The blog of the Urban Institute
July 6, 2020

Disparities in Disaster Mitigation Resources and Information Can Leave Households Unprepared for Climate Threats

The effects of climate change—from more frequent and stronger disaster events to chronic flooding and heat waves—will blanket entire regions. But the resources, attention, and political will for ensuring everyone is prepared are not equitably distributed.

Mitigation can include fortifying homes, building more resilient infrastructure, and buying damaged properties to preempt disasters’ effects. Knowledge, attention, and money for mitigation largely go to households and communities able to navigate the system, meet onerous eligibility requirements, and wait for assistance. But exposure and vulnerability is highest for those with limited economic resources, including historically disinvested communities of color.

The Urban Institute is exploring how these disparities play out in places with high exposure to severe disasters and significant federal mitigation investments. Our studies continue to show that underlying vulnerabilities, often caused by structural racism and income inequality, impede recovery after disasters as much as physical damages do. But they are also likely causing disparities in access to resources and mitigation (PDF) before disasters occur, regardless of physical exposure.

Examining disparities in FEMA property acquisitions

National attention is starting to focus on these disaster investment disparities, particularly in the ongoing recovery of places like southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The uptake for some federally funded mitigation activities, such as elevations and flood proofing, are constrained by high construction standards and cost justifications. These requirements often exclude owners of lower-valued properties.

“Buyouts,” or the purchasing of repeatedly destroyed properties susceptible to future damage, have drawn increased attention. This mitigation strategy can help homeowners move from riskier to safer places, but there are many challenges and disparities in payouts. An NPR analysis found that 85 percent of funds for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) property acquisitions or buyouts have gone to majority-white communities.

We found a similar trend in Louisiana, which receives the highest total value of federal mitigation funding in the country (almost $2.5 billion since 1989). Despite that level of investment, our analysis of FEMA acquisitions between 1994 and 2016 found most were in zip codes with fewer than 30 percent Black residents and with poverty rates below the state average at the time of the acquisition. This pattern also holds true when viewed at the parish level and when compared with current racial demographics and poverty rates.

Map: most LA FEMA acquisitions 1994-2016 were in parishes with small black populations

A complicated path for households preparing for disaster

Disaster mitigation funding comes from many sectors: federal, state and local, public, and philanthropic sources. Most federal property-level mitigation efforts are funded by FEMA (PDF) through three main programs, collectively known as Hazard Mitigation Assistance Programs (PDF). The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s postdisaster funds have also been used for acquisition in places such as Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.

States administer federal grants and often provide their own incentives and funds for home mitigation. In Louisiana, residents can apply for an exclusion to state sales taxes for the purchase of and costs to install storm shutters, for tax deductions to retrofit existing residences to the state’s Uniform Construction Code, and for insurance discounts for qualified retrofits or mitigation improvements.

Despite these opportunities, mitigation rates are paltry. Many factors contribute to low rates, starting with the fact that mitigation efforts are not adequately funded or administered. With a 25 percent required match, states with limited resources mitigate less. Philanthropies, including faith-based efforts and nonprofits, may fill in gaps, but such assistance usually comes after disasters. Charitable efforts might support immediate housing needs, but they are not explicitly tasked with building for long-term mitigation. A Center for Disaster Philanthropy report found only 3.5 percent of grants made in 2017 by the largest 1,000 philanthropic funders went to resilience, risk reduction, and mitigation combined.

Because most funds are released only after presidential disaster declarations, the chronic, lower-impact events that affect many Louisianans do not trigger mitigation resources. Communities are left waiting for disasters, and families are left trying to navigate a complicated system and cobble together funds and information. This is especially difficult for historically disinvested communities.

For FEMA programs, eligibility is restricted to homeowners who are current policy holders in the National Flood Insurance Program, required by most lenders in exposed communities. But this requirement excludes renters, unmortgaged home occupants (such as multigenerational deed holders), and vulnerable homes outside evolving flood zone boundaries who cannot voluntarily pay the premiums.

Even for households who meet these narrow requirements, residents may be unaware of their options, often because programs have insufficient information and communications campaigns, particularly in communities that have been historically ignored or discriminated against. Households pursuing funds must also commit the time and attention to managing an application process that can take up to four and a half years. Homeowners may decide the process of applying for funds is not worth the investment in property improvements.

Restructuring mitigation efforts can put residents on a path toward preparedness

Regional infrastructure mitigation projects are gaining more attention, and federal funding is going to new pots like FEMA’s Building Resilience in Communities and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant for Mitigation. But steps to reform property-level mitigation resources and develop new ways of dealing with emergent hazards are also essential and could include the following:

  • expanding the scale of predisaster federal mitigation funds to align community infrastructure and individual properties’ mitigation
  • allowing funds to be used flexibly at the local level while upholding program targets, such as creating revolving loan programs
  • prioritizing households with fewer economic resources, including renters, through options like zero-interest or forgivable loans that are tied to a households’ ability to buy private insurance
  • incentivizing fair and equitable community-wide buyouts in high-exposure landscapes and high-vulnerability communities, as defined through public and transparent local planning processes for historically disinvested neighborhoods,
  • developing extensive information and engagement campaigns through trusted local community organizations in alignment with other wraparound services, such as relocation assistance

In short, the country could invest as much political and policy attention to communities and disparities before disasters occur as it currently invests after. Doing so would have greater, more equitable benefits for all communities.

Janie and Jessie Peña stand for a portrait in front of their home, which was destroyed in Hurricane Harvey, in Wharton, Texas on July 1, 2018. The Peñas, who are both in their 80s, now live in the second story of their grandson's apartment, which was also damaged in the flood. They have owned the home for 50 years. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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