Disasters Devastating Disadvantages

Julie H. Case

When it comes to hurricanes and floods, if you’re poor or Black in America, there’s no such thing as social justice.

In the U.S., natural disasters don’t strike equally. 

During its 10-plus years in disaster relief in the U.S., Team Rubicon has repeatedly seen Black and impoverished Americans both in the path of disasters and suffering the consequences of these disasters more severely. Oftentimes, this is a result of systematic racism. Minorities have long been pushed to “less desirable” neighborhoods, whether by overt racism or because of a racial wealth gap that has them seeking homes—to rent or own—in more affordable, and more disaster-prone areas, and especially within flood plains. 

Clearing drywall out of a Rockport, TX, home after Hurricane Harvey.

While it may seem like Mother Nature has no preference for who is affected by a storm, non-white and Americans of lower socioeconomic means seem to increasingly be in disaster’s path. Then, there’s the disaster after the disaster: When disasters do hit, these people are often left behind in recovery. 

Here’s a look at some of the most disturbing facts about environmental and disaster injustice in the U.S.

Historic Hurricanes Illustrate Disaster Disparity

During Hurricane Harvey, the neighborhood that suffered the worst flood damage was an area of southwest Houston where 49% of the residents are nonwhite; the damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was most extensive in the Louisiana region’s predominantly African American neighborhoods. In fact, four of the seven zip codes with the costliest Katrina flood damage had populations that were at least 75% black, according to government records.

No Way to Run, Nowhere to Hide

There’s a common refrain that echoes through the minds of many living outside of regular disaster zones, such as the U.S. Gulf Coast: When a storm approaches, why not leave? For so many Americans, that’s easier said than done. According to the Federal Reserve, 35% of Americans would have trouble covering a $400 emergency with cash on hand; 12% of Americans wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency at all.

The cost to evacuate in the face of a disaster can easily surpass that $400 threshold. For those without personal transportation finding a way out is a high hurdle. For those with access to personal transportation there’s still the cost of gasoline and food along the way, plus the cost of finding a place to stay once outside the danger zone.

Hurricane Katrina illustrates this. More than 1,400 people died in the storm; two-thirds of those were people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, evacuate and died in their own homes. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, emergency planners in New Orleans estimated at least 100,000 people lacked access to personal transportation that would have allowed them to flee the storm. 

In Flood Zones, Disaster Insurance May Be a Fantasy

For many poor and minority Americans, insurance is a luxury, not a staple. Living an impoverished zero-sum existence means many face the real choice between insurance and food or gas to get to work. 

When Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana in 2020, it hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Roughly 17% of households in the affected areas were insured against the hurricane; in predominantly Black neighborhoods affected, an estimated 11% had insurance. 

Without insurance, recovery can be nearly impossible. Yet many uninsured and impoverished people live directly in the flood zones that are too costly to insure against. FEMA estimates that within high-risk flood areas, known as Special Flood Hazards Areas, 26% of people with a National Flood Insurance Program policy, and 51% percent without flood insurance are low-income.

Post-Disaster Buyouts Favor White Communities

For years, federal disaster aid, in the form of FEMA buyouts, has consistently gone more to white communities than to minority neighborhoods, according to an analysis by NPR of 40,000 FEMA buyouts from 1989 through 2017. Comparing ZIP codes associated with buyout areas and U.S. Census Bureau data on demographics, the report revealed that most of the buyouts happened in neighborhoods that were more than 85% white and non-Hispanic; overall, the U.S. is 62% white and non-Hispanic.

White Areas Receive Billions to Rebuild; Black Areas Don’t

According to an analysis of 1.4 million Small Business Administration loan records since 2001, disaster-struck white areas have received billions of dollars more to rebuild than disaster-struck black areas. In ZIP codes where at least 90% of the population is white, the SBA approved 52% of the applications; in ZIP codes where a majority of people are Black, the SBA approved just 28% of the applications.

After a Hurricane, White Homeowners Gain Wealth, Black Homeowners Lose It

Black American families in communities that do recover from natural disasters regularly find themselves on the wrong side of an ever-widening wealth gap.

Research has shown that white citizens who lived in counties with at least $10 billion in disaster damage between 1999 and 2013 gained nearly $126,000 in wealth per household. Meanwhile, Black citizens who lived in counties with at least $10 billion in damage lost an estimated $27,000.

Flooding in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey.

With 2020’s historic disaster barely behind, and an active disaster season projected for 2021, it’s more critical than ever that Americans address the inequities that result from disasters in the U.S.

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