the two year anniversary of Hurricane Maria is that superpower and first world nations have a responsibility to the nations that they have debilitated. More specifically, the United States has a responsibility to help rebuild the infrastructure, economic climate and social climate in Puerto Rico. As the United States is the reason that far more countries cannot directly help Puerto Rico, they need to step in and do their job. It’s easy to understand the colonialism, imperialism and racism that has led to the United States being able to turn away from issues in Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria. However, it’s time that people and nations take a more humanitarian look on things and begin to help the people who they have exploited.

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