4 ways to reduce disproportionate flood risk and build resilience for all communities

More Americans are at risk from flooding than ever before, and that risk is growing rapidly as climate change fuels more intense hurricanes and rainfall, and as sea level rise threatens coastal communities across the country.   

However, flood risk is not equally distributed. In this country, we have a flood risk gap that places low-income communities and communities of color at higher risk from flooding. Systemic inequities compound underlying risks and drive disproportionate impacts from climate change to these communities. This gap is visible in many coastal areas, where communities of extreme wealth and poverty exist within a few square miles, yet have unequal protections against storms, flooding and sea level rise. 

These inequities also make it harder for low-income individuals to recover after a disaster. People with greater access to wealth and resources can more quickly bounce back or have the means to relocate out of harm’s way, leaving those without resources at risk of experiencing repeat disasters.

It’s time to put equity at the center of our nation’s flood risk management strategy and shrink America’s flood risk gap. Here are four ways policymakers and coastal planners can help us move in the right direction: 

1. Strengthen flood disclosure laws to ensure people understand flood risk. 

You wouldn’t buy a car without a vehicle history report to know whether it had been in an accident or damaged beforehand. Similarly, you shouldn’t be able to rent or buy a property without knowing its underlying flood risk.

Unfortunately, many states do not require developers or property owners to disclose flood history or risks to potential tenants or buyers. This lack of transparency gives people a false sense of security and further incentivizes developers to build in flood-prone areas.

Hurricane Harvey laid bare how unchecked development and lack of transparency can result in extensive flooding, particularly to low-income communities and communities of color. In the aftermath, Texas passed legislation requiring property owners to disclose flood history and whether a property is located in the 100-year floodplain. 

Unfortunately, many states still do not have similar laws on the books. It’s time to pass a federal flood disclosure law and create publicly available resources, such as online databases, to make this information easily accessible.

Residents are evacuated from a flooded neighborhood of Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey August 30, 2017.

2. Change the cost-benefit analysis approach to decision-making.

In addressing flood risk, federal and state agencies have turned to cost-benefit analyses to make decisions about where to invest resources, but the methodologies behind them actually increase inequities. 

For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bases their cost-benefit analysis on the value of avoided property losses, leading to selection of projects that protect wealthier communities over low-income communities. Relying solely on this kind of cost-benefit analysis to make important decisions about investments in flood risk reduction perpetuates income, wealth and racial inequality. 

Low-income communities are exposed to higher flood risk and are more likely to lose their wealth and livelihoods following a flood event. This emphasis on property values also fails to take into consideration the environmental, recreational and other community benefits that may come along with nature-based flood risk reduction projects.

3. Dedicate resources specifically to low-income communities and communities of color.

Recognizing that climate change disproportionately impacts low income communities and communities of color, a few states have begun dedicating specific resources to addressing these underlying inequities and making investments where they are most needed.

Virginia’s Community Flood Preparedness Fund dedicates 25% of funds to low-income communities to implement projects and programs that reduce flood risk and build equity for these communities. Investments in resilience building and flood risk reduction must prioritize investments in low-income communities and communities of color. Click To Tweet

Last year, New York leaders proposed a $3 billion environmental bond that would have dedicated 35% of funding to communities of color and low-income communities. EDF is part of a broad coalition of organizations working to move this bond forward. 

Investments in resilience building and flood risk reduction must prioritize investments in low-income communities and communities of color. Not only will doing so reduce risk, but it will also create jobs and economic growth in areas that have the greatest need for these investments.

4. Empower communities to design their own resilient futures.

Reducing the flood risk gap will not happen by simply dedicating resources and developing policies from the top down. Instead, policymakers should provide transparent, accessible information on flood risk and empower those communities at greatest risk to make local decisions that set them on a path to greater resilience.

Recently, Congress passed a reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act that commits resources to building capacity and technical expertise at the community level for this very purpose. Programs such as Louisiana’s LEAD the Coast trains local leaders to be drivers for climate adaptation, equity, justice and resilience within their own communities.  

America’s flood risk gap is the result of centuries of systemic inequities, environmental racism and policies that have prioritized wealthy communities at the expense of communities with the highest flood risk and also greatest need for resources. Closing this gap will take time, but it must be a priority for policymakers at all levels going forward to achieving equity and building resilience for all communities.

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