Sep 21, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The unequal toll of climate disasters

Photo illustration of various people, abstract shapes, plywood texture, and torn paper that resembles a wave.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Hector Retamal/AFP, Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP via Getty Images

Five years after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is reeling from Hurricane Fiona, which unleashed heavy rains, winds and mudslides on the island and left most households without electricity or access to running water.

The big picture: Black and Latino communities in the U.S. have long been burdened by the disproportionate impacts of climate change. Fiona is no exception.

Driving the news: Puerto Rico still hasn’t fully recovered from 2017's Hurricane Maria, which resulted in thousands of deaths and the longest power outage in U.S. history, an Associated Press investigation found.

  • Now, the island is grappling with what Gov. Pedro Pierluisi calls Fiona’s "catastrophic" damage to its vulnerable infrastructure. Depending on the federal response, the next steps could mitigate existing racial and socioeconomic disparities — or exacerbate them.

The backstory: Federal disaster relief has long fallen short in measures of equity. Research demonstrates that unequal recovery efforts following extreme disaster events have contributed to lasting racial and social divides.

  • For starters, communities of color are less likely to receive disaster relief aid, especially when compared to white, affluent households, and the communities they live in, according to FEMA's 2020 National Advisory Council report.
  • And a 2018 study published in a journal for the American Sociological Association found that race-based wealth inequality increases with the cost of damages from natural hazards.
  • The study found that the way FEMA funding was being administered to counties experiencing hazards led to white residents increasing wealth, while Black, Latino and Asian populations lost it.
  • Plus, it's most likely to be wealthy white residents — not residents of color — who relocate to less hazard-prone areas after a hurricane, according to a 2016 study examining the impacts of hurricanes on population change in the Gulf Coast between 1970 and 2005.

Hurricanes leave lasting scars by disrupting public health and health care delivery, according to Carlos Rodríguez-Díaz, a public health scientist and associate professor at George Washington University.

  • Hospitals shut down, and patients’ care is halted by power outages — a key issue in Puerto Rico following Maria.
  • There are also dire shortages of medical supplies like saline solution, as well as damage to infrastructure like water and sewage systems — all of which deepens pre-existing health care inequities.
  • These compound with existing threats, like air pollution, which communities of color are most exposed to due to historic discriminatory practices like redlining and exclusionary housing policies.

Between the lines: Having led on-the-ground research on the aftermath of Maria and its predecessor Irma, and being Puerto Rican himself, Rodríguez-Díaz sees the heavily criticized Trump administration’s response — and the ensuing health care crisis — as a product of systemic racism and the island’s colonization.

  • He compares Maria with a nearly simultaneous disaster response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, which a Politico investigation revealed led to a "faster, and initially, greater" response effort, despite the significantly larger demand and scale of damage in Puerto Rico.
  • “How are we going to... [provide] the resources to communities that are living in disaster-prone areas to have options, to live elsewhere without displacement?” Rodríguez-Díaz asked in an interview with Axios.

Flashback: In 2015, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, 90% of New Orleans residents had returned — but only 37% of residents from the Lower 9th Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood, had come back, the liberal Center for American Progress noted in a report.

  • Following the storm, Black survivors of Katrina more frequently reported problems with finances, physical and mental health than white survivors, according to the Journal of Black Studies.

What they’re saying: “People of color and people from low-wealth households don't get the ability to recover, especially if they're in spaces that are constantly faced with disasters,” Cassandra Davis of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tells Axios.

  • Davis is currently working with FEMA — through funding from the Department of Homeland Security — on a project examining inequitable distribution of disaster aid. “As we think about recovery, short and long term, they're more likely to be left behind.”

What we’re watching: By continuing to acknowledge social injustice and focusing on who is being left out of relief — which FEMA addressed in a report earlier this year — pressing gaps in disaster recovery can be filled, according to Davis.

  • As a first step, Davis hopes that begins with the U.S. emergency response to Fiona.
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