Through the eye of Florence: How extreme weather has exposed the inequality of disaster

hurricane florence
NOAA/Creative Commons

E
arlier this month, the nation watched, anxious and afraid, as Hurricane Florence approached the coast of North Carolina. By the time Florence made landfall on the morning of Friday, Sept. 14, it had been downgraded from a Category 2 to a Category 1 storm, still with the potential of life-threatening winds and rains.

The recent and unnerving arrival of Florence reignited a continued conversation around the relationship between climate change and increased extreme weather events, but it also raised critical and recurring social questions — questions born out of the incontestably unequal effects these storms have on underprivileged groups and the ways in which different administrations have failed to respond to and mitigate these impacts.

The very concept of climate change has been notably polarizing since it was brought to the world political stage in the 2000 presidential election by Democratic candidate Al Gore. By building a platform on the basis of climate science, Gore ensured that policy and events relating to the matter of global climate change would become an issue of political identity and party lines.

And although there is continued political contention over the legitimacy of climate change as an environmental phenomenon, the connection between rising global temperatures and extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Florence, is undeniable.

According to the National Climate Assessment of 2014, since the early 1980s, there has been unprecedented and frightening growth in the activity of Atlantic hurricanes. This increase can be attributed to higher ocean surface temperatures and rising sea levels as a consequence of global warming.

The resulting extreme weather events have disparate effects on communities. In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and proclaimed climate change most dangerous for vulnerable communities — including the homeless, the elderly and those of lower income levels, who are at higher risk of experiencing the most costly and devastating effects of storm damage.

But one facet of identity that is often overlooked in the United States’ most critical decisions around climate disaster recovery is race.

Erika Weissinger, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, weighed in on the implications an individual’s race has on their living situation: “If we think about all the ways that racism in our country plays out in terms of the racial wealth gap and neighborhood segregation, it should come as no surprise that factories and freeways are more likely to be located in minority neighborhoods,” she said. Weissinger is in her second year of teaching Public Policy 117AC: “Race, Ethnicity, and Public Policy,” a class that examines how government policies create and perpetuate racial inequality throughout the country.

The divergent and intensified effect of climate change on minority groups can be classified as a type of environmental racism — a concept that focuses on the interplay between race and exposure to pollutants, denial of resources or a combination of both. An article published by the Atlantic explained environmental racism as the allocation of “environmental risks … disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color,” before elaborating on the Trump Environmental Protection Agency’s recent conclusion that environmental racism is, in fact, real.

Environmental racism in the context of major storms of the last decade

While Hurricane Florence was not as destructive as originally anticipated, examining some of the more significant storms of the last two decades provides a clear picture of environmental racism as well as the drawbacks and pitfalls of disaster aid policy.

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples is Hurricane Katrina, which became the deadliest and most destructive weather event in recent U.S. history when it struck Florida and later Louisiana as a Category 1 and Category 3 storm, respectively. At its peak on Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina’s winds exceeded 170 miles per hour and caused a storm surge of more than 26 feet.

Initially, the metropolitan area of New Orleans, which is below sea level, was thought to be safe after the main body of the storm avoided the city. Disaster struck, however, when the levee system failed, and by Aug. 30, 80 percent of the city was underwater.

In the event of a storm of this magnitude, marginalized communities often face more difficulty when attempting to evacuate and relocate than do individuals who have easy access to transportation and places to seek shelter. In the case of New Orleans, the storm disproportionately affected communities of color, as these groups more often occupy neighborhoods in proximity to hazardous zones, which puts them at a greater risk of chemical exposure during a catastrophic event.

According to a recent report by CNN, prior to Hurricane Katrina, federal aid made up only 17 percent of funds for hurricane relief. But in the aftermath of the catastrophic storm, government aid covered 72 percent of the damages, the equivalent of $114.5 billion.

While post-Katrina legislation saw changes in evacuation measures, such as those addressing pet evacuation as well as increasing transportation and grants for student-victims of disaster, a 2006 report issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, reveals that there was a noticeable lack of infrastructure reform to aid communities most at risk — namely, underprivileged groups and communities of color.

hurricane katrina damages

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that struck in August 2017, devastating Houston, Texas, and the surrounding areas, revealed a similar pattern.

“With Hurricane Harvey, we saw local authorities telling people to evacuate without sufficiently addressing the fact that that is much easier for people who have cars or the means to buy plane tickets to leave the area,” Weissinger explained. “People without these resources were left behind.”

And, like New Orleans, the areas most heavily impacted by Harvey were communities of color.

“We also saw that hazardous sites were located in historically redlined neighborhoods, so flooding meant that petrochemicals and toxins disproportionately impacted minority neighborhoods,” Weissinger added.

Federal relief after Hurricane Harvey was also noticeably lacking and flawed. Brock Long, current administrator of FEMA, noted the inefficiency of the system in a congressional hearing April 11, 2018: “We’ve got to streamline a very fragmented recovery process,” he said. “Recovery funding comes from 17 different federal government agencies, and it’s too difficult to understand what you’re entitled to and how to put it to work.”

Still, allocation of money is but one step in the recovery process — another tremendous challenge lies in ensuring that those who need aid actually receive it. An investigative article published by Politico in response to Hurricane Harvey asserts that nearly nine months after the storm, low-income communities were still suffering.

Not only were several of these families denied funding from FEMA, most also did not possess the necessary, federally backed flood insurance to live in flood plain and low-elevation areas. Language barriers and inexperience navigating a complicated government system further impeded their access to relief funds.

While examples of environmental racism are exposed in cases of climate catastrophe, this phenomenon affects communities across the country in more subtle ways.

Weissinger explicated on instances of environmental racism closer to home: “The neighborhoods in the Berkeley Hills are more likely to be majority white, have tree-lined streets and be located away from the pollution of the freeway and industry,” she explained. “In contrast, the Berkeley flats have historically had the highest concentration of minority populations, are adjacent to Interstate 80, the Southern Pacific Railroad and have the greatest concentration of hazardous materials.”

The future of disaster relief and remedying environmental racism

From Hurricanes Harvey to Maria to Florence, the Trump administration has had ample opportunity to prove how it will approach disaster relief reform, and yet as the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season comes to a close, the nation is left with more questions than answers in regard to the future of federal disaster relief strategy.

Significant environmental disasters have the potential to spur policy development that looks to mitigate future damage and to support individuals experiencing the worst effects of these disasters. But current disaster relief measures still fail to address the needs of underprivileged groups — from the elderly to the homeless to communities of color.

It is estimated that the federal government has spent more than $200 billion on relief in the last 15 years. Why, then, has there been no significant effort to create pre-emptive policies to protect at-risk communities?

“I don’t think disaster relief policy will be more equitable until we, as a country, acknowledge the humanity of all people, especially the most vulnerable,” Weissinger said. When we create policy, too often it is made with a middle-class person in mind and does nothing to protect the poor and disenfranchised,” Weissinger asserted. “I believe the first step toward change is raising consciousness about ways that people have been dehumanized and taking steps to remedy this.”

Contact Sydney Schoonover at [email protected].