In 2020, disasters have amplified inequity and social injustice in the U.S. more than ever before. It’s time to change that.
The lowlands along America’s Gulf Coast are water-soaked. So are the homes that cover it. Roofs ripped off by hurricane-force winds and crushed by falling trees pockmark the landscape. Already, mold has begun to crawl through the walls of homes here, even in those that were tarped over after Hurricane Laura made landfall and never completely dried. Even now, as the next round of storms bear down, many homes remain open to the elements.
These would be the homes of the elderly, the poor, and the people of color. They go to sleep hoping another storm doesn’t arrive or that the wind doesn’t drive rain through the gaping hole in that nearby wall. They live waiting for electricity to be returned; for the water to run again; for the other shoe to drop. They are among those most at risk of the coronavirus pandemic. And of being forgotten. They are our nation’s most vulnerable and, tragically, our system is designed—wittingly or unwittingly—to keep them there.
Over the past 10 years working in disaster relief and battling poverty in the U.S., we have repeatedly seen that it is the poor and communities of color who most often find themselves in disasters’ paths and who suffer the consequences of those disasters most severely. For the poor, this is due to America’s longstanding apathy toward the have-nots. For minority Americans, it’s due in part to decades of systemic racism. These racist policies, some on the books for over a century, have pushed Black Americans to build in disaster-prone areas like flood plains and robbed those same communities of critical infrastructure investment that would make them more resilient.
As a result, Americans of lower socioeconomic stature are highly likely to be living in homes that offer less protection from disasters and in neighborhoods more vulnerable to them. Even FEMA knows this. In its 2018 report to Congress on National Flood Insurance Program affordability, FEMA acknowledged that inside of Special Flood Hazard Areas about 26% of households with an NFIP policy, and 51% of households without the insurance policy, are low income.
Economic inequality and racial justice are rightfully the topics du jour but understand this: disaster justice is social justice. The increasing frequency and cost of disasters is disproportionately impacting our poor and minority communities; and each time a tornado, flood, or fire impacts one of them it winds back the clock on decades of work spent clawing their way toward the middle class.
Disaster Sympathy Favors the Wealthy—and the Insured
Look at any disaster in the days after it makes the headlines and one thing becomes obvious early on: The larger the number, the bigger the headline. Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes are attention-grabbing. Cosmopolitan cities with a large population in a disaster’s path? Bound to make the evening news. And disasters with big price tags? That kind of news sticks for weeks and months to come.
But the poor regularly get clipped from those numbers. That’s because in the initial days after a storm, data analytics firms such as CoreLogic begin churning out loss estimates. And those estimations come from assessments of insured citizens, homes, and businesses. What isn’t accounted for are the uninsured homeowners, the uninsured renters, the uninsured individuals who may be just scraping by without enough to spare for home renters’ insurance, or the additional cost of flood insurance. That these people often dwell in rural areas far beyond the concern of city-dwellers is not immaterial to the issue.
When major disasters hit cities like New York, Houston, or Miami, wealthy residents of other urban areas rise up to inject philanthropy into the recovery. Pro athletes from the hometown team raise money online, the high-powered partner at the white-shoe law firm with a big client in the impacted city cuts a check to curry favor, and the resident with a second home on the waterfront organizes a private jet full of Costco supplies. But if that same storm hits southwest Louisiana—where many of the survivors lack insurance and the means to recover themselves—we hear a collective refrain about “why would anyone build there?”
Disasters Cleave to Socioeconomic and Racial Lines
It’s not just our own experience that has revealed the incredible social and racial injustice being wrought in the midst of crises. Disaster history illustrates it. In 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 New Orleans’ 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.
Federal flood insurance payments show that in the U.S., flooding disproportionately harms African American neighborhoods—and not just in places typically flooded by hurricanes. It also includes urban flooding. In fact, in states such as Illinois and Michigan, the costliest flood damage occurs in Chicago and Detroit—major cities with large black populations. This is because city councils fail to invest in flood-resistant urban planning methods like parks and green spaces in poor and minority communities. Parks and green spaces provide far more than pleasurable aesthetic and places for our children to play; they also play a well-known role in absorbing water after significant rains. Additionally, mounting research indicates that poor urban areas are measurably hotter than more affluent urban areas in the same community. This is due in large part to a lack of green space. The more green in your pocket, the more green on your street.
Rather than invest in parks, city planners aim to create as much affordable housing density as possible, a density, we will note, that has contributed to the disproportionate spread of COVID-19 within poor minority communities. The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on minorities and the poor. In just six months since the pandemic was declared, American Indian and Native Americans were hospitalized 5.3 times as often as white Americans for COVID-19. The death rate for Black Americans’ is more than double that of white Americans’.
In 2020, inequity and social justice are simmering fires in communities across the U.S. Disasters and pandemics are the equivalent of pouring kerosene on the issues.
Rebuild Hampered: Fewer Loans, Fewer Buyouts for Black Americans
If minority and poor Americans are more likely to live in disaster-prone neighborhoods due to decades of policies that shoved them there, their recovery efforts are also being stymied. According to environmental news organization E&E News’s 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.
All the while, 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; the U.S. is 62% white and non-Hispanic.
Meanwhile, Black American families in communities that do recover from natural disasters find themselves on the wrong side of an ever-widening wealth gap. As white Americans in these communities gain wealth, their Black neighbors lose it. 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. One reason tracks back to insurance. For many poor and minority Americans, insurance is a luxury, not a staple. Many poor American families living in flood zones have owned their homes outright for generations. By not having a mortgage on the home they have no requirement to carry flood insurance. In the impoverished zero-sum existence that they lead, many face the real choice between insurance and food or gas to get to work. This reality exacerbates a second reason, which is that wealthy, often white, Americans who have better access to capital are able to snap up real estate at significant discounts after disasters—in effect buying the only real assets held by minority and poor populations for pennies on the dollar.
Time is Not On the Side of the Socially Vulnerable
If you’re insured against disasters, chances are you’ll receive a large check from an insurance company within a few weeks, and in some cases a few days, of making a claim. Those same insurance companies will often pay to house you in perfectly suitable housing, like a long-term home rental or hotel.
But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who lack suitable insurance, you’ll likely find yourself in a congregate shelter or, often worse, making the dangerous decision to continue living in a mold-infested home. That’s because it’s likely that you cannot afford any other option—according to the Treasury Department, 37% of Americans lack access to $400 in the case of an emergency. And if you do have that $400, you’ll suddenly find yourself choosing between groceries, gas, or a night at a motel.
Further complicating this, even if you’re lucky enough to qualify for federal assistance from FEMA, those payments are agonizingly slow to materialize. According to a Politico report, in Kashmere Gardens, a Houston community that is two-thirds black with a median income of $23,000, most residents had to wait a full year for FEMA assistance. When it arrived, the average payment of $4,300 was far less than the cost of repairs. Simply put, the poor cannot afford to wait for—or count on—meaningful federal aid.
It’s Time to Eliminate the Social Injustice of Disaster Relief in America
In America, disasters aren’t just increasing in frequency, they are also getting costlier. All the while, they are dramatically exacerbating income inequality—an inequity that too often cuts along racial lines. It is still early in 2020’s disaster season and already we have seen a Category 4 hurricane that delivered an estimated $8 to $12 billion in insured damages, and $20 billion in total damages in Louisiana, followed by a tropical storm that brought inches of rain. Now, the earliest 25th named storm rages and Hurricane Delta will likely soon arrive in this region. All the while, poor Americans here are living in homes that have already begun to mold.
Meanwhile, across the country, wildfires that will deliver billions of dollars in damage are raging in the west. As of early October, more than 7.8 million acres had already burned. And earlier this year a derecho destroyed nearly one-third of Iowa’s crops.
All of this is set against the increasing volume of a critical social justice debate following the killings of multiple young Black citizens. Long-term reforms to policing, education, the cash bail system, and other policy constructs that disadvantage poor and minority populations is critical; yet we cannot afford to take that long view at the expense of ignoring the very real, very imminent threat that disasters pose in their ability to wipe away a generation’s worth of progress in an entire community.
Because if you are poor or a Black American your chances of outrunning a disaster, funding your rebuild after a disaster, or receiving the kind of funding needed to move on after a disaster are nauseatingly low. Which is to say that America is leaving a significant portion of our citizens behind. Or, casting them to disaster’s whim.
From where we stand, that seems un-American. It is time for us to become more American not just in how we care for those who can care already for themselves, but by caring for those who have less than we might. Let us begin by disentangling the rights to disaster recovery from race and wealth. It is time to acknowledge that disaster injustice is closely coupled with social injustice and take a holistic approach to solving both.