The blog of the Urban Institute
June 2, 2020

Communities’ Disaster Risk Depends On More Than Just Physical Exposure

Yesterday was the first day of hurricane season, and projections suggest it could be a rough one. Not only are the frequency and severity of this year’s storms expected to be above average, but the storms also come amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Virus-related restrictions will strain evacuation, shelter, and relief efforts.

As communities across the Gulf States prepare for hurricane season, it’s important to remember that disparities in wealth and power that exist before a storm can predict how households will fare after—and these disparities are often as or even more important than the differences in physical exposure to the storm.

Our research, currently underway and funded by the National Academies of Sciences’ Gulf Research Program, focuses on housing in the Greater New Orleans region. Gulf Coast communities understand how housing can either nurture shared well-being or exacerbate inequality, and southeastern Louisiana has a long history of housing segregation and major disasters.

With the Atlantic hurricane season around the corner, more challenges are sure to come. Major disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as regular flooding events, have long been part of the landscape, but their frequency and intensity have increased with the worsening effects of climate change.

The networks of canals, levees, pumps, and green infrastructure that keep the region dry are increasingly inadequate for protecting against rising sea levels and storm surges. But updates are on the horizon: the Army Corps of Engineers is considering investing around $3.2 billion in federal funds in new protections, and another $1.2 billion will come from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the Community Development Block Grant Mitigation Program.

These investments provide planners and community leaders with a unique opportunity to consider the social impacts of flood protection, including which neighborhoods will see improvements.

Examining disparities in disaster impacts and exposure in Greater New Orleans

The siting and maintenance of major flood protections and related public works has displaced and ignored marginalized communities (PDF). In the aftermath of Katrina, communities living in damaged areas across greater New Orleans were reported to be 45.8 percent African American, compared with 26.4 percent African American for undamaged areas (PDF). And in the recovery, a much smaller share of African Americans returned to their home counties than other racial groups, possibly because African Americans were evacuated farther distances.

But decisions for increasing protection always have social implications, and the resources and power of a group, including systemically disadvantaged people of color, in some cases, are even greater factors in a disaster’s impact on a community than physical exposure. Natural disasters’ disparate effects are not always a result of living in high-exposure areas—they are often an outcome of a complex history of social and institutional exclusion.

To explore this trend, we can contrast a Census block group in Grand Isle, a barrier island at the edges of Jefferson Parish and one of the most exposed areas in the region, with one in Village de L’Est, a neighborhood in the eastern section of Orleans Parish.

Examining a block group from each neighborhood, we see all the land in the Grand Isle block is within the most recent (2018) flood zone, compared with only 15 percent of the land in Village de L’Est. But the population in Grand Isle is exclusively white and relatively wealthy. American Community Survey data show the selected Grand Isle community includes 100 percent white households, with 89 percent of the population making at or above the median income level for the seven-parish New Orleans metropolitan area.

Our selected block group in Village de L’Est, on the other hand, is a center for the region’s Vietnamese community, where 70 percent of households are Asian or Pacific Islander, 20 percent are black, and 8 percent are white. Only 3 percent of the population have a college degree, and one-third of households make 50 percent or less of the area median income. Contrary to expectations, more of the whiter, wealthier area is at risk of flooding than the poorer area, where people of color predominantly live.

These trends hold true across the region. When comparing the amount of block groups’ land that falls within the flood zone with various indicators of social or economic vulnerability, we found physical exposure does not necessarily vary by community demographics. We found no link between an area’s share of people without a college education or the share of people earning less than 50 percent of the regional area median income and the share living in a flood zone. This was true within each parish and across the region.

In terms of race and ethnicity, only Hispanic households are more likely to live in more flood-prone block groups across the entire region and within Orleans Parish, and only Asian or Pacific Islander households who live in suburban parishes are more likely to live in flood zones. But these effects are quite small and might be explained by the growth of these groups in the flood areas after Katrina.

Of course, in many instances, low-income, African American, Latinx, and Native communities are directly exposed to more environmental risks than wealthier, white neighbors. But vulnerability to disasters is not the same as exposure. Regardless of how exposed populations are to disaster risk, some will have more built-in capacity to protect themselves financially and politically and, therefore, more capacity for faster recovery.

Disaster inequity is the difference in resources that communities and their residents have to prepare for and mitigate risks to their lives, livelihoods, and property before the winds pick up, as well as the resources for recovery. Emergency managers, community planners, and regional policymakers need to focus on addressing the needs and constraints in communities that lack these resources.

Two men paddle in high water in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area August 31, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Devastation is widespread throughout the city with water approximately 12 feet high in some areas. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

 

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