Washington (November 19, 2015)—The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) unveiled a screening tool today to help identify “climate equity hotspots”—coastal communities that are particularly vulnerable to flooding from rising seas because of socioeconomic disparities. The rising sea level is increasing tidal flooding events and storm surge damage risks in these frontline communities.
Federal and state agencies should prioritize communities most at risk by using the UCS tool, or a similar approach, to help target disaster relief as well as preparedness funding, according to the UCS report “Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Rising Seas,” which lays out a methodology for assessing a community’s climate and socioeconomic risks.
“When a disaster strikes we see the same old pattern: low-income and minority communities are hit harder than others and have a much more difficult time recovering,” said Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University professor who is often described as the father of the environmental justice movement. “The UCS screening tool uses an equity lens that government officials and policy makers can use to target disaster assistance and resources to communities with the greatest need.” Bullard is the author of several books documenting how disasters have played out, including The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities and Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
The screening tool uses sea level rise and tidal flooding projections for 2045 and four socioeconomic risk factors—per capita income, poverty rate, education level and share of minority population—to construct county-level climate and socioeconomic risk indicators. UCS tested the tool in 35 coastal counties in nine East and Gulf Coast states.
Case studies included in the report and conversations with residents of climate equity hotspots provided the following examples of how these frontline communities have been affected by hurricanes and tidal flooding:
- In Plaquemines, La., after Hurricane Katrina, many residents weren’t able to access U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assistance because their property is owned by multiple family members, many of whom have left the area and were difficult to track down for paperwork signoff.
- In Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina, disaster assistance was not immediately available in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and local groups had to sue HUD and the Mississippi governor’s office to ensure a portion of the millions of dollars in federal disaster aid was spent on public housing.
- In Crisfield, Md., after Superstorm Sandy, streets in African-American neighborhoods were flooded much longer than streets elsewhere.
- In Opa-locka, Fla., many residents didn’t have access to transportation to evacuate before Katrina and Wilma.
- In Charleston, S.C., the predominantly African-American East Side Neighborhood is hit the hardest by tidal flooding, which is being made worse by sea level rise. The drainage system is not equipped to deal with encroaching seas and as a result some residents’ homes are flooded even on sunny days.
“We’re asking federal government agencies, including FEMA and HUD, and state agencies that make funding allocation decisions to target disaster aid and preparedness funding to frontline communities in a more equitable way,” said Rachel Cleetus, climate policy manager at UCS and report co-author. “We also simply need Congress to provide more funding to help prepare for coastal flooding and other disasters. Investing on the front end can greatly reduce both harm to people and damage costs, compared to what has to be spent to recover after a disaster strikes.”
The UCS report also points out that federal and state policies should be based on sound science, otherwise coastal development, as well as recovery and rebuilding efforts in the wake of storms, will continue to be done in ways that put people and property at risk.