In 2017 Hurricane Harvey dumped over 33 trillion gallons of water along the US Gulf Coast, leaving physical, emotional, and financial destruction in its wake. Vulnerable and underserved populations suffered disproportionately. Research consistently finds short-term civic engagement following natural disasters; however, limited research explores the sustainability of such increases or whether disasters introduce new civic challenges.
This CBPR methodological study explored Harvey’s impacts in four diverse Houston communities to investigate how participants’ lived experiences during and in the aftermath of the hurricane shaped their civic attitudes and behaviors. Guided by the research question, “How did the crisis of, and recovery process from, Hurricane Harvey impact how community members experience civic engagement?” 3 meta-themes emerged, contextually following the disaster lifecycle.
Using CBPR methods, the study team partnered with 4 diverse Houston communities that experienced physical damage due to Hurricane Harvey to capture residents’ voices about their lived disaster experiences. Eight residents served as co-researchers (Co-Rs), playing an integral role in study implementation. Co-Rs facilitated 26 focus groups (n=190) and 14 key informant interviews (n=14), conducted in English, Spanish, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Resultant transcripts were translated into English as necessary, and were analyzed from the ground up using in-vivo coding. Rigor and trustworthiness were addressed by integrating thematic and qualitative content analysis and engaging in member-checking and multiple comparative analyses until agreement was reached on the themes and meta-themes. Memoing was utilized to document researcher perspectives and positionality.
Through the intensive analysis process, 12 themes emerged. As the team reflected on these themes, substantial differences in content informed identification of three meta-themes, reflecting distinct stages of the disaster life cycle: Disaster Prevention and Preparation (2 themes), Disaster Response & Short-Term Recovery (5 Themes), and Long-Term Disaster Recovery (5 Themes). Interwoven throughout these themes are concrete ways in which residents wish to see government interaction and support, as well as frustration in response to government and community inaction. Emotional content included anger at public officials for inaction or delayed response and despondency at the changed nature of community makeup post-disaster.
Findings have implications for engaging communities in different ways pre-, during, and after a catastrophe, to best address residents’ voiced needs at different disaster phases. Specific opportunities for increasing engagement between public officials, agencies, and communities emerge from these findings, not only during and post-disaster, but also in the planning phase in advance of a disaster. Co-Rs have already begun sharing preliminary findings and the data-grounded recommendations they identified with their communities, and are pursuing next steps for community resiliency.
Findings speak to the importance of following through with disaster preparation promises and intentional community-focused disaster plans, language accessibility in disaster-related communications, and equitable disaster recovery & resource distribution. Restructuring and streamlining recovery resource application processes, procedures, and information emerged as particularly important, in order to reduce the burden on survivors who are already overwhelmed with paperwork and applications in the post-flood disaster space and to strengthen trust in public officials at the local, state, and federal levels.