Environmental Justice Human Rights

Flood Risk Map of U.S. Shows Inequity

A black resident of New Orleans stands proudly in front of his hurricane-ravaged house after months of repair

What American doesn’t remember seeing the images of a flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck it? Katrina disproportionately affected blacks. Expect more Katrinas as climate change will increase the flood risk and disproportionately impact Black communities, according to a new study published in the Nature Climate Change journal. Current flood risk affects mainly white, lower-income Americans.

The study points out that the current flood risk maps do not account for climate change. By taking climate change into account, researchers found a 26.4 increase in U.S. flood risk by 2050. There is currently $32.1 billion worth of annual losses due to flood risk. The study projects annual flood losses to be $40.6 billion by 2050. 

The problems with flood mapping

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) carries out flood mapping. FEMA has only modeled one-third of U.S. rivers since the start of a national flood mapping program.  The federal agency has only updated one-quarter of those models in the last five years.  FEMA models do not have to account for climate change while simulating only a limited number of flood frequencies, which prevents calculating annualized flood losses

The FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) is the “defacto flood risk zone” in the U.S. Many Americans think that properties outside of the SFHA as risk-free but an up-to-date local flood map may not exist. Only 41 percent of the nation’s flood risk lies within the SFHA. “The majority of U.S. flood risk is unmapped by FEMA,” according to the study. 

The future impact on Black communities

Flood risk sensitivity due to climate change is “concentrated in communities with higher Black population proportions across the U.S.,” the study points out. The top 20 percent of proportionally Black census tracts will experience flood risk increase at double the rate. Concentrated in the Deep South, those areas will experience increased flood risk, researchers project.

Investment in flood adaption or infrastructure has not occurred in poorer communities. Studies show the impact that this disparity causes: 

  • A 2020 study of North Carolina found that the type and extent of coastal adaption are affected by risk but also by wealth and land use. The study also found a link between income and home value and shoreline armoring. 
  • Another 2020 study found greater outcomes for vulnerable populations when disasters occur.
  • A 2021 study found that flood recovery funding underserves vulnerable populations. Population disparities in access to flood disaster assistance and outcomes during disaster recovery exist.

Communities of color face pollution

Flood risk is not the only area where communities of color face environmental racism. They also face a greater risk of air pollution. Researchers from the University of Washington looked at disparities in pollution exposure to six major air pollutants. They found that although the overall concentration of pollutants has decreased since 1990, people of color experience more exposure to the six pollutants than white people, regardless of income. This is true across the continental U.S. 

The study, published in the December 15, 2021 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, shows that “if we go state by state,  there’s no place where there are no environmental justice concerns,” according to Julian Marshall, UW professor of civil and environmental engineering.

A study by researchers at the Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions found that people of color are disproportionately exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can cause lung and heart problems for those exposed. “The study found that race appears to be an important factor for exposure in nearly all regions,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

Let environmental justice flow down

Both the Bible and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of justice rolling down like mighty waters. It is time for environmental justice to roll down in the U.S. The disparity between communities of color and whites when it comes to flood adaptation and exposure to air pollutants lets us know that we have a long way to go before environmental racism is a phenomenon of the past. 

Yes, indeed let the water of environmental justice roll down into every community facing a greater flood risk from climate change. Let it roll down into every community with greater exposure to environmental pollutants.

Image credit: Gilbert Mercier, courtesy Flickr

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