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2021 Hurricane season revealed that the US isn’t prepared for climate-related catastrophes that push people into poverty.
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2021 Hurricane season revealed that the US isn’t prepared for climate-related catastrophes that push people into poverty.

A young man walks through furniture and household items strewn about by the hurricane, rescuing his mother's belongings.


Hurricane Ida struck New Orleans on August 29, 2021, 16 year after Hurricane Katrina had flooded the city. The levees held this time. Billions of dollars invested in reinforcing them had paid off – at least for part of the population.

There is still a strong similarity between Katrina and Ida: Communities of low income and communities of color remain at high riskHurricanes.

As scholars who study refugees and migrationWith each climate-related disaster, we are seeing that the most vulnerable communities are being forced into permanent displacement, homelessness, and deeper poverty. This could be avoided if the United States invested in preparedness and did more for vulnerable communities.

‘Hunker down’

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Catrell stated that there was not enough time to issue a mandatory evacuation order after Ida intensified into a Category 4 hurricane. She urged city residents to “hunker down.” Mass evacuations require coordination among multiple parishes and states, and there wasn’t enough time. In several surrounding parishes, people were told to evacuate, but in low-lying and flood-prone areas, many residents couldn’t afford to leave.

Hurricane Ida was the cause of the most destructive stormThe busy 2021 Atlantic hurricane seasonIt was the last of the, which ended on November 30. It was one eight named stormsThe season has ended, leaving the 21 tropical storm names on the list for the United States to be used. third year on record.

While many New Orleans residents breathed a sigh of relief as Ida’s storm surge subsided, the damage outside the city’s levee system was devastating.

In St. John the Baptist Parish, about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, Ida’s storm surge flooded the largest town, LaPlaceThe residents of LaPlace have suffered many natural disasters over time. Most LaPlace residents couldn’t afford to evacuate. People were unable to evacuate when the storm hit. pleaded for boat rescues. Two months later, residents were still waiting for repairsSeveral were considering moving permanently.

The risk of permanent displacement for native communities living in the bayous and coastal Louisiana is also present. The Houma People are one example. They saw many of their relatives die. homes damaged or destroyed. The Houma were recognized by the state as a tribeThey have been in existence since 1972, but they are not yet recognized by the federal government. Therefore, they are not eligible to receive federal community assistance. Instead, members apply for assistance as private citizens. Many were left without housing, and their displacement erodes the Houma’s sense of community and connection to their land.

A young man walks through furniture and household items strewn about by the hurricane, rescuing his mother's belongings.
Many homes in LaPlace (La.) were destroyed by Hurricane Ida.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

FEMA aid is for wealthier homeowners

Many parts of the U.S. have a legacy of segregation that means low-income communities are more inclined to live in high risk areas. For example, Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in 2017. low-income neighborhoods were most affected. According to Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium25% of multifamily housing, including affordable, is located within a floodplain. Future flooding could make it more difficult.

As disasters become more frequentIn a warming climate, low income people who are not provided with adequate assistance in hurricane- and flood-prone areas will likely be permanently displaced as it will be too expensive to rebuild.

Climate-related emergencies are handled by agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the absence of any central coordinating agency means the government’s response tends to be disorganized and can even contribute to deepening inequalities.

FEMA is the primary source of funding for post-disaster. focuses primarily on recovery and reconstructionproperty, which favors homeowners and wealthy individuals. The allocation of aid is based on cost-benefit calculations that minimize taxpayer risk.

When property values are higher, FEMA’s payments for damages are higher, making it easier for wealthier neighborhoods to rebuild. The majority of funds are not distributed to those who most need them, but to those whose property is more valuable.

A boy with a furrowed brow and sad look sits in a boat with his family as they check on flooded mobile homes.
Hurricane Ida was particularly devastating for low-income communities along Louisiana’s coast.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

People with more resources may be able to apply for aid more easily, while those without internet access or up-to-date information can find the process too difficult and time-consuming.

FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program provides financial assistance to those who are uninsured, but the program cannot pay for all disaster-related losses. Federal assistance is available as a loan, or as a FEMA grant for approximately US$5,000 per household. The assistance is not limited to the above. average flood insurance claimFEMA reported that 2018 saw an increase of $40,000

The National Flood Insurance ProgramIt is affordable for those who have the means to pay for it. But those who are uninsured aren’t able to recover their losses. Disasters are a constant threat to those most at-risk. cannot access fundingYou can either prepare for disasters, or you can recover from them.

FEMA grants of up to $30,000 can be granted to families with homes in urban flooding cases. They may also be eligible for a tax refund if they have higher incomes. Wealthier people are more likely apply for a tax refund. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans.

Contrarily, low-income families that are not insured or rent a house often have no insurance. receive smaller grantsFEMA and do not qualifyLow credit scores may qualify for substantial tax refunds or SBA loan loans.

A man moves cabinet in a kitchen with a missing roof and walls splattered with mud from the storm. Grand Isle, La.
Federal disaster assistance focuses on rebuilding homes damaged in high-risk areas.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Also, wealthy families often receive help through their employers and have more flexibility when it comes to taking time off to recuperate and take care of their family. Low-income families are often unable to leave their jobs and many lose their jobs due to climate-related disasters and business closures.

This means that those who have more possessions and a higher income experience a much different recovery process than those who have fewer. Climate disasters can drive less-privileged people and people who don’t own property into debtThey are forced to pay higher rents and housing prices because of the reduced housing supply.

How government could help

Social scientists have been saying for decadesNatural disasters can exacerbate inequalities. Houston and New Orleans are two examples of inadequate short-term emergency response.

The U.S. government can reduce the risk and impact of displacement by planning for and preparing. both slow- and rapid-onset events.

It can shift from a disaster management strategy that focuses on property recovery to one that protects the most vulnerable. The federal government is beginning to move in this direction. It expanded the types of assistance it offered in September 2021. It also expanded the types of home ownership and occupancy documentsIt accepts, a move meant to help those living in homes handed down through generations. lack clear ownership documents. These changes must now be made public as part of a larger government strategy to increase protection for low income residents.

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The government could create an agency to study climate-related migrations and displacements. This would allow residents to share their concerns and help find solutions. We have found that agencies that work closely with local communities are the most efficient.

Supporting low-income communities after disasters and strengthening protection in at-risk regions can help to reduce political and economic polarization, population loss, and economic decline and increase protection for all.

This article was updated Dec. 1 with the 2021 hurricane season’s final numbers.


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