Catalyst Fall 2015

Where Climate Change Hits First and Worst

Hurricane Katrina flooding

People sit on a rooftop in New Orleans on August 30, 2005, waiting to be rescued after Hurricane Katrina. Poor populations are more likely to lack transportation during disasters, leaving them little choice but to stay home and weather the storm.
Photo: FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino

Communities already experiencing the impacts of global warming are often the least equipped to deal with it. UCS is working to ensure they get the help they need.

by Pamela Worth

Gilberto Turcios has lived for 13 years—and through Hurricanes Wilma and Rita—in the small city of Opa-locka, Florida, about a half-hour north of downtown Miami. He doesn’t recall which storm blew the roofs off his neighbors’ houses, but he does remember the government-issued blue tarps. They were intended to be a temporary measure for those who had suffered damages after the storm had passed, with more assistance promised.

“Apparently the government hired a company, and then that company hired another company, and that company hired another company . . . and they went really cheap with the blue tarps,” Turcios says. No further aid was provided.

“They did a quick fix and forgot about it. Eventually it was left up to the residents to deal with the mess,” he says.

Turcios describes Opa-locka as a residential community whose population is largely African-American and Latino, with a few small businesses, a lot of families, and homes for low-income seniors. It is also a community changing because of climate change.

These days, he says, it’s hotter, more humid, and it rains more. “Flooding is happening more often, there’s more floodwater than usual, and there’s more damage to houses than ever before.”

Turcios knows a lot could be done to help prevent flooding damage to homes like his. But even with his job as a bank security guard, he’s not sure he can afford those measures—such as elevating his home by putting it on stilts. He doesn’t know what Opa-locka is doing to prepare for climate-related impacts, but he does know this: while South Florida has experienced relatively few storms over the last 10 years, it is only a matter of time before the next big one hits.

On the Climate Front Line

In Florida, like the rest of the United States, poor populations often bear the brunt of climate impacts, living on the front lines of rising seas, catastrophic storms, and drought.


Extreme weather exacts an emotional as well as physical toll on affected communities.

These frontline communities are disproportionally communities of color: according to 2011 data, wealth inequality along racial lines has burgeoned dramatically in the United States in recent years. The typical black household has just 6 percent of the wealth of the typical white household; the typical Latino household has 8 percent.

Low-income communities cope with chronically low investment in their neighborhoods, poorly built and maintained infrastructure, and the legacy of housing policies that have effectively segregated towns and cities—in some cases, forcing poorer populations to live closer to power plants, airports, waste sites, and otherwise undesirable land that is often affected “first and worst” by natural disasters.

And when those natural disasters strike, efforts to help communities recover often fail those most in need—as when the promise to rebuild Opa-locka’s roofs only resulted in the distribution of blue tarps.

Studies show that low-income and communities of color in the New York-New Jersey area were among the hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, and continue to struggle to find housing. One study of an African-American community in Maryland affected by Sandy found that residents there experienced flooding in their streets for days longer than other communities, and had more difficulty accessing food and housing. In New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failure and flood killed hundreds, the majority of people who were trapped in the city and left waiting for rescue and aid were overwhelmingly African-American and poor.

Poor populations, and elderly nursing home residents, are more likely to lack transportation during disasters. And the fact that these populations may also have a high prevalence of chronic health problems increases their vulnerability to other storm-related hazards. In Opa-locka during Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, for example, Turcios says the news and other media kept locals informed about evacuation locations and procedures, but people without cars and/or driver’s licenses—predominantly the poor and elderly—had little choice but to stay home and weather the storms.

Building Resilience—Equitably

The Union of Concerned Scientists is working in partnership with several environmental justice organizations to contribute scientific information and collaboratively develop policy recommendations that will help communities on the front lines of climate change prepare for and cope with its effects—from dangerous storms to repeated tidal flooding.

“Our priority is working to help ensure that our nation’s transition to cleaner energy and more resilient communities is equitable,” says Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “These changes have to include opportunities, especially jobs and infrastructure investments, for underrepresented communities.” (See our related interview with Van Jones)

The first step in building equitable climate resilience, Cleetus says, is to identify particularly vulnerable communities. Efforts to cut emissions nationwide will benefit people everywhere, but resilience to climate impacts must be built up in specific locations. The disproportionate burden of climate change faced by African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color requires greater policy attention and resources.

To aid in this effort, Cleetus and her team have developed a screening tool to help identify “hot spot” communities in the United States by measuring both socioeconomic factors and vulnerability to sea level rise. Drawing attention to these communities’ special planning needs can inform decisions about the resources required to adequately protect their residents.

For example, the UCS tool identified Orleans Parish in Louisiana as a high-risk area when taking into consideration both climate impacts and socioeconomic factors such as poverty rates and per capita income. Within 15 years, the parish faces a projected sea level rise of 6 to 10 inches and a threefold increase in tidal flooding events, but many parish residents cannot afford to adequately prepare for these events, and are already struggling with storm surge flooding and land loss today. UCS is recommending the creation of a National Climate Resilience Fund to help protect the residents of Orleans Parish and similar communities with federal funds targeted specifically to such hot spots (see “How to Make Climate Resilience Effective and Fair,” below).

Climate Equity in the Spotlight

  1. Dorchester County, MD

    Dorchester's low-lying landscape of tidal marshes, narrow pininsulas, and country roads linking isolated communities is threatened by rising seas and sinking land. More than a foot of sea-level rise projected by 2015 will worsen saltwater intrusion; damage roads, bridges, and infrastructure; and harm the region's agriculture and seafood industry.
  2. Charleston, SC

    The historic city of charleston regularly faces tidal flooding, a situation that will worsen with continued sea level rise. The city's climate challenge is to address the needs of elderly and low-income communities alongside its commitment to protect its business and tourism interests. Investments in natural buffers, flood control measures, and climate-resilient subsidized housing provide a path forward.
  3. Hialeah and Opa-Locka, FL

    The inland, low-lying cities of Hialeah and Opa-locka currently experience street flooding during routine rainstorms. With 9 to 24 inches of sea-level rise projected by 2060, flood risks will worsen. Investments are urgently needed in storm-ready infrastructure to make these low-income, Hispanic and African-American communities more resilient and provide opportunities for employment and economic revitalization.
  4. Gulfport-Biloxi, MS

    Located in Harrison County, Gulfport has long been plagued by storm surge flooding reaching far inland, epitomized by the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The African-American community of Turkey Creek is working hard to preserve wetlands and cultural heritage sites, rebuild livelihoods, and ensure equitable access to funding for resilience.
  5. Plaquemines Parish, LA

    Much of Plaquemines Parish lies below sea level and was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Several of its minority communities are ground zero for the harsh confluence of socioeconomic vulnerability and flood risks from projected sea level rise and land subsidence, and are working to shape state and local adaptation plans to meet their needs.


Although UCS is calling on national leaders to work toward climate equity, it is just as important to listen to the residents of communities who are learning to cope with climate change about what their towns and cities need, and how they have managed to keep their neighborhoods together through worsening conditions. Members of these communities are keenly aware of the gaps in current resources and policies that need to be closed, and they must have a voice in the process of building community resilience.

“Any successful effort has to start by including local leaders in the decision-making process and listening to their needs and concerns,” Cleetus points out.

Knowledge Is Power

Earlier this year, members of the UCS climate team traveled to several cities contending with rising sea levels, providing information and speaking with residents and local leaders about strategies for managing the inevitable flooding. However, successfully communicating this information to policy makers can be an uphill battle in states such as Florida, where Governor Rick Scott has for years reportedly forbidden state officials from even mentioning climate change.

One person who has made it her mission to give voice to the challenges facing Floridians on the front lines of climate change is Audrey Peterman, an environmental consultant and author who has lived in Fort Lauderdale on and off for 30 years. She has seen erosion damage the beaches she loves, sending sand in sheets across the nearby A1A highway and requiring the construction of seawalls. She’s seen high tides flood the marina parking lot to levels her neighbors agree are unprecedented. But what disturbs her most is that she’s seen development in low-lying neighborhoods continue as though nothing unusual is happening—as though climate change is not a threat.

“For us,” Peterman says, “the biggest challenge is that there’s not enough information going into the communities about what’s going to happen.” She says residents are left unprepared for the consequences of climate change.

“I’ve been talking for years about the potential impact on low-income communities and communities of color. But they’re not getting this information from the city or the county. They don’t see it underscored by the government. They think it’s something way out there that will affect other people, in the future,” Peterman says. She is calling for communities across the United States to organize, gather information from zoning boards and city and county commissions, and make a case to their local leaders.

“We need to find out what’s going on, and then lobby our elected officials,” she says. “We need to let them know that we know what’s coming, we’re not going to sit still, and we’re not going to be the victims.”

As Peterman notes, communities on the front lines of climate impacts bear an outsized burden now, but eventually all Americans will experience the consequences of global warming. The kind of climate resilience policies we put in place to help frontline communities will have ramifications and lessons for every town, city, and state in the country.

“Fairness, justice, and equity are core democratic values. As a nation, we need to bring these principles to bear as we work together to confront the challenge of climate change,” Cleetus says. “Some communities will face climate impacts sooner than others but, ultimately, this is everyone’s story.”

How to Make Climate Resilience Effective and Fair

UCS is working with partners to help enact policies that ensure that communities on the front lines of climate change are better prepared and protected from the consequences of climate change. Among our recommendations:

  • Target funding for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery to those most at risk. Federal disaster aid programs such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs should specifically allocate a portion of funds to meet the needs of frontline communities.
  • Provide access to the best available, community-informed, actionable science and data. Whenever possible, this information should not just be provided to communities in need but also be developed in consultation with local stakeholders.
  • Make investments in transportation, energy, health, and shelter for communities in need. Planning ahead and making smart investments can limit disruptions and dislocations in communities and reduce the need for long-term taxpayer-funded assistance.
  • Establish a National Climate Resilience Fund. Authorized by Congress, this fund would require a level of funding sufficient to help prepare and protect communities from the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and coastal flooding.
  • Cut carbon emissions. Because any efforts to build resilience in coastal communities will be quickly overwhelmed if climate change and sea level rise continue unchecked, they must be coupled with swift and dramatic reductions in global warming pollution.