Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2021, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. This time the levees held. Billions of dollars invested in reinforcing them had paid off – at least for part of the population.
A strong similarity between Ida and Katrina still emerged: Low-income communities and communities of color remain at high risk from hurricanes.
As scholars who study refugeesand migration worldwide, we are finding that the communities most at risk are being pushed into permanent displacement and homelessness, or deeper into poverty, with each climate-related disaster. Much of this could be prevented if the U.S. government invested in preparedness and did more to protect vulnerable communities.
Despite years of preparations, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said there was no time to issue a mandatory evacuation order as Ida rapidly intensified into a powerful Category 4 hurricane. She urged city residents to “hunker down.” Mass evacuations require coordination among multiple parishes and states, and there wasn’t enough time. In several surrounding parishes, people were told to evacuate, but in low-lying and flood-prone locations, many residents couldn’t afford to leave.
Native communities living in the bayous of coastal Louisiana are also facing the risk of permanent displacement. One example is the Houma people, who saw many of their homes damaged or destroyed. The Houma have been recognized by the state as a tribe since 1972 but are not recognized by the federal government and thus are not eligible for federal community assistance. Instead, members apply for assistance as private citizens. Many were left without housing, and their displacement erodes the Houma’s sense of community and connection to their land.
As disasters become more frequent in a warming climate, low-income people without adequate assistance in flood- and hurricane-prone areas are likely to be permanently displaced, as it will be too costly to try to rebuild.
Agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development all respond to climate-related emergencies. But the absence of any central coordinating agency means the government’s response tends to be disorganized and can even contribute to deepening inequalities.
FEMA, the main source of post-disaster funding, focuses primarily on recovery and reconstruction of property, which favors homeowners and wealthier individuals. The aid is allocated based on cost-benefit calculations designed to minimize taxpayer risk.
When property values are higher, FEMA’s payments for damages are higher, making it easier for wealthier neighborhoods to rebuild. As a result, the majority of the funds are not given to those who need them most but rather to those whose property is worth more.
People with more resources can also apply more easily for aid, whereas the application process can be too complicated and demanding for those without access to up-to-date information and internet service.
FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program provides financial assistance to those who are uninsured, but the program cannot pay for all disaster-related losses. Federal assistance comes either as a loan or as a FEMA grant of about US$5,000 per household. But the average flood insurance claim in 2018 exceeded $40,000, according to FEMA.
The National Flood Insurance Program helps those who can afford the insurance. But those who are uninsured aren’t able to recover their losses. Disaster cycles ensue in which those who are most at risk cannot access funding either to prepare for disasters or to recover from them.
For example, in cases of urban flooding, families who own homes can get up to $30,000 in FEMA grants for rebuilding and recovery. If they have higher incomes, they can also benefit from a tax refund. Wealthier individuals are also more likely to apply for Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans.
In contrast, low-income families who are uninsured or who rent a home often receive smaller grants from FEMA and do not qualify for significant tax refunds or SBA loans due to low credit scores.
Additionally, richer individuals and families often receive help from their employers and have more flexibility in terms of taking time off to recover and take care of their families. Low-income families generally do not have the luxury to step away from their jobs, and many even lose them as a result of climate-related disaster and business closures.
It can move from a disaster response that is focused on recovering property to one focused on protecting those most at risk. The federal government is starting to make some moves in this direction. In September 2021, it expanded the forms of assistance offered. It also expanded the types of home ownership and occupancy documents it accepts, a change meant to help those in homes passed down through generations who lack clear ownership documents. These changes now need to be publicized as part of a wider government strategy to increase protection for low-income residents.
Ideally, the government could set up an agency focused on climate-related migration and displacement to research how at-risk areas will be affected and work with residents to find solutions. In our experience, the most effective agencies are those that work closely with local communities.
Strengthening protection in at-risk areas and supporting low-income communities recovering from disasters can help reduce economic and political polarization, population loss and economic decline, and boost protection for all.