This week marks eight years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, devastating much of New Orleans. Immediately after the storm, eighty percent of the city was under water, thousands of people were displaced and 1,800 people were killed. The Bush Administration’s botched response to the mostly Black victims highlighted the discrepancy in disaster aid in this country, and forced the government to examine what went wrong.
Today, New Orleans is in a much 'better' place with its airport renovated, restaurants thriving, and new schools and medical facilities being built. However, many of the city’s low-income, Black families are still dealing with problems directly related to the storm. Professor Beverly Wright of Loyola University New Orleans explained that “pre-storm vulnerabilities continue to limit the participation of thousands of disadvantaged individuals and communities in the after-storm reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery. In these communities, days of hurt and loss have become years of grief, dislocation, and displacement.” Unfortunately, this is not unique to Hurricane Katrina.
While many see natural disasters as “social equalizers” that do not differentiate based on ethnicity, race, or class, in reality these events exacerbate the underlying socioeconomic problems that exist year round. In a report I recently authored, “A Disaster in the Making: Addressing the Vulnerability of Low-Income Communities to Extreme Weather,” I found that low-income, communities of color are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, flooding, and heat waves, due to poor quality housing, environmental injustice, and economic instability.
With the poverty rate among Blacks around 28 percent, (and 40 percent among Black children), a disproportionate number of Black families depend on public and affordable housing. However, shoddy construction and the age of affordable housing make many of these structures vulnerable to severe weather. After Superstorm Sandy, for example, many low-income elderly and disabled residents of New York City’s high-rise public housing towers were stranded in their apartments for weeks after the storm without heat or water due to elevator outages.
Further analysis show that housing assistance after such storms typically favors middle-class victims, particularly homeowners. However, even when low-income people and people of color own their homes, there are often discrepancies in the aid they receive. After Hurricane Katrina, Black homeowners received an average of $8,000 less than white homeowners as grant amounts were based on housing values rather than the cost of repairs. For Black families in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the average gap between the damage accrued and the grants awarded was $75,000 because of this formula. Today, around 80 percent of Lower Ninth ward residents have not returned to the neighborhood due in part to inadequate reconstruction funding.
While the strength and quality of housing is critical in the face of extreme weather, the location of housing is just as important, if not more so. For instance, Black households disproportionately live near industrial sites like chemical plants and refineries, which can cause toxic spills during storms. In addition, people of color are disproportionately impacted by the effects of post-storm cleanup as they make up the majority of residents in neighborhoods within a couple miles of the nation’s waste facilities. Researchers note that after disasters “the likelihood remains high that minority and low-income neighborhoods will be burdened disproportionately with water and air pollution from debris removal and burning, given the historic pattern of siting landfills in those areas.”
Another key environmental issue is extreme heat, which is one of the leading weather-related killers in the U.S., resulting in hundreds of fatalities each year. Inner city neighborhoods with fewer trees and more asphalt tend to be several degrees hotter than more rural and suburban areas, creating a "heat-island" effect. Studies show that Blacks are 52 percent more likely than Whites to live in such neighborhoods, increasing their risk for heat stroke, high body temperatures, unconsciousness, and even death. While having a working air-conditioner reduces the risk of death from extreme heat by 80 percent, one in five low-income households do not have air conditioners, and many cannot afford the electricity to run them.
Another critical concern for families living in or on the brink of poverty is potential job loss. After a disaster hits, federal labor laws generally include more protections for salaried workers than for hourly workers. “Non-salaried workers are really at the mercy of their employers,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. “If the business closes because of the storm, employers don’t have to pay non-salaried workers for lost wages. And if the business is open, but the worker can’t make it into work, employers are also not required to pay for lost wages.” Those most affected are those who traditionally have trouble finding jobs and will have to compete among a larger pool of newly unemployed job seekers. With the Black unemployment rate nearly twice the rate among Whites, this is potentially a great problem when the next big storm hits.
While we were outraged over the government’s failure to respond to victims following Hurricane Katrina, we should remain similarly outraged at the risks our communities continue to bear. Millions of hard-working families living in poverty are forced to seek out housing options in neighborhoods that are affordable precisely because they are at greatest risk. It is clear that the impact of climate change and extreme weather on low-income communities and communities of color is one of the most critical civil rights issues of our day. While there is much work to be done, every dollar invested in strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerabilities saves $4 in disaster response and recovery. And yet, over the past three years, the government has spent $6 responding to disasters for every $1 spent on preventative measures. Strengthening low-income communities and communities of color against extreme weather is an investment we can and must make.
Tracey Ross is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and completed her Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton University. Her writing focuses on women, race, and urban policy.