As students scrambled to travel back to campus this past weekend, another struggle for relocation occurred in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall along the Texas coast. Displacement continued as catastrophic inland flooding affected the Greater Houston area (evacuations were not ordered locally for safety reasons) and the after-effects continue still as torrential rain continues in more eastern areas, flooding thousands of homes. This tragedy elicits comparisons to another severe storm that struck as university classes were beginning in the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina is remembered as the deadliest hurricane in modern U.S history with 1,833 deaths attributed and more than $100 billion in damage. While subsequent hurricanes have caused significant economic damage, particularly Hurricane Sandy , loss of life has been appreciably more limited, particularly in the U.S. Harvey’s toll on Houston, our nation’s fourth largest metropolitan era in terms of overall population, is on track to rival Katrina for economic loss. Thankfully, life has largely been spared with only 32 deaths reported in the US so far. While generalized disaster preparedness has arguably improved since Katrina hit, what has remained a constant is the disproportionate toll that disasters take on poor and black communities.
It is important to remember that when disaster strikes, the privilege of fleeing and saving personal belongings is not one equally afforded to all Americans. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that black New Orleans residents were both more severely affected by Katrina, and less likely to be able to return after the storm to rebuild. Policies that favor homeowners for relief over tenants, as well as the chronic devaluing of black and brown neighborhoods, mean that relief is often heterogeneously applied in the aftermath of natural disasters. The poor of Houston, who are disproportionately black and Latinx, are similarly at risk in the aftermath of Harvey. As severe weather events increase as a result of climate change and coastal flooding, Americans of color will be at even more risk as they disproportionately live in areas at risk of flooding, hurricane damage, and environmental contamination.
Given the vulnerable populations that disasters hit hardest, continued and improved federal funding for disaster relief remains extremely important. In the wake of Harvey, President Trump has stated that he wants his administration to respond to disaster “better than ever before,” yet his proposed budget suggests cutting funds to FEMA by $667 million as well as roughly $250 million to related support agencies. Proposed cuts to disaster response, the increasing number and frequency of severe weather events and the continued deterioration of American infrastructure will result in a greater proportion of Americans being at risk of catastrophic outcomes from natural disasters. Rather than simply holding press conferences once a disaster strikes, it is time we develop a plan for systematically addressing infrastructure and natural disaster preparedness deficits at the national level.
For the moment, doing something to help means donating locally to Texas agencies, and donating cash. In the long term, mitigating the fate of millions of Americans in the wake of climate based disasters means recommitting to efforts at curbing climate change, and appropriately funding disaster relief programs that act as a lifeline for our most vulnerable populations.
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