This study sought to explore how both crisis and continuing challenges of recovery affect civic engagement within diverse communities affected by natural disasters. We focus on the following research question: “How did the crisis of, and recovery process from, Hurricane Harvey impact how community members experience civic engagement?”
The Category 4 Hurricane Harvey left behind extensive destruction and instability, with racial and economic disparities evident in both crisis and recovery. Natural disasters consistently lead to short-term community engagement; however, it is unclear whether such increases are sustainable or whether disasters introduce new civic challenges. In one tornado-affected community that saw substantial civic engagement increases, engagement returned to pre-disaster levels one year later. Voter turnout studies find that experiencing a natural disaster either has no significant effect or may, in fact, depress turnout. Civic engagement impacts from disasters are of particular concern in Houston, where new barriers emerged after this disaster. E.g., voters whose mailed registration cards could not be delivered due to hurricane damage were placed in “suspense” before a subsequent election, impacting approximately 175,000 displaced flood victims.
In partnership with a diverse group of four Houston communities that experienced flooding or wind damage from Hurricane Harvey, a CBPR methodology sought to capture residents’ voices about their lived experiences. Eight residents serving as co-researchers (Co-Rs) for the partnering communities played an integral role throughout the study, including instrument development, participant recruitment, preliminary data analysis, and dissemination.
Two years post-Harvey, Co-Rs facilitated 26 focus groups (n=190) and 14 key informant interviews (n=14). Most were completed in English; however, Spanish, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Chinese-language focus groups also captured the range of perspectives within each community.
Transcripts, translated into English as needed, were analyzed from the ground up, coding participants’ words and phrases. To maintain trustworthiness and amplify participant voices, core elements of thematic and qualitative content analysis were integrated, with analyses confirmed by Co-Rs.
Thirteen thematic categories emerged, including feeling alone in recovery; engaging in and receiving mutual aid; providing and receiving aid through professional and volunteer organizations; a unique window of opportunity for engagement; coordination of support; information sharing; increased ties to one’s community; perceived community decline; responsiveness of systems especially as related to resource distribution; feeling supported or abandoned by public officials; public officials’ accountability.
Developed in consultation with a community civic engagement collaborative and four community-based organizations, this study was designed to inform efforts to support civic engagement in disaster-impacted communities. Co-Rs shared preliminary findings and data-grounded recommendations they identified with their communities.
Findings demonstrate that disasters may create a window of opportunity for increased civic involvement and in some cases, can more deeply connect people with their communities. Findings also highlight challenges to civic engagement. Inadequate and confusing coordination of disaster assistance and volunteers, limited access (including language access) to reliable information, feelings of abandonment by public officials, and distrust due to inadequate and inequitable systems of recovery, suggest needed policy responses to support equitable post-disaster community well-being.