Vulnerable Communities Lose Critical Documentation in Natural Disasters’ Wake

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, people focus on recovering the bread-and-butter pieces of their lives: furniture, cars, clothing. Birth certificates usually are not top-of-mind. But obtaining any form of ID requires documentation, which is often lost in the wake of a severe storm. Even under normal circumstances, “When a minority loses an ID, it becomes more difficult to get a replacement,” says Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and an attorney with the Bledsoe Law Firm. That challenge is exacerbated when a disaster hits.

According to the Brookings Institution, already-vulnerable communities suffer the most in the wake of a natural disaster, in part because of the consequences of lost documentation. In Texas, poor communities are more likely to live in areas susceptible to flooding, where their driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and social security cards could be destroyed by rising waters.

Had U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos not struck down a Texas voter ID law last week, the storm’s wreckage would have made it even more difficult for minority communities to vote. The law, S.B. 5, would have required voters to show particular forms of photo ID or complete an affidavit in order to cast a ballot. Though the policy would not have gone into effect until 2018, the widespread damage from Tropical Storm Harvey presents a sobering look at how natural disasters—combined with stringent voting regulations—could effectively disenfranchise a state’s poor communities of color.

In 2014, while ruling on S.B. 5’s predecessor, Ramos found that over 600,000 registered voters—a significant number of whom were minorities—did not possess one of the required forms of photo ID, such as a passport or handgun license. Opponents of S.B. 5 say the stiff penalties the affidavit enforced would have deterred many from voting. People were “worried that their reasoning [for not having an approved form of ID] would be seen as invalid,” says Myrna Pérez, Deputy Director of the Democracy Center at NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. These concerns would be heightened, she says, as “prosecutors in the state seem to want to go after people even if they do have a good excuse.”

“NAACP lawyers were saying ‘I can’t take [the affidavit] to people. I know the prosecutors around here, they’ll indict an African American for a mistake,’” Bledsoe recalls.

Even without weather coming into play, there are many reasons why someone might not have a photo ID. Obtaining one sometimes carries hidden expenses. A 2014 report from Harvard Law School’s Race and Justice Institute discovered that obtaining even a purportedly free form of ID can cost $75 to $175 due to travel and fees for required documentation like birth and marriage certificates. Once legal fees—which can run up to $1,500—are added to the mix, the expenses can simply be too much for many. The report found that these costs may be markedly greater than the poll taxes outlawed by the 24th amendment—taxes created specifically to disenfranchise poor and black voters.

Transportation is another hurdle, especially in Texas, where the nearest ID office for people in rural areas can be up to 170 miles away. As Harvey tears up infrastructure and floods major highways, it will be even harder for residents to make their way along necessary routes. “Many of the counties [in Texas] don’t have places you can go and get a driver’s license or a state ID, and in order to get that you had to have a birth certificate or social security card,” says Deuel Ross, an Assistant Council at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “It was already very difficult to get those. Given the strain on the state right now, it’s only going to be more difficult.”

The law’s critics argue that it was baseless to begin with. “In Texas, there was never strong evidence [that] there was a problem that needed to be addressed by [S.B. 5],” says Pérez. No evidence has been found of mass voter impersonation. Senators from both political parties, as well as law enforcement officials, have refuted claims of voter fraud. Pérez believes that having focused on voter ID laws instead of passing infrastructure legislation and shoring up rescue services will not reflect well on Texan politicians. “When you have tragedies like [Harvey], it puts in voters’ mouths a bad taste for the tomfoolery of legislators.”

Although the Texas Department of Public Safety announced that it will offer no-cost replacement driver’s licenses and ID cards for those who live in counties that have received a disaster declaration, residents would still need to visit an office in-person. And Gary Bledsoe is skeptical of how this will be enforced. Bledsoe has found that minority voters often face discriminatory hurdles, and worries that black and Latino residents may not find it easy to obtain replacements.

Furthermore, in the storm’s wake, replacing forms of ID “is not the main thing people are worried about right now,” says Ross. “As the [midterm] election approaches in 2018 people may start to think about it, but may not have the months it takes in order to obtain the documentation.”

Though New Orleans’s municipal elections were severely disrupted after Hurricane Katrina—the city’s voting infrastructure was decimated by the hurricane—the state didn’t have to contend with the fallout from voting ID laws. Louisiana’s ID requirements are considered “non-strict.” Nearly anything issued with both a photo and some identifying information qualifies, and voters can simply sign an affidavit if they do not have an ID. Without a strict law, “you don’t have to add an accommodation for dealing with it in the face of a natural disaster,” says Pérez.

Ross, who has worked with families trying to rebuild their lives in the face of fire and flooding, is concerned by how the current political climate and escalating weather events could work in tandem to harm poor communities of color. “Communities affected the most are cities in the south, which are often poorer, more rural, [and predominantly] African American,” he says. “Given that this is now the second major storm here in the U.S. in the last 10 or so years, I’m very worried that this kind of thing could continue to happen, and continue to impact the communities most vulnerable and unable to deal with the burden of having everything in their lives destroyed.”