The way that FEMA currently measures flood risk drastically undercounts the dangers of flooding in certain communities. FEMA does not currently include intense rainfall in its calculation, nor does it account for recently rising sea-levels nor flooding from smaller creeks that are not federally mapped. As a result, 14.6 million homes are actually at high flood risk, which is much greater than the 8.6 million homes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency currently estimates.
As of 2020, FEMA had only mapped 46% of the nation’s shoreline (yes, the part of America that touches the ocean) and only 33% of the nation’s streams, according to Scientific American.
Most importantly, homes at high flood risk are disproportionately in non-White and low-income communities. Flood risk is 38% higher in majority non-White neighborhoods, and flood risk is 21% higher in low-income neighborhoods (median household income below $55,000) versus high-income neighborhoods.
New data reveals hidden flood risk that hurt low-income populations
New data from First Street Foundation sheds light on the discrepancies for how we measure flood risk in America. This is particularly important as The New York Times points out because “flood maps guide where and how to build, whether homeowners should buy flood insurance, and how much risk mortgage lenders take on.” Inaccurate maps mean that some people aren’t being properly covered by their insurance, or aren’t getting large enough loans from banks to cover the costs that they may face in taking care of a house.
Cameron Parish, Louisiana is located on the absolute heel of Louisiana and is the place in America with the highest incidence of flood risk. 94% of the homes in Cameron stand a 1% risk of experiencing a 100-year flood each year. For reference, where I group up in Brooklyn, 8.9% of homes face this same risk.
Most of Cameron’s residents also live in food deserts. Darla K’s is the only grocery store for miles, which can be a particularly difficult reality when flooding occurs since residents have no easy access to food. Incomes in Cameron have fallen 18% in the last 5 years.
FEMA has long known about the risks in Cameron, but new data reveals that the risks are even worse than previously thought.
6 of the 10 counties with the highest hidden flood risk are all in Kentucky. Letcher County, KY has the highest hidden flood risk in America. Hidden flood risk means that there is a large discrepancy between how much flooding FEMA claims happens in a county versus how much flooding there actually is from more accurate data.
When a storm hit Letcher on March, 28 2021, the constant response from residents was “Here we go again.” Jason Back, Letcher’s County Road Supervisor, looked at the washed out bridge and sighed, “Today is a mirror image of what happened March 1st.” Flooding has been the continued reality for these residents, and yet they haven’t seen the change they need.
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Hidden flood risk can be particularly difficult for people living in poverty. High costs to repair homes, poor insurance coverage, and misplaced expectations in one’s financial future make it much more difficult to gain economic support. The residents in Cameron Parish, LA know that they have high flood risk — incomes there are $56,000 and 1 in 10 live in poverty. Residents in Letcher County, KY don’t know that they have high flood risk — incomes there are $29,000 and 1 in 3 live in poverty.
Flooding and inequality can be particularly acute in cities, where lower income residents or residents with disabilities have below-ground apartments.
Claire Adams, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s and cannot walk, was stuck in her wheelchair as the flood waters of hurricane Ida began to rise. The force of the rushing water sealed the doors of her below-ground NYC apartment. She was trapped with her daughter and her nurse. Her daughter pushed the air conditioner out of the window and crawled out to find help. “I thought this is the end,” Claire’s daughter said. “I thought, it doesn’t make sense for us to all perish. I thought my mother’s aide should not sacrifice her life. And then I turned and said goodbye to my mother.” When rescuers finally arrived, the rising water had reached her neck.
Those who can’t afford housing are also most likely to be uninsured
Studies have also found that communities with the least affordable housing and least discretionary income are 1.5x more likely to be under or uninsured due to flood risk not being accounted for by FEMA special flood hazard areas (SFHAs).
Discrepancies in flood insurance also fall along demographic lines. When accounting for similar locations and population sizes, for every 10 White people covered by flood insurance, only 7 Latinx people are covered and only 6 Black people are covered. Flood prone homes are also lower in value and much harder to sell after floods.
Melissa Roberts, Executive Director at the American Flood Coalition, remarks on the the growing inequalities that flooding can expose:
“We know that flooding disproportionately affects underserved communities, particularly communities of color…This inequity stems from a long history of exclusion, through redlining, as well as current adaptation policy, which stacks the deck against under-resourced communities. To meaningfully change this, we need to tackle these inequities head on and transform the system.”
The Path Forward
Prioritize flood insurance for those who would have the hardest time bouncing back — There are two ways to think about flood insurance, given a limited pool of money — (1) we can dedicate more funds to people with more expensive properties, or (2) we can dedicate more funds to people who are in greater need of those funds. While FEMA’s flood insurance often focuses on the wealthiest homes , these tend to also be owned by those with the most funds to bounce back. Policymakers in Houston tested a program in 2019 that focused more on equity to support those struggling with floods and saw tremendous benefits to communities.
Require sellers to provide flood risk information —21 states have no flood disclosure requirements. In New York state, sellers can pay a $500 fee to hide information about whether the property is in a designated floodplain. These sellers see this as a small price to inflate their value of their home. Louisiana has just greatly improved its flood disclosure policies. The state now requires sellers to disclose whether and how frequently the property or building has flooded, whether the property is in a FEMA-designated flood zone, and whether the seller or previous owner received federal disaster aid that would require any new owner to buy and maintain flood insurance for the property. Other states should do the same.
Remove FEMA guidelines that favor the wealthy —FEMA transitional shelter assistance currently requires grantees to have credit cards. In addition, FEMA must find housing damage to be at least $8,000 or personal property damage of at least $3,500 for HUD Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) to kick in. As a result, following Hurricane Harvey, nearly two-thirds of very low-income households in Texas were cut out of support. These policies favor families with higher property values since it is easier to reach these thresholds, and also those who are able to get a credit card at all. FEMA instead should make the damage a percentage of property value and should eliminate the credit card requirement — transitional shelters are not hotels where we have to cover incidentals.
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina is the clearest example of flooding and inequality. Katrina disproportionately impacted Black communities, as the countless photos of families on roofs so desperately showed. The recovery also disproportionately benefited White communities — Between 2005 and 2013, median income rose by only 7% for the city’s Black residents to $25,102; but it rose by much more for White residents — by 23% to $60,553. This was in large part due to the way homes were valued and insured in New Orleans.
Katrina decimated the Black middle class — 175,000 Black residents left in the year after Katrina and 75,000 of them have never returned. Alden McDonald, a long-time resident of New Orleans East who started the city’s first minority owned bank laments, “There was never a plan to bring people back home.”
Shortly after Katrina, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” Floods are more than economic disasters, they have proven to be social and cultural disasters as well.