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PD&R Response to Disasters

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PD&R Response to Disasters

When disaster strikes, such as the multiple-vortex EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri in May 2011, two groups of HUD staff — Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) analysts at HUD’s headquarters and Economic and Market Analysis Division (EMAD) field economists located around the nation — know they will likely provide needed analyses of the local economy, housing market, and households affected by the disaster.

Image of NOAA, National Geodetic Survey map of tornado path that hit Joplin, Missouri in May 2011.
NOAA, National Geodetic Survey map of tornado path that hit Joplin, Missouri in May 2011.
Once the president issues a disaster declaration, PD&R headquarters analysts initially obtain data on counties declared eligible for public disaster assistance, individual disaster assistance, or both. These data are used to create demographic and housing characteristic profiles of communities that may face the greatest recovery challenges. Next, the analysts prepare a spatial analysis of the disaster impact using computer-generated maps provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The resulting files are accompanied by satellite images of the affected areas, which provide more precise information about the extent of damage to the area’s housing, including HUD-assisted housing units, and its effect on vulnerable populations.

Analysts at PD&R headquarters then estimate unmet needs — the difference between the total damage from the disaster and the relief provided by private insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Small Business Administration (SBA). This assessment results in estimates of:

  • costs to repair seriously damaged housing units beyond the funds that private insurance coverage, FEMA grants, and SBA loans provide,

  • infrastructure restoration costs that exceed the allocation of funding from the FEMA public assistance program, and

  • losses (real property and contents) of small businesses not receiving an SBA disaster loan.

These estimates heighten understanding of the impact of a disaster and of the places where community intervention can speed recovery at the individual and neighborhood level. The information also helps local decisionmakers evaluate recovery issues that involve significant land use changes, investment in public infrastructure, and rebuilding. Finally, the analysis helps Congress and other government agencies equitably distribute potential Community Development Block Grant disaster assistance funding.

In a separate effort, coordinated with headquarter analysts, PD&R’s EMAD field economists also support disaster recovery. EMAD economists analyze markets in disaster-affected areas using the same methodology that they employ to generate Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis reports. This methodology entails maintaining communication and collecting information from sources such as local officials and representatives of local organizations, including REALTORS®, builders, apartment associations, and housing authorities and then reconciling data from the various sources to reach reasonable conclusions about market area changes.

In the case of the Joplin tornado, field economists were able to quickly identify the areas damaged, research early reports and blogs, and verify the location of damaged areas. Supplemented by an in-house analysis of the Joplin area completed earlier in 2011, EMAD economists were able to make baseline data available to HUD headquarters within a day of the tornado’s strike. Subsequently, HUD analysts and economists gathered relevant data and information to expand the scope of HUD’s study of the tornado’s impact.

EMAD economists routinely analyze local economies, housing markets, and households affected by disasters. Their role has evolved over time as policymakers realized that disasters, by destroying housing units and displacing households, disrupt housing markets and complicate public policy responses. EMAD field economists also serve as data specialists and reviewers and compile baseline economic data on employment, workers, and unemployment; population data on people and households, including elderly people; and housing data on the number of occupied and vacant units.

The most recent evolution in EMAD support for disaster recovery came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. During the first several years after Hurricane Katrina, EMAD economists participated in Regional Disaster oversight efforts and tracked changes in the baseline data to ensure that timely information was at hand for ongoing program and policy discussions. A number of field economists performed special research on the areas to which evacuees moved. For example, economists checked vacancy and rental rates in metropolitan areas throughout Louisiana and Texas and in Atlanta, Georgia. Other research determined the number of vacant rental units available in six counties in Mississippi as potential relocation resources for displaced residents.

Local officials and volunteers are, of course, the first responders to disasters, and the data they collect and record are invaluable for assessing the effects of a disaster on the local housing market. However, PD&R headquarters and EMAD field economists have been an integral part of supporting disaster recovery in many localities and will continue to monitor and report on areas affected by natural disasters.

See a detailed account of PD&R’s work behind the scenes in response to disasters here.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.