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The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season demonstrated how low-income communities are most at risk
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The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season demonstrated how low-income communities are most at risk

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 the day. Billions of dollars invested in reinforcing them had paid off – at least for part of the population.

It is evident that Ida and Katrina share strong similarities: There are still low-income communities and communities with people of color at high riskHurricanes.

As scholars who study refugees and migrationWe are seeing that communities most at-risk are being forced into permanent displacement and homelessness or deeper into poverty by each climate-related catastrophe. The United States government could prevent much of this by investing in preparedness and protecting vulnerable communities.

‘Hunker down’

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Catrell, despite years of preparations, said that there was no time for a mandatory evacuation order because Ida quickly intensified into an extremely powerful 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 evacute, but in low-lying and flood-prone locations, many residents couldn’t afford to leave.

Hurricane Ida was the cause of the most destructive stormThe busy 2021 Atlantic hurricane seasonThis ends on Nov. 30. It was one the seven named storms that hit the U.S.A. as the season ended. second year in a row.

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 Parish, about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, Ida’s storm surge flooded the largest town, LaPlaceResidents of this community have been affected by many natural disasters throughout the years. Most LaPlace residents couldn’t afford to evacuate. People were unable to evacuate when the storm struck. pleaded for boat rescues. Two months later, residents were still waiting for repairsSeveral were considering moving permanently.

Permanent displacement is also a possibility for Native communities in the bayous of Louisiana. The Houma people are an example of this, as they saw many of their neighbors being relocated. homes damaged or destroyed. The Houma were recognized by the state as a tribeSince 1972, they have not been recognized by the federal government. They are therefore not eligible for federal community aid. 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 were damaged by Hurricane Ida.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

FEMA aid favors wealthy homeowners

The legacy of segregation in many parts of the United States means that low-income communities are more likely live in high-risk areas. For example, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 flooded Houston. low-income neighborhoods were most affected. According to the 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 frequentLow-income individuals without adequate assistance in flood and hurricane-prone areas will likely be permanently relocated in a warming world. It will be too costly to rebuild.

Climate-related emergencies are handled by agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The good news is that there are many other agencies that can help with climate-related emergencies. 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 most in need, 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 can apply for aid faster, but the application process can be more complicated for those who don’t have access to the latest information and internet service.

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 either a loan or a FEMA grant, approximately $5,000 per household. The assistance is not limited to the following: average flood insurance claimFEMA reported that 2018 saw an increase of $40,000

The National Flood Insurance ProgramThis insurance is available to those who are able to afford it. But those who are uninsured aren’t able to recover their losses. The most vulnerable are at greatest risk of disasters. cannot access fundingEither to prepare for or to recover from disasters.

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 can result in significant tax refunds and SBA 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 disasters, even those in high-risk areas.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

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

This means that people with more possessions and higher incomes will experience a different recovery process to those with less. 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 increase inequalities. Houston and New Orleans are just two examples that illustrate the inadequacy short-term emergency responses.

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 move away from a disaster response that focuses on property recovery to one that protects the most vulnerable. The federal government is making some steps in this direction. It increased the range of assistance available in September 2021. It also expanded the types of home ownership and occupancy documentsIt accepts, a change meant for those living in homes passed down through generations. lack clear ownership documents. These changes need to be made public as part a larger government strategy for increasing protection for low-income residents.

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Ideally, the government could establish a climate-related migration agency to research how at-risk areas will become affected and work with residents in finding 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.


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