Natural disasters do not discriminate on the basis of race or wealth. When hurricanes and earthquakes hit, they harm everything—and everyone—in their wake. But when it comes to the long-term impact of natural disasters, low-income communities of color suffer the most, further perpetuating a legacy of environmental inequality.
Recent disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria provide stark examples of the pervasiveness of U.S. race and class inequalities. Wealth disparities that exist before a natural disaster strikes are exacerbated by the response to disaster-caused damage. And due to the extreme weather associated with climate change, experts predict environmental inequality to widen as powerful storms become more common.
Hurricane Katrina: An Uneven Recovery to a Historic Disaster
Hurricane Katrina—the costliest hurricane in U.S history—made landfall off the Louisiana coast on August 29, 2005. The Category 3 storm caused an estimated 2,000 fatalities, inflicted $160 billion in damage, and displaced roughly 1 million residents. Nearly 75 percent of those displaced by the storm were African American.
In New Orleans, more than one-third of the city’s displaced black residents were poor; only about 14 percent of the city’s non-black residents displaced by the storm were poor. Within a year of the storm, less than half of the city’s black residents had returned to their homes, according to the Congressional Research Service, compared to 70 percent of the city’s white residents.
On Katrina’s ten year anniversary, more than half of New Orleans neighborhoods had recovered 90 percent of their pre-storm populations. However, in the predominately African American Lower Ninth Ward, only 37 percent of residents had returned home. A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey found a strong racial divide in how New Orleans residents perceived the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans’ lopsided recovery to Hurricane Katrina drew nationwide attention. The image of tens of thousands of storm refugees, most of them African American and poor, packed into the makeshift Superdome evacuation center, was a powerful reminder of environmental racism. The federal government was heavily criticized for its response, and it promised to do better. But the 2017 hurricane season showed that if lessons were learned from Katrina, they weren’t applied.
Perfect Storm of Environmental Inequality
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane system was one of the worst on record, delivering a series of devastating storms that, like Katrina, produced diverging recovery narratives along economic and racial lines.
Poor communities of color face overlapping issues that make them more vulnerable to major storms. To begin with, these communities tend to live in poor-quality housing that lacks the strong foundations and reinforcements of more expensive housing. They also may be more concentrated in flood-prone areas and areas closer to industrial facilities that pose toxic risks from storm damage. A 2017 Associated Press analysis found that two million people, most of them living in low-income communities and communities of color, live within a mile of a Superfund site vulnerable to climate-change related flooding. Flood insurance, which averages $700 per year, is often not affordable for families struggling to meet basic needs.
While more affluent people are able to relocate to safer areas when a storm is coming, evacuating is often not financially possible for lower-income people. For example, in July 2019, with Tropical Storm Barry bearing down on New Orleans, people in wealthier neighborhoods were beginning to evacuate in droves, but residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were staying put. When South Texans fled north to escape Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, per the recommendation of Governor Greg Abbott, poorer residents “may not have had the resources or capabilities to follow that advice,” wrote The Atlantic.
Once the storm has passed and recovery efforts start, the divide between rich and poor grows, research shows. Part of this narrative has to do with the way federal disaster aid is dispersed. The federal government, primarily through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), spends billions of dollars every year to help communities rebuild after disasters and prevent future damage. In 2017 alone, the government appropriated $34.5 billion in post-disaster funds. Disaster assistance is also available in the form of Small Business Administration (SBA) loans.
But an NPR investigation found that white and wealthier Americans tend to receive more federal money after a disaster than minorities and less-wealthy Americans. NPR notes that federal aid is allocated based on a cost-benefit calculation meant to minimize taxpayer risk. In other words, following a disaster, environmental inequality deepens as a result of federal disaster spending. Research from Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh reached a similar conclusion: “Wealth inequality is increasing in counties that are hit by more disasters.”
Puerto Rico, which suffered $100 billion in damages and nearly 3,000 deaths from Hurricane Maria, is still waiting on much of its promised federal aid. Congress has approved around $50 billion in funds for Puerto Rico, but federal officials have reportedly dispersed less than one-third of that money. Making matters worse, earthquakes earlier this year caused additional damages and displaced thousands more. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without permanent shelter, water, or power on an island where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The median annual income of Puerto Rico households is $20,000—three times less than on the U.S. mainland.
Climate Change Litigation Could Help Fight Environmental Racism
Climate change is emerging as a new chapter in the environmental justice movement. People of color and low-income communities are less responsible for climate change, yet are more vulnerable from the effects of climate change, including elevated temperatures, disasters, and displacement.
Developing alongside a better understanding of climate change and its human impacts is a new type of litigation that takes aim at corporate emissions, primarily from the oil and gas industry. Climate change lawsuits demand accountability from companies like Exxon and Shell for promoting misinformation about emissions-related climate change, even as they took measures to protect their infrastructure from global warming. The lawsuits seek compensation for the economic costs of climate change these companies predicted decades ago. They additionally draw attention to the vulnerable communities that have the most to lose from a warming planet.