Atlantic hurricane season 2021 showed how low-income communities face the highest risks


Hurricane Ida struck New Orleans on August 29, 2021, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. This time, the dikes held. The billions of dollars invested to strengthen them have paid off – at least for part of the population.

A strong similarity between Ida and Katrina has always emerged: low-income communities and communities of color remain at high risk of hurricanes.

As scholars who study refugees and migration around the world, we find that communities most at risk are pushed into permanent displacement and homelessness, or deeper into poverty, with every climate disaster. Much of this could be avoided if the U.S. government invested in preparedness and did more to protect vulnerable communities.

“Hang on”

Despite years of preparations, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said there was no time to issue a mandatory evacuation order as Ida quickly escalated into a powerful category hurricane. 4. She urged the townspeople to “fall back”. Mass evacuations require coordination between several parishes and states, and there was not enough time. In several surrounding parishes, people were ordered to evacuate, but in low-lying areas prone to flooding, many residents could not afford to leave.

Hurricane Ida became the most destructive storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season which ends on November 30. It was one of seven named storms to hit the United States as the season exhausted the list of tropical storm names for the second year in a row.

While many New Orleans residents breathed a sigh of relief when Ida’s storm surge subsided, the damage outside of the city’s dike system was devastating.

In the parish of St. John, about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, Ida’s storm surge inundated the largest city, LaPlace, whose residents have faced numerous natural disasters. over the years. Most residents of LaPlace could not afford to evacuate. When the storm hit, people pleaded for boat rescues. Two months later, residents were still awaiting repairs and some were considering leaving for good.

Indigenous communities living in the bayous of the Louisiana coast also face the risk of permanent displacement. One example is the Houma people, who have seen many of their homes damaged or destroyed. The Houma have been recognized by the state as a tribe since 1972 but are not recognized by the federal government and are therefore not eligible for federal community aid. Instead, members seek help as private citizens. Many found themselves homeless and their displacement eroded the sense of the Houma community and their connection to their land.

Many homes in LaPlace, Louisiana were uninhabitable after Hurricane Ida.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

FEMA aid favors wealthier homeowners

In many parts of the United States, the legacy of segregation means that low-income communities are more likely to live in high-risk areas. When Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in 2017, for example, low-income neighborhoods were hit the hardest. According to the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, a quarter of affordable multi-family housing is in a currently mapped floodplain and is vulnerable to future flooding.

As disasters become more frequent in a warming climate, low-income people without adequate assistance in areas prone to floods and hurricanes are likely to be permanently displaced, as it will be too expensive to try to rebuild.

Agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development all respond to climate-related emergencies. But the absence of any central coordinating agency means that the government’s response tends to be disorganized and may even contribute to worsening inequalities.

FEMA, the primary source of post-disaster funding, focuses primarily on property recovery and reconstruction, which favors homeowners and the wealthiest people. Aid is allocated on the basis of cost-benefit calculations designed to minimize the risk to the taxpayer.

When property values ​​are higher, FEMA damages payments are higher, making it easier to rebuild wealthier neighborhoods. As a result, the majority of funds are not given to those who need it most but rather to those whose property is worth more.

A boy with a furrowed forehead and a sad look sits in a boat with his family as they check out flooded mobile homes.
Low-income communities along the Louisiana coast were hit hardest by Hurricane Ida.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images

People with more resources can also request help more easily, while the application process can be too complicated and demanding for those without access to up-to-date information and internet service.

FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program provides financial assistance to those who are uninsured, but the program cannot cover all disaster-related losses. Federal assistance takes the form of a FEMA loan or grant of approximately $ 5,000 per household. But the average flood insurance claim in 2018 exceeded $ 40,000, according to FEMA.

The National Flood Insurance Program helps those who can afford insurance. But those who are uninsured are unable to recoup their losses. Disaster cycles ensue in which those most at risk cannot access finance to prepare for or recover from disasters.

For example, in the event of an urban flood, homeowning families can receive up to $ 30,000 in FEMA grants for reconstruction and recovery. If they have higher incomes, they can also benefit from a tax refund. Wealthier people are also more likely to apply for low-interest disaster loans from the Small Business Administration.

In contrast, low-income families who are uninsured or rent a home often receive smaller grants from FEMA and are not eligible for large tax refunds or SBA loans due to their low ratings. credit.

A man moves a cabinet into a kitchen with a missing roof and walls splashed with storm mud.  Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Federal disaster assistance focuses on rebuilding damaged homes, including in high-risk locations.
Sean Rayford / Getty Images

In addition, wealthier individuals and families often receive help from their employers and have more flexibility in terms of free time to recuperate and care for their families. Low-income families generally don’t have the luxury of quitting their jobs, and many lose them even in the wake of climate-related disasters and business closures.

This means that those with wealth and high incomes experience a very different recovery process than those with less assets and lower incomes. Climate disasters can push less privileged people and those who do not own property into debt as they are displaced, lose their jobs, and have to pay higher housing and rent prices as a result. reduced availability of housing.

How the government could help

Sociologists have said for decades that natural disasters exacerbate inequalities. New Orleans and Houston are just two examples of insufficient short-term emergency responses.

The U.S. government can minimize the risks and impact of displacement by planning and preparing for slow and fast onset events.

It can shift from a disaster response focused on asset recovery to one focused on protecting those most at risk. The federal government is starting to take steps in this direction. In September 2021, it broadened the forms of aid offered. It has also expanded the types of ownership and occupancy documents it accepts, a change intended to help people living in homes passed down from generation to generation who lack clear ownership documents. These changes must now be made public as part of a broader government strategy to increase protection for low-income residents.

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Ideally, the government could set up an agency focused on climate-related migration and displacement to research how areas at risk will be affected and work with residents to find solutions. In our experience, the most effective agencies are those that work closely with local communities.

Strengthening protection in at-risk areas and supporting low-income communities recovering from disasters can help reduce economic and political polarization, population loss and economic decline, and strengthen protection for all.


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