Vulnerable communities hit harder by floods, slower to recover

Residents of low-income communities are more likely to suffer property damage from floods but less likely to be fully compensated for losses and also less likely to benefit from flood mitigation efforts, according to a report the Iowa Policy Project published on December 12.

University of Iowa graduate student Joseph Wilensky wrote “Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line” (click here for the summary and here for the full text). His focus was on “frontline communities”:

Frontline communities are the first to be impacted by flooding and are often hit the hardest. Members of frontline communities impacted by recurring flooding are more likely to live below the poverty level, experience unemployment, have a lower level of education, have a disability, speak English as a second language, lack vehicle access, have children, be elderly, identify as African American or Latino, or be the female head of a household. [4]

Frontline communities are more vulnerable at all stages — before, during, and after — a disaster. Residing in a frontline community is “an important indicator of everything from evacuation compliance during an event to successful long-term recovery after one,” and members of frontline communities are “more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one.” [5] […]

[…] Low-income communities are often located in areas more susceptible to damage, such as areas along fault lines or in flood plains. This placement near danger reduces the desirability of land, making it cheaper and more financially accessible for low-income communities to locate in disaster prone areas.[7] The nexus of income status and geographic location creates frontline communities where dwelling units are often of lower build quality than those of wealthier residents, making frontline community structures more susceptible to damage.

Studies of natural disasters from around the country have shown “low-income communities recovered more slowly than more affluent communities.” Similarly, University of Iowa researchers Cristina E. Munoz and Eric Tate found inequities in how disaster recovery funds were distributed in three Iowa communities affected by flooding in 2008 (Cedar Rapids, Palo, and Iowa City). Specifically, “frontline communities in these areas faced less-complete recoveries than their wealthier neighbors and took longer to recover to pre-flood levels. Also mirroring the national trend, these communities were less likely to receive full financial compensation and what compensation they did receive took longer to reach them.”

The problems are not limited to federal assistance. The Iowa Individual Disaster Assistance Program has restrictions and deadlines that could “may be difficult to overcome for individuals who are struggling to make ends meet,” Wilensky noted.

When combined with the extensive delays in federal assistance outlined earlier, individuals and their communities may be without funds or may have access to limited funds for quite some time. Wealthier families may be able to absorb these timing constraints for their losses, but those without are again forced to accept early money, even if money allocated later proves to be of greater amounts.

One might assume that areas more at risk of flooding would be top priorities for flood prevention. But Wilensky examined mitigation projects funded through the Iowa Flood Center and found that criteria didn’t favor frontline communities.

Generally, when running a benefit cost analysis, the cost of protection provided, or prevention put into place must not exceed the value of the property being protected. This benefit cost ratio must at least equal 1. It is much easier to justify an expensive mitigation project to protect higher-valued homes or land than homes or land of frontline communities, even if these wealthier locations are better positioned to recover due to inherent community wealth.

The Army Corps of Engineers also uses benefit cost analysis when deciding whether to fund a project and what priority to give projects. As noted previously, “higher property values mean a bigger benefit and a higher benefit-to-cost ratio,” but Midwestern cities are at a national disadvantage in this formula due to relatively cheap homes and fewer expensive commercial properties.[18]

When the Corps applied that cost-benefit analysis to Cedar Rapids following the 2008 floods, they determined that wall and levee construction on the east bank of the Cedar River, protecting “the most valuable city properties near the downtown,” barely exceeded the 1:1 ratio. Projects on the west bank of the river didn’t qualify because of low property values in the neighborhoods where hundreds of homes were destroyed in 2008.

In a news release about the report, Iowa Policy Project founder David Osterberg argued that as Iowa plans for dealing with severe weather events that are becoming more common due to climate change, “equity needs to be at the front of the process, not an afterthought.” The communities “most in jeopardy and least able to rebound from a flood are on the front line when disaster hits, and they must be at the front of the line for public support.”

Wilensky suggests several ways to reduce the inequities:

  • “Rebalance” mitigation efforts with an emphasis on community impact and vulnerability rather than up-front economic loss, the latter putting higher-value properties ahead of those less able to cope on their own.
  • Put more flexibility in FEMA guidelines to ease community burdens and allow for a creative use of funds.
  • Better direct Community Block Development Grant funds to the best place for mitigation efforts — not necessarily within the damage area, but outside if needed. Flood mitigation is best placed upstream.
  • Keep state funds flowing pending the arrival federal aid, which might be delayed after a federal disaster is declared and Iowa stops processing and paying disaster claims.
  • Support a watershed coordinator with state funds to guide applications for assistance, as these applications must be well-supported and well-documented, and more difficult for small communities to deliver.

Top image: Photo by Don Becker of the United State Geological Survey Flooded street in Cedar Rapids, IA near 13th Ave. and J Street, Cedar Rapids, IA (photography: Don Becker, USGS) via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Better solutions for bigger and more frequent floods

    We need to give our rivers the freedom to flood their flood plains, and that means a lot more buyouts of vulnerable structures, demolishing them, and turning the land into green space. Buyouts are expensive, but so is a grim future of buildings being flooded over and over and disaster payments being paid by taxpayers again and again.

    We need more equity, better policies for the vulnerable, and bigger numbers of buyouts. And we need to take a new hard look at how heavily-subsidized crop insurance should work in flood plains. And we need to recognize that the kind of “flood prevention” provided by walls and levees, while sometimes necessary, is generally more accurately described as flood diversion, because it pushes the water onto other people’s land.

    Also, the same original and restored natural areas that help water quality, including wetlands, prairies, and woodlands, also help with flooding problems. So do cover crops and healthy soils with high organic matter. Cover crops and high-organic soils are currently lacking on most Iowa cropland. Iowa needs millions more acres of all of the above.