In the days after a hurricane like Harvey, many people are faced with a question they may never have had to ask themselves: How will we eat?
That's why Texas is temporarily expanding the income limit for food stamps. The state is also temporarily expediting benefits, loosening restrictions on what people can buy with government aid, allowing schools to serve free meals to every student impacted by the hurricane -- regardless of their income -- and reimbursing people for food stamps that might have gone to waste because of the storm.
Anti-hunger advocates give the state and federal government's response to Harvey high marks in helping families cover food expenses at a time when many are homeless and unable to work.
"It's gratifying to see," says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "has responded quickly and effectively and appropriately to the crisis."
Still, experts in human services say Hurricanes Harvey and Irma -- which started battering Florida on Sunday -- are sure to strain health and welfare agencies in the months ahead. After a natural disaster, there is typically a surge in demand for government aid and services as people start to rebuild their lives. For residents who were already struggling to find employment and pay basic expenses, an environmental disaster only exacerbates their situation.
“One of the reasons that the safety net is so crucial is that the consequences of a major disaster hit the hardest the people who have the least,” says Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy.
Five years ago, when Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City and parts of New Jersey, state and local human services departments signed up more than half a million households for short-term emergency food subsidies.
Galveston, Texas, which was hit by Harvey and also by Ike in 2008, lost many low-income and elderly residents after Ike because, according to fair housing advocates, the local government dragged its feet for years in rebuilding more than 500 public housing units. Brian Maxwell, the city manager, also attributes the loss of low-income residents to transit (or a lack thereof after Ike).
“When you rely on transit to get to your job,” Maxwell said, “you’re not going to keep your job if you can’t get there.”
After Hurricane Katrina, local hospitals saw an increased need for health and mental health services, says Andre Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. A hurricane exposes people to a variety of traumas, from watching their houses flood to witnessing people die.
“It can give people suicidal thoughts,” says Perry.
After a disaster, much of the public attention focuses on short-term services to address immediate needs, he says, but states need to be ready to deal with the long-term psychological toll of the storm, too.
“I call it the aftermath of the aftermath,” says Katie Olse, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Child and Family Services, a statewide nonprofit. “This is going to be a very long road for us in Texas.”
The hurricanes will take a particularly harsh toll on children and the people who care for them, says Olse. The foster care system already had a shortage of foster parents. The storm is likely to worsen it.
“If a couple was thinking about becoming foster parents, and they lost their home, that might have to go to the back burner,” says Olse.
Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been surveying its members in the Houston area to see how the hurricane affected them. Of the 630 child care providers that have responded so far, about 10 percent say they’ve experienced major damage or saw their facilities completely destroyed. Almost three-quarters of the surveyed providers accept low-income families receiving federal child care subsidies.
In many instances, social service providers have to help clients while dealing with the storm's impact on their own lives.
"A lot of our caseworkers and a lot of people who do the frontline work are not financially well-off," says Russell Sykes of the American Public Human Services Association. "When something like this happens, they’re working 24/7, and they may be in the same situations as their clients."
Golden, who visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, remembers meeting frontline workers whose houses had flooded or who had family members camping on their floors.
"It’s a real test of the strength of the whole safety net,” says Sykes. “I hope what comes of it is a better understanding of how important these programs are.”
Since Harvey hit, Texas has taken the following actions to help people affected by the storm:
- approved additional emergency funds through Disaster SNAP, a temporary program that serves people affected by a natural disaster who wouldn't qualify under SNAP's normal income eligibility rules. Though the program is available to people making slightly more money, it is still limited to near-poor households. For a three-person household, for example, the gross income limit in most states is $2,354 per month, which translates to $28,248 a year.
- announced it would replace a month’s worth of benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for more than 716,000 families in 58 counties whose groceries might have perished during the storm.
- expedited another $160 million in food benefits that were scheduled to be issued later in the month
- waived a ban on using SNAP benefits for hot foods
- provided a six-month extension for households who would have had to apply for renewed benefits in September
- loosened rules on what types of foods families can buy with benefits from another nutrition program called WIC (Women, Infants and Children)
- allowed schools to serve free breakfast, lunch and after-school meals to children from evacuated parts of the state