Equitable Climate Adaptation Requires Accounting for Disparities in Exposure and Resources
Earlier this month, 16 years after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ida battered southeast Louisiana and left hundreds of thousands of people without power. The storm, one of the strongest to hit Louisiana, continued inland with enough power to cause tornadoes and intense flooding throughout the northeast US, particularly in and around New York City.
As of September 15, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved 25 parishes in Louisiana and 18 counties in New York and New Jersey for individual assistance grants, which allow people who qualify to apply for disaster recovery funds. The extensive geographic range of Ida’s destruction is a sobering reminder of the urgent need to adapt to the realities of climate change.
Last September, we wrote about how disaster relief and recovery efforts must consider the diverse needs and vulnerabilities of affected communities. Today, in the midst of another record-breaking hurricane season, the question of what building back better will look like—and when migrating might be the better choice—seems particularly salient.
Equitable long-term adaptation will require policymakers to consider the unique challenges that populations with limited resources face in both leaving their homes and staying, and to create systems that best support them in preparing for the effects of a changing climate.
Households with low incomes are at greater risk during and after a disaster
Households with low incomes face several challenges in adapting to the increased risk of disasters. They have less access to high-quality housing stock and are more likely to live in higher-exposure areas, such as basement apartments and houses in low-elevation neighborhoods, which have a greater likelihood of suffering damages (PDF).
Additionally, people with low incomes have limited savings, which makes it more challenging to relocate to lower-exposure areas as a long-term adaptation measure. When they can relocate, they may be disconnected from their existing community networks that provide in-kind support like child care, familial, or cultural connections. Our analysis of areas approved for FEMA individual assistance funding after Hurricane Ida found that 17 percent of those in affected New York and New Jersey counties and 18 percent of those in affected Louisiana parishes live below the federal poverty level.
Income is also a stratifying factor for people’s ability to recover after a disaster. Following Ida, where thousands were left without power, households with higher incomes, who can afford to live in areas and housing types less exposed to storm hazards, also have greater ability to afford generators and food and water reserves, which makes short-term recovery more manageable.
Households with low incomes are left vulnerable to the subsequent risks after a disaster passes, such as high temperatures and lack of electricity. What’s more, residents with low incomes who are displaced from disasters face a higher income burden for finding temporary housing, exacerbating already strained housing supportive services.
Renters and homeowners face distinct challenges in disaster adaptation and recovery
Renters face significant challenges in disaster recovery and climate adaptation. We found that, in counties approved for post-Ida FEMA individual assistance funds in New York and New Jersey, 69 percent of households are renters. Many of those who died in the flooding lived in basement apartments, which are often the best option available for immigrant renters with low incomes.
Without financial equity in their property, renters have fewer opportunities to adapt their housing to changing climate conditions, they may lose their housing as landlords decide not to rebuild or invest in mitigation, and they face a greater resource burden as they don’t qualify for FEMA Individual Assistance. Renters often have more limited choices in where they can live because of a national shortage of affordable housing, which can make finding safer housing within the same city or migrating to less exposed areas with a higher demand more challenging—creating climate gentrification.
On the other hand, homeowners who've experienced repeated property damage from disasters face the difficult choice of whether to rebuild or relocate. The necessary improvements for mitigating risk may act as a tipping point, pushing households into debt or using up limited savings. Severe repetitive loss properties (PDF) may be eligible for buyouts, but as climate conditions change, exposure will also likely shift, leaving those outside of identified repeated disaster areas vulnerable without existing supports (PDF).
What’s more, cost-benefit analyses for resilience infrastructure rarely consider the distribution of protective benefits across diverse communities, perpetuating systemic social, economic, and environmental disparities. In Louisiana parishes affected by Ida, 66 percent of people own their home, whereas only 21 percent do in affected New York and New Jersey counties.
How can policymakers ensure adaptation works best for everyone?
As cities and communities plan for a changing climate, it’s critical not only to reflect on the destruction from the most recent disaster but to account for the larger range of physical and social vulnerabilities. Ida showed how disasters can affect populations with diverse needs in both short-term recovery and longer-term adaptation. Broadening our understanding of risk, vulnerability, and recovery can help ensure climate adaptation works for everyone.
Steps to advance this approach include the following:
- Understand the range of risk and vulnerability.
Without a broader context, even the most advanced engineering feats won’t provide comprehensive protection. This was evident in New Orleans and New York, where multi-billion-dollar storm surge protection systems didn’t protect against vulnerable electricity infrastructure and flash flooding from heavy rain. To protect residents and properly adapt, policymakers and local leaders need to understand the breadth of risk to communities and the resulting vulnerability. This involves thinking systemically about deficiencies in the current social safety net and examining where challenges to adaptation may compound existing inequities.
- Consider both short-term and long-term needs.
Immediate needs following a disaster are acute and focus on short-term safety, health, and security. Communities need to have systems in place to address these issues quickly. But even though addressing short-term needs is critical, policymakers and local leaders can’t lose sight of broader adaptation needs—such as how to maintain employment and connection to social networks, as well as the availability of resilient housing—in conversations around migration and adaptation.
- Listen to the community.
Planning for climate change is more than just building structural protections. Adaptation also requires integrating the needs and desires of the whole community. Whether or not relocation is necessary, supporting social infrastructure is just as important as developing physical infrastructure.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.
GRAND ISLE, LA - SEPTEMBER 4: A motorist drives down a road in the wake of Hurricane Ida on September 4, 2021 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane six days before in Louisiana and brought flooding, wind damage and power outages along the Gulf Coast. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)