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Extreme Weather Hits Poorest Hardest

Poor communities have the fewest resources to cope with climate change
Hurrican Sandy flooding


Flooded Battery Park Tunnel after Hurricane Sandy.
Credit: Timothy Krause via Flickr

As extreme weather events likely connected to the planet's warming climate become increasingly common, low-income communities are positioned to suffer the worst consequences during the aftermath of natural disasters, write the authors of a report from the Center for American Progress called "One Storm Shy of Despair."

"These communities are simply more vulnerable and much more at risk to the impacts of climate change," Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at CAP and one of the report's authors, said of the difficulties residents in poorer neighborhoods face after natural disasters. "A family already struggling financially might just be completely derailed."

Following an extreme event, such as a hurricane or a tornado, the costs and conditions that residents in lower-income communities would likely face, Kelly said, would probably be more detrimental than those that would be present in wealthier areas.

A lack of funding to complete basic repairs, fix stalled elevators, run air conditioners and pay for the electric bill to keep food refrigerated would all be significant hurdles for low-income tenants to overcome in such a situation. Kelly added that low-income communities are often close to toxic waste sites.

After adding in ongoing maintenance delays, crippled access to public transportation and widespread power outages to the circumstances, a storm could "really set back a family already on the brink," Kelly said.

Exposure to heat waves
When low-income tenants face rising temperatures after a heat wave and cannot afford to switch on their air conditioners, for instance, their health is at risk.

Large, densely populated urban areas are highly susceptible to exhausting heat waves exacerbated by the "heat island" effect in which once permeable, cooling surfaces like open land, bodies of water and vegetation have been replaced with surfaces that capture and retain heat like asphalt and concrete.

In the summer of 1995, 465 people died in Chicago from heat-related conditions, and the hot spell killed more than 1,000 people nationwide.

Superstorm Sandy left approximately 80,000 public housing residents—out of more than 400,000 total tenants within the New York City Housing Authority's purview—from 423 buildings without power, heat, hot water or a combination of all three, city officials wrote in a May 2013 report. After large portions of New York City went dark on the evening of Oct. 29, 2012, city departments and later private contractors, working on emergency contracts, worked to restore power to public housing developments. Electricity and gas were restored to all the blacked-out buildings by Nov. 18.

Transportation is an equally concerning issue after climate-change-related storms knock out power and damage roadways in an underserved area.

"Transit can get more expensive when you deal with crumbling roads," said Paul Chinowsky, a professor of engineering and sustainable development at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "We tend to neglect buildings in lower-income areas of population."

Both Kelly and Chinowsky said coastal communities are significantly vulnerable to storm surge, rising sea levels and future storms—challenging geographic conditions augmented by their exposure to hurricanes and often sinking sediment beneath a city's foundation.

Rankings of risk
Listing major cities they considered to be in peril, both mentioned Miami and New York City. Chinowsky added New Orleans and Seattle, and Kelly said Norfolk, Va., already is frequently inundated with floods, which will likely get worse.

Chinowsky said many of the cities and regions at higher risk—including Philadelphia; Mobile, Ala.; and counties in South Florida, New England and on the Gulf Coast—have started construction projects to defend against natural disasters.

In August 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued an analysis of economic damage incurred among the world's largest 136 coastal cities and the damage they will sustain by 2050 under the same conditions.

Miami, New York City and New Orleans ranked as the second, third and fourth most at-risk cities, respectively.

Due to the high levels of wealth and the low degrees of protection within those port cities, that triplet of cities alone would be responsible for 31 percent of the economic losses projected among all 136 cities surveyed by 2050.

"All the data show that these impacts are growing and are going to grow over time," Kelly said.

Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, Fla., and Boston were the only other American cities to rank among the top 10 most flood-prone areas.

The report—placing global flood damage at $6 billion annually from 2005 figures—projected that flooding worldwide will cost $52 billion in socio-economic change alone.

In their report for CAP, Kelly and her co-author, Tracey Ross, write that climate change "imposes an unfunded mandate on state and local governments and the American people to manage these risks and foot the bill for the damages."

Needed: a strategy to promote resilience
Compiling a list of suggestions, they push federal agencies to "make resilience a core aspect of all federal infrastructure and disaster-recovery funding" to strengthen affordable housing; ask for federal leaders to expand funding for programs, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, so at-risk municipalities can develop disaster plans and assess their vulnerabilities; and boost economic stability by opposing cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, so families can afford to eat after a disaster.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the authors call for leadership from President Obama and Congress on the topic of disaster relief and mitigation within low-income areas.

"The president really needs to have a national infrastructure resilience strategy," Kelly said, adding that the president has called some attention to durable infrastructure, but nothing remarkable. "Every day, Americans have the right to rely on safe infrastructure."

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country's infrastructure a D+ grade last year and estimated that accomplishing the needed repairs by 2020 would cost $3.6 trillion.

While U.S. EPA recently announced carbon reduction policies that will affect the coal industry and the Obama administration has issued new rules in 2012 to sharply raise fuel economy standards for automakers, among other steps, the federal government has yet to enact serious legislation to combat climate change's impact on infrastructure.

After a mid-July meeting with the State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, a group of 26 officials, Obama announced a package of climate change initiatives July 16.

One measure pressed to shore up power grids during climate catastrophes. And the Department of Agriculture awarded $236.3 million to eight states to bolster their electrical infrastructure. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also revealed a $10 million educational policy to help tribes adapt to changing climate conditions.

Getting a better grasp on flood insurance risk
Chinowsky pointed to the Netherlands as an example of proactive construction efforts to defend against extreme weather. Residents of a low-lying nation historically plagued by flooding, the Dutch have started experimenting with new drainage systems to accelerate runoff during heavy downpours.

Engineers in the Netherlands, he said, are experimenting with different types of road materials, levees, drainages systems and even porous pavement alternatives to prevent water from damaging structures and polluting oils from contaminating water supplies.

"Cities can invest in identifying what their vulnerabilities are," he said. "A lot of it is that the technology is there, or close to being there, and it's a commitment to using the technology."

The CAP report recommends Congress remove flood insurance subsidies from the National Flood Insurance Program in order to more precisely depict flood risks in insurance prices and "offer means-tested vouchers to middle- and low-income families so they can afford the insurance."

Whether climate change is affecting the country rapidly, gradually or both, low-income areas are already suffering because of their underlying economic, geographic and architectural conditions.

"There really is an issue about low-income areas being doubly susceptible to climate change," Chinowsky said. "The lower-income populations are going to be the first to suffer."

"We can't just focus on New York, and we can't just focus on Seattle," he added, referring generally to wealthy cities that have the funding to take preventive building measures. "This is a national issue, and it really is an issue today."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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