CARBONDALE — About two months after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston metropolitan area and southeast Texas, Roberto Barrios traveled there, to begin documenting the recovery.
As an anthropologist at SIU Carbondale, Barrios is interested in crisis. Studying the way we respond to a natural disaster, he believes, can tell us a lot about our society — its unity or division, its sustainability, equality and resilience.
Barrios sought a diversity of voices and experiences, from wealthier neighborhoods on Houston’s west side to poorer communities on the northeast side of the city.
In dozens of in-person interviews, he asked Houstonians to describe their experience of the hurricane, the flooding and the aftermath. What factors, he asked, mitigated or exacerbated the disaster?
One important answer, across socioeconomic levels, was unsustainable development, Barrios said.
“The majority of properties affected were not in the floodplain,” Barrios explained. “But development is transforming the watershed in the Houston area.”
Since Harvey wreaked damage assessed at $125 billion, the city of Houston has tightened development regulations for construction on its 100- and 500-year floodplains.
Hundreds of residents have joined lawsuits, accusing developers of building and selling homes with insufficient elevation to prevent flooding.
Areas once considered “sacrifice zones,” Barrios said, are being filled with expensive subdivisions, as Houston’s population grows.
“Houston is an example of what happens when you let the market regulate itself,” Barrios said. “It might be just one city, but it becomes a place to explore the challenges that climate change is creating. People are moving towards coasts just as they are becoming challenging places to live.”
Climate scientists predict natural disasters like hurricane Harvey will become more frequent if global warming continues to intensify.
Over months of fieldwork in Houston, Barrios also found some surprising factors that may have contributed to the hurricane’s toll. In historically African-American communities on the northeast side, residents spoke of a “disaster before the disaster,” Barrios said.
They were referring to the closure of the North Forest Independent School District, a 90-year-old African-American majority district.
“It was the last African-American school district in Texas,” Barrios said.
The district had been plagued by poor academic performance and alleged mismanagement. However, Barrios found many affected families wished it had been improved, rather than merged into the greater Houston public school system.
“In disaster research anthropologists measure community resilience: the relationships among people that help them bounce back,” Barrios explained. “When you have primarily minority neighborhoods in an area, having a district that reflects that builds resilience.”
Changing the schools that Houstonians use, Barrios believes, could change all sorts of social factors that might come into play in recovering from a natural disaster.
“Parents build relationships through their schools,” Barrios said. “They build a sense of community. There is a tremendous amount of resilience in these communities around education.”
This summer, when Barrios returned to Houston to continue his research, he brought along Grace Vargas, a senior anthropology major at SIUC.
Barrios’s work is funded by a $78,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Vargas won a supplemental NSF grant of $5,000, to help Barrios with his fieldwork this summer, and to do her own complimentary research measuring the ways Houstonians felt and responded to the trauma of the hurricane.
Though few used the term "trauma," in her interviews, Vargas found people were "extremely conscious of what others were going through.”
“If you asked someone about their own experience they would tell you about their neighbors or family members,” she said. As some residents relocate, or struggle to pick up the pieces, "the feeling of community that has been lost can be as significant as the structures," Vargas said.
This is the first time Vargas, an SIUC Chancellor’s Scholar, has done anthropological fieldwork.
“It has been so rewarding and energizing,” Vargas said. “It’s made me a better researcher, a better writer, and it’s gotten me really interested in policy.”
With most of his interviews now finished, Barrios plans to create an interactive map that shows how neighborhoods throughout Houston experienced Harvey differently.
He’s also got plans for a book that tells the story of Harvey from the diverse perspectives of the Houstonians he met, examining the political policies and social factors that contributed to the disaster.
“I hope this can lead to more citizen engagement,” Barrios said. “My task as a scholar is to present information to the public, so they can make informed decisions, and understand what’s at stake when they vote.”