Climate disasters are inevitable. Their disparate impacts—and our disparate responses—are not. – Next100
Commentary   Climate

Climate disasters are inevitable. Their disparate impacts—and our disparate responses—are not.

Neither the burdens of risk nor the benefits of recovery from disasters are equally shared. We need to seriously think about climate equity in our communities before disaster strikes.

“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” is a provocative statement to make on a national platform—at least it was sixteen years ago. When Ye, commonly known by his former name Kanye West, took the stage at NBC Universal’s Hurricane Katrina relief concert in September 2005, his statement about our then-president disrupted our national consciousness with a ferocity that echoed Katrina’s Category 5 winds. Today, the spectacle of Ye’s rant matters less (he has since walked back his comment), but what still lingers are the very real consequences of our government’s ineffective response to the storm that resulted in 1,833 deaths and dramatically changed New Orleans. His comment, the public response, and the reverberating political aftershocks altered our shared memory of Hurricane Katrina and continue to shape our discourse around government efforts during a crisis.

We know now that the enormous cost of Hurricane Katrina—$178.8 billion dollars, the costliest storm on record—was not shared equally. Four of the seven zip codes with the costliest flood damage were at least 75 percent Black. We also know that our post-disaster recovery resources did not flow equitably: the state of Louisiana used federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars to assist homeowners, and Black homeowners received an average of $8,000 less than white homeowners. The difference in awards was the result of damage assessments being based on property values—ultimately directing more assistance to wealthier homeowners. These dollar figures are illuminating data points, but even so, they do not at all reflect the myriad challenges that many New Orleanians faced prior to and in the wake of the storm, or the general disruption to their lives and homes.

Hurricanes like Katrina and other natural disasters test the capacity of our government infrastructure to support our most vulnerable. These extreme weather events are revealing because they are moments when significant amounts of government resources and programs are unlocked, and when reliance on them is a shared necessity. The COVID-19 pandemic is an analogous example—albeit on a much larger scale—of broad reliance on the federal government during an emergency, and on dedicated and substantial emergency federal dollars. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 released trillions of dollars in emergency relief to help Americans weather the COVID-19 pandemic. The same can also be said more broadly for the twenty-two (a record number) billion-dollar weather and climate disasters across the United States that occured in 2020: when disaster strikes, we rely on our government to help us restore our lives.

Taken through this lens, Ye’s comments start to look less like the antics of a rogue pop star and more like a somewhat-prescient, high-profile critique of our disaster preparedness and recovery policies —a system that we put to the test with increasing frequency and regularity every year. George W. Bush may have caught the heat, but the very real—and still present—concern is that Black people, low-income communities, and communities of color face increased vulnerability to extreme weather events, and that—as described below—our disaster recovery policies disproportionately benefit white Americans.

I. Disaster recovery policy is climate policy.

Disparities in disaster risk and recovery become more crucial to examine closely when we recognize that our disaster recovery policies are a critical part of our climate policies. Extreme weather events are the very real face of the sometimes more abstract notion of climate change. Following protocols established in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, signed into law in 1988, these events are also often triggers to unlock federal dollars in the wake of disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the most well-known government agency with a mandate to respond to disasters, and for good reason: it launches the federal government’s immediate response to disasters and is the primary source of our disaster recovery resources. The agency spent over $50 billion on disasters for the fiscal year 2021 alone. This is unsurprising, given that FEMA is the federal agency whose mission is, specifically, to help people before, during, and after disasters and other emergencies. FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP) provides financial and direct services to eligible individuals and households affected by a disaster, who have uninsured or under-insured necessary expenses and serious needs. FEMA also manages our National Flood Insurance Program, which provides insurance to help reduce the economic impact of floods.

When it comes to long-term recovery post-disaster, however, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) plays an outsize role in funding communities’ recovery and climate resilience plans. The agency’s disaster recovery portfolio alone accounts for the federal government’s single largest investment in recovery and resilience in low-to-moderate income communities.

Congress first appropriated funds to HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program for disaster recovery (CDBG-DR) following Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 Category 5 storm that ravaged Miami, and southern Florida where I grew up. Since that initial funding was released in 1993, Congress has provided over $90 billion in supplemental appropriations through HUD’s CDBG program to help communities recover from disasters: HUD has issued over 100 notices in the Federal Register, the daily journal where government activity like this is publicized, linked to these funds since 2001.

Funds distributed through the CDBG-DR program are meant to be used to help those most impacted, especially low-income residents needing housing recovery assistance. The funds are specified to be used for “disaster relief, long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure and housing, economic revitalization, and mitigation, in the most impacted and distressed areas,” but states and localities have discretion in distributing dollars to meet the needs of their communities. In 2017 alone—the year of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—Congress appropriated over $130 billion in supplemental disaster funding in response to those and other disaster events, with FEMA and HUD’s CDBG-DR program receiving the largest share of the appropriations. For that same year, broader federal spending for climate change was only $13.2 billion across nineteen agencies, according to a Government Accountability Office report that tracked spending on “climate change-related activities.” By default, HUD’s CDBG-DR program—in coordination with other federal disaster recovery efforts through FEMA—has become a central vehicle for American communities to recover and rebuild in our broader fight against climate change.

That is poised to change: President Biden’s administration, and Democrats in Congress, are leading the charge to invest the largest amount of money ever spent by the federal government to address climate change. The most recent version of the Build Back Better Act would steer $555 billion towards climate mitigation efforts, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and more; this is on top of the $47 billion dedicated in the recently passed infrastructure bill for climate resilience projects intended to help communities prepare for the worsening effects of climate change.

These are critical investments; and yet even with this increased funding, communities will not be completely shielded from climate disasters. The levees that collapsed under Katrina’s onslaught were designed and built to protect New Orleans, and in the years since that failure we have learned much more about potential physical and economic impacts that extend beyond our physical resilience infrastructure. Even with dramatic action, we will continue to face climate disasters; and even with better resilience planning and projects, we will still also need to rely on our disaster recovery programs to help households recover from climate disasters.

This makes our disaster recovery policies a primary tool in our government’s climate response for many communities and a compelling entry point for us to think about how we mitigate risk to individuals and families, as well as how to ensure that our resources flow to the communities most in need. Given the increased frequency of disasters and the growing dollar amounts allocated in response to them, we need to pay more attention to this markedly large source of climate-related spending, and ensure it is enhancing equity—not reducing it.

II. Disproportionate climate risk and other inequities are exacerbated after disasters.

Disproportionate climate risk often leaves many Black, low-income, and communities of color vulnerable to disasters: they bear the burden of this increased risk, but often do not reap the benefits of our government’s responses through its disaster recovery programs.

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Data shows that our government’s legacy of redlining and segregation means that communities of color—and particularly Black Americans—live in neighborhoods that bear the brunt of flooding and extreme heat. Using formerly redlined communities as a proxy, it is evident that our intentional practices of disinvestment and residential segregation have led to increased climate vulnerability for these communities. Previously redlined communities across the country are on average four degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer, and 25 percent more of the homes in these communities face high flood risk compared to those in non-redlined communities. This disproportionately impacts people of color, given that 58 percent of households in former redlined areas are non-white, with Black homeowners nearly five times more likely than whites to own in a formerly redlined neighborhood.

Black and Latinx residents lose close to $30,000 on average after natural disasters, while white residents tend to gain over $120,000.

These disparities in risk are exacerbated by disparities in response when disaster strikes. We have evidence that both disasters and our responses to them affect wealth accumulation by race. A 2018 study found that Black residents tend to lose wealth after natural disasters, while white residents tend to gain wealth, in part because federal assistance payments to individuals and households favor wealthier Americans. Black and Latinx residents lose close to $30,000 on average after natural disasters, while white residents tend to gain over $120,000. These are the sorts of inequities that strike at the root of our disaster policy challenge: we aren’t effectively mitigating risk, and then our post-disaster responses exacerbate inequities.

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On the front end and the back end, our intentional policy design decisions contribute to this state of affairs. On the front end, for example, as noted above, redlining has made Black families more likely to live in flood-prone communities. On the back end, when large dollar amounts flow to communities for long-term recovery and future climate protections, those dollars are often released through competitive grant programs, like FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, that are more likely to flow to well-resourced, and often predominantly white, areas that have better capacity to apply. Similarly, flood mitigation resources and recovery dollars are often based on property values, resulting in reduced dollar amounts flowing to low-wealth communities and communities of color. In addition to these funding disparities, long delays for relief aid often prevent families from recovering and returning to their homes at all. We have effectively established a set of policies that leave Black, low-income, and communities of color vulnerable to disasters and, in the wake of disasters, divert our federal resources away from these very same communities.

III. Disasters are inevitable.

It is clear that climate change is causing long-term global temperature shifts, changing our weather patterns, and increasing the frequency and magnitude of disasters and extreme weather events. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record and there were a record number of billion-dollar weather disasters. It is also pretty clear that no matter what we do to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions broadly and increase resilience in our cities, we will continue to be faced with the threat of extreme weather events for the foreseeable future.

Our policies in this area need to care about Black people.

This existential threat is going to force more and more Americans to rely on the government in times of crisis. To that end, we can view Ye’s 2005 refrain as a call for our government to care. The work of preparing for and recovering from disasters is our collective responsibility—and, put simply, our policies in this area need to care about Black people. Indeed, the threat of climate disasters is universal, but we know that Black, low-to-moderate income families, and communities of color in particular are disproportionately impacted for a number of reasons. We need to use awareness of these disparities in risk and recovery to think critically not only about how we respond to disasters, but also about how we prepare for them. By exploring disparities in climate vulnerability and assessing our responses to climate disasters, we can highlight policies and programs that can be reformed to better address those inequities—especially in regards to low-income, Black, and other communities of color.

No matter the approach, it is time that we get serious about disasters and take bold steps to ensure that our most vulnerable communities are protected from the worst.

header image: Residents in the West Brook neighborhood inspect the damage to their homes following a suspected ef-4 tornado early in the morning in Trotwood, Ohio. Source: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

About the Author

Dan Mathis Housing + Design

Dan is a housing advocate working on advancing housing policy related to climate change and community engagement. He is a native Floridian, an HBCU graduate, and, prior to joining Next100, worked with an affordable housing coalition in Florida. At Next100, Dan draws on his lived experience growing up in a segregated coastal community to promote equity and justice in housing and climate planning.

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