Black Residents In Long Island Community Struggled To Get Federal Aid

Jun 24, 2019
Originally published on June 24, 2019 10:14 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to look now at the problem some communities face after a natural disaster. An NPR investigation earlier this year found that money from a federal program that helps people move after disaster strikes goes disproportionately to whiter communities. Charles Lane of member station WSHU visited one Long Island community where flooding destroyed many homes and black residents were struggling to get government aid.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Horton Avenue in Riverhead, Long Island, isn't the ideal place to build a home.

LINDA HOBSON-HEATH: I grew up, I'll show you where.

LANE: It's at the bottom of a long hill. There's a marsh on one side of the road and a duck pond on the other.

HOBSON-HEATH: Right in there.

LANE: But that's where a dozen African American families from Virginia settled back in the 1920s. Hobson's house was built from an old barn.

HOBSON-HEATH: My mom bought the land for a little under a thousand dollars, and she bought the wood for $500.

LANE: Hobson says, in those days, Horton Avenue was one of the few places in Riverhead acceptable for black people to live. And like many disadvantaged communities, it was low-lying and prone to repeated flooding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: As the rain just keeps on coming...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The month of March has been brutal for most of the northeast...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: March records in parts of New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maine...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: So a lot of cleanup to be done.

LANE: March of 2010 was a month of storms capped with three days of straight rain. The neighborhood of Horton Avenue turned into a lake with a dozen tiny homes sticking out.

HOBSON-HEATH: I remember opening my back door and all the water just rushing out of the door onto my feet.

LANE: Desperate, they went through the list of federal disaster aid programs. The only one they were eligible for was a Hazard Mitigation Grant, where the government would buy their homes and demolish them. It was their only hope, but it would be a bureaucratic morass. So she called Shirley Coverdale for help.

SHIRLEY COVERDALE: It was months of hammering and trying to get the attention of the media.

LANE: Coverdale is an influential community activist based out of Riverhead's First Baptist Church. To help Horton Avenue, she spent three months advocating for an extension to the presidential disaster declaration.

COVERDALE: We called in every elected official that we could find - and people in FEMA and county agencies.

LANE: During that fight, Coverdale pointed out that properties in Rhode Island and a beach in the Hamptons were already on the project list.

COVERDALE: But here was an area that was a decidedly different area. It was a poor neighborhood, and it was slipping through the cracks.

LANE: Coverdale faulted politicians and journalists from Long Island all the way to Washington for bias - overlooking Horton Avenue.

COVERDALE: Until we called it out as racism - that was the underpinning of it.

LANE: An NPR investigation this year found that most government buyouts of disaster-prone properties have happened in neighborhoods that are predominantly white. But FEMA adamantly denies any bias at all in how grants get distributed. In this case, the agency points to the state, which asks for the money. Anne Bink is deputy commissioner for storm recovery in New York.

ANNE BINK: Every community has the equal opportunity to apply for grants through the Hazard Mitigation Program when funds are released by FEMA.

LANE: She, in turn, points to local towns and counties, which pick the projects.

BINK: We're not targeting any community. We're targeting the best projects that mitigate risk in the future.

LANE: After all that, getting the federal disaster declaration was just the first step. Then, it fell back to Hobson to work with her town to do all the paperwork and actually apply for the grant. It took a year-and-a-half and multiple rejections. She says her neighbors couldn't handle this much bureaucracy.

HOBSON-HEATH: People weren't speaking up. I was really speaking up for them. I would go, and I would meet with them. They would tell me their desires, their wants and needs. And then I would advocate on their behalf.

LANE: In the end, the government did buy and demolish homes on Horton Avenue. Hobson and her neighbors were able to move. But...

HOBSON-HEATH: If I had to do it all over again, Linda Hobson-Heath would not. But if God forced me to, then I would. I'm glad it's over, and I don't ever want to go through anything like that again.

LANE: At that time, in 2010, New York didn't have a mechanism to help disadvantaged communities. But it has since revamped its website to allow towns and counties - if they want - to highlight them. As for national solutions FEMA says it's largely up to Congress. Since the NPR investigation, the Government Accountability Office has accepted a congressional request to look into whether disaster relief makes inequality worse.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane on Long Island in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.