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Hurricane Zeta has left more than 2.1 million without power and led to several deaths after striking the Gulf Coast earlier this week.
Tragically, extreme flooding events like those linked to Zeta are predicted to become increasingly common as climate change intensifies over the next decade. Millions of households remain at risk annually due to both coastal and inland floods with increases in extreme precipitation and sea level rise. However, the effects of floods are not evenly felt across the country. Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by extreme flood events every year, an inequality that is predicted to grow worse as the frequency and magnitude of floods increase.
In this case study, we take a look at how extreme flood events disproportionately affect socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and what steps can be taken to mitigate these disparities.
When Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005, the damage was most concentrated in low-income, African American communities. Eighty-seven percent of flood insurance claims in Chicago were paid by communities of color from 2007-2016. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated low-income, minority neighborhoods more than other communities in Houston.
The correlation between race and vulnerability to natural disasters remains a pressing issue. Neighborhood location plays one of the largest roles in determining flood damage as low lying areas without green space to absorb water tend to be the most devastated by floods and are also often the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. Government aid and regulations can have a large effect on flood damage and recovery as well. In New Orleans, a lack of government intervention at local, state, and federal levels exacerbated racial inequalities during Hurricane Katrina. The majority of those who remained in New Orleans during the floods, for example, did not have access to a car to follow mandatory evacuation orders. At one point, the Louisiana National Guard asked FEMA for 700 buses, but, days later, the agency sent only 100, and it took a week to evacuate flood survivors. Afterwards, many low-income neighborhoods that were hit hardest, were not given adequate funds or assistance to help recover after the flooding as well. This caused a major displacement of more than 200,000 people from out of New Orleans and left a lasting legacy for the city. $1 billion in disaster relief payments made by FEMA were later found to be improper and potentially fraudulent, explaining some of these disparities in assistance.
Renters are often disproportionately affected by floods. When purchasing homes, most homeowners must be legally informed about their flood risk and are required to purchase flood insurance. However, typical renters insurance does not cover flood damage; only Georgia requires that landlords must inform tenants of flood risk in cases of extreme flooding.
Renters are consequently often disadvantaged in areas prone to flooding, in conjunction of often having lower socioeconomic status as well. For example, in Chicago, people of color are more likely to be tenants than homeowners according to 2019 census data likely because discriminatory housing, employment and banking policies over the decades serve as barriers to homeownership for many. Chicago is also poised to be one of the hardest hit by floods in the coming decades due to climate change.
Most flood insurance is provided by the federal government but many congressional efforts to mandate disclosure of flood risk and improve flood insurance for tenants have failed because of a fear that more flood disclosure would reduce property values for cities and states.
While urbanization may lead to more flooding in cities because of decreases in wetland presence and increases in impervious surfaces, rural areas face unique threats due to socioeconomic disadvantages as well. Many predominantly rural states are at highest risk for flood damage as climate change intensifies causing concern as rural areas can have higher rates of poverty and smaller shares of working-age adults, leaving them more vulnerable to extreme flood events.
Moreover, rural areas often aren’t prioritized in flood mitigation. In the 2011 Mississippi River floods which caused more than $3 billion in property damage, agricultural land and poor neighborhoods were notably flooded to save wealthier, more populated, residential neighborhoods. Levees were broken intentionally by the American Society of Civil Engineers and state government officials to have the least economic damage. Most of the flooded areas, however, did not receive proper compensation afterwards. Racial disparities were pronounced in these flood strategies as well. For example, the farmlands that were flooded in Pinhook, IL belonged to African American families that were not compensated or acknowledged by ASCE while nearby wealthier farms were able to receive compensation through a lawsuit.
Meaningful mitigation strategies might help combat socioeconomic inequalities in the long run if they gain the necessary public and governmental support. Increases in disaster relief personnel and evacuation support during floods in low-income communities specifically can help significantly reduce the immediate impacts of flooding, for example, and the racial disparities associated with them. Building more flood resistant infrastructure and providing stable housing in low-income neighborhoods can have beneficial effects in the long-run especially as climate change intensifies flood effects. For post-disaster relief, increased access to loans and government aid, especially in rural and low-income communities which often face barriers to these forms of support, can help reduce socioeconomic disparities. Lastly, full disclosure of flood risks and extensions of national flood insurance policy can help tenants in particular protect their livelihoods as well, a practice which states such as New York and Virginia are already hoping to adapt.