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Floodwaters that Linger: Examining the Inequitable Impact of Natural Disasters on Vulnerable Children | 2017

By Joy Sanzone

Student raising hand in classroom

As I write this, Hurricane Irma is battering Caribbean islands and is taking aim at South Florida.  Two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast, crippling coastal communities and creating unprecedented flooding in Houston, Beaumont, and surrounding areas. The floodwaters continue to linger, as rivers and bayous are so swollen with runoff that they have yet to recede.

At least one coastal school district, Port Aransas Independent School District, is closed indefinitely. Other districts remain open, but schools within those districts sustained significant flood damage. More importantly than physical school buildings are the thousands of displaced school children who cannot return to their homes safely. Some may not even have a home to go back to; an estimated 30,000 people are still in shelters. On top of that, hundreds of thousands of cars in a car-dominant city are waterlogged, making getting to school or work near impossible for so many families.

We know from Hurricane Katrina the disproportionate impact a natural disaster can have on already vulnerable populations. Though the entire city of New Orleans experienced the effects of Katrina, the brunt of the storm and its aftermath was borne by poor Black residents. Though Hurricane Harvey’s devastation is geographically widespread and impacted Texans of every race and socioeconomic status, it will be the most vulnerable who experience the most difficulty recovering from this disaster.

Economically advantaged families can afford a contractor to renovate their flooded homes. They will be able to replace the vehicle totaled by floodwaters. They can afford to replace clothes, furniture, and other belongings that will ease the return to normalcy.  Further, it is likely the most affluent families who are among the precious few Houstonians with flood insurance.

The most vulnerable populations—the immigrant, poor, and undocumented communities—do not have such luxuries. They can’t easily replace their flooded cars, which they need to get to work. The results will be a lost in wages and potentially in jobs. These families can’t afford the necessary home renovations which may lead to housing instability and high mobility.  Undocumented immigrants—of which there are an estimated 400,000 in Houston—are not eligible to receive federal disaster assistance.

On top of the difficult economic recovery after a natural disaster, survivors—particularly children—may be more prone to developing mental health problems as a result of their experiences. Research studies conducted after natural disasters have demonstrated that significant numbers of children present with at least some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the months following the event.1,2

We know that childhood poverty is associated with accumulated multiple traumas for the most vulnerable: economic insecurity, food scarcity, high mobility/homelessness, environmental hazards (e.g., lead), access to adequate health care, and more. Coupled with the stress and uncertainty induced by a natural disaster, young people (in Texas, Florida, and other regions of the country devastated by natural disasters) will need increased care and support from their schools and communities in the months and years to come. Houston Independent School District is already providing an increased level of support by providing all students with three meals per day for the entire 2017-18 school year. This ensures that children are well-fed and eases some of the burden on families so they may focus on personal recovery efforts. HISD and other school districts around the country should continue to focus on how to best serve all students in the wake of natural disasters to support equitable recovery for all.

Once the flood waters recede, their impacts on our children do linger.


  1. Bokszczanin, A. (2007). PTSD symptoms in children and adolescents 28 months after a flood: Age and gender differences. Stress, 20, 347–351.
  1. La Greca, A. M., Silverman, W. K., Vernberg, E. M., & Prinstein, M. J. (1996). Symptoms of posttraumatic stress in children after Hurricane Andrew: A prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64 (4), 712-723.



Joy Sanzone is the assistant director of Policy, Research, and Evaluation at the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. She can be reached by email at:



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