This blog is part of a series on climate justice and climate hazards. Through this series we explore major climate hazards, how marginalized populations are impacted by them, and the policy solutions that could lead to more equitable, resilient communities.
The 2021 hurricane season is off to an aggressive start, with families in Louisiana and Mississippi still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Ida, which left more than a million people without power in Louisiana and caused severe flooding as far north as New Jersey and New York. Scientists predict 7-10 major hurricanes as well as 15 to 21 major storms before the season ends on Nov. 30. As hurricanes grow in intensity due to the effects of climate change, low-income individuals, people of color, the unhoused, and disabled residents disproportionately face the harshest impacts of these storms. Solutions intended to protect affected communities from hurricanes must prioritize protections for these individuals.
Low-income communities often have little resilient infrastructure or few, if any, buildings with strong foundations and proper roofing, leaving them more vulnerable to severe winds and water damage. Families in these communities often lack the necessary resources to protect their homes or the means to purchase flood insurance, which costs an average of $700 per year in the United States. Without access to resilient infrastructure, evacuation becomes even more important. However, low-income families may also have no ability or resources to evacuate and nowhere to go if they do, putting people without sufficient resources or reasonable protection on the front lines of hurricanes.
Unhoused and disabled individuals with few resources and unmet accessibility needs face additional risks by staying in hurricane-prone communities that lack resilient infrastructure for them. Furthermore, federal disaster aid has been found to be more heavily allocated to wealthier communities, rather than low-income communities of color, further exacerbating wealth inequalities after hurricanes and limiting low-income communities’ ability to recover.
Additionally, a history of redlining in the United States has disproportionately left low-income communities of color in areas most vulnerable to hurricane impacts. Continued disinvestment in these communities compounds these risks through factors such as poor-quality housing. Today, 64 percent of the individuals who live in formerly redlined neighborhoods are people of color, and 74 percent of redlined neighborhoods are still low- to moderate-income areas. Redlined neighborhoods are more vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes because they face higher risks of flooding than other neighborhoods. In New Orleans, redlining allowed for wealthy, white homeowners to purchase homes at higher elevations, which left low-income communities of color to live at lower elevations and ultimately led to Hurricane Katrina’s disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color.
Solutions at all levels of government must center on communities disproportionately affected by hurricanes. In addition to mitigating climate change, additional action to reduce harm from hurricanes could include:
Accelerate pre-disaster hazard mitigation and resilient rebuilding: The federal government has recently increased its support for states and local governments to implement resilience projects that address a variety of climate-related hazards, including hurricanes. Significant funding increases have been allocated to programs like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (FEMA BRIC) program. However, additional set-aside funding and technical assistance for risk assessment and project planning is needed to advance resilience building in low-income communities. Pre-disaster planning can also support communities in rebuilding resiliently when disasters like hurricanes strike. Congress should allocate additional funds for planning and technical assistance through the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery program.
Build storm-resistant structures: New and rebuilt structures should meet higher standards and be more resilient to high-speed winds and flying debris. Furthermore, building codes should require structures at flood risk to be elevated, as well as strong foundations that can withstand floodwater. Congress should codify the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard to consider future flood risk in flood-prone areas where federal dollars support development.
Ease and streamline evacuation: People with disabilities require accessible evacuation routes from buildings. Governments can also encourage pre-disaster evacuation through financial incentives or grants to help residents with initial accommodation and transportation costs. Moreover, cities and states can collaborate to offer space more explicitly for individuals evacuating.
Upgrade public shelters: Governments in areas of greatest need should build and maintain shelters with strong foundations and the ability to withstand severe hurricanes to serve individuals unable to evacuate. The Environmental Protection Agency’s EJ Screen tool can offer insight as to which communities are most vulnerable, though conversations with state and local officials and community leaders can help identify vulnerable communities and their specific needs.
Build out energy infrastructure: High-speed winds from hurricanes often lead to power outages, which can have devastating impacts on communities, including loss of internet access, spoiling of perishable food, and the inability to use heating and cooling systems. Power outages exacerbate the risks posed to elderly and ill populations who rely on powered medical equipment. To address this problem, Congress should invest in modernizing U.S. electric grids to increase resilience.
Forecast and communicate: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently offers National Hurricane Preparedness resources, including forecast information, hurricane safety information, “to-go” kit recommendations, pandemic-specific preparation, and a list of public shelters, among other resources. Some of these resources are offered in Spanish in addition to English, and an expansion of multi-lingual resources can help address any language barriers to hurricane safety.
Support managed retreat: Governments should provide support for voluntary, community-informed managed retreat for residents who live in highly vulnerable coastal areas and want to relocate to less vulnerable locations. Federal and state governments can support managed retreat by providing increased resources and technical support for communities to assess the costs and equity implications of staying in place versus relocating and to create relocation plans.
Investing in increased resilience for communities most vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes can help mitigate future damage from increasingly severe hurricanes. Centering marginalized populations can ultimately save lives and ensure that no communities are left behind in the country’s efforts to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.