An analysis by U.S. News Healthiest Communities shows that racial and ethnic minority groups are at the highest risk for a variety of natural disasters. In many ways, experts say, it's not natural why this happens.
For Dr. Vian Nguyen, one of the most poignant moments of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was when she received an emergency call about a woman in labor who was trapped in her home, stranded by floodwaters, and an ambulance couldn't reach her.
"The family had moved upstairs because the downstairs had filled with water," said Nguyen, chief medical officer at Legacy Community Health, a federally qualified medical center in southeast Texas.
The pregnant woman's home is in Grafton, a predominantly Latino and black community on Houston's southwest side. Unable to reach her, Nguyen said she was forced to discuss the birth with the woman's husband, who was able to complete the delivery successfully and without complications.
Despite the positive results, Nguyen said the moment is still a reminder of the gaps that still exist in many communities where people need urgent and routine health care the most. At the same time, Nguyen said, some of Legacy's patients were forced out of their homes and forced to move to other communities, out of Houston and even out of the state because of Harvey, hampering efforts to curb the health disparities that existed before the storm.
"That's when we started to see some of our efforts to try to overcome those disparities start to not work," Nguyen said.
As such events become more common, questions about the impact of natural disasters such as Harvey on the lives and health of communities become more pressing. According to a 2021 report by the World Meteorological Organization, the number of recorded disasters related to weather, climate or water damage has increased by about 400 percent in recent decades, from 711 between 1970 and 1979 to more than 3,500 UN's between 2000 and 2009. From 2010 to 2019, there were more than 3,100 disasters.
But in many ways, community vulnerability to disasters may or may not come naturally.
From racist practices of the past to current failures in preparedness, response and recovery, experts say poor policies and procedures put certain communities - especially those predominantly occupied by racial and ethnic minorities - at higher risk of harm. The growing threat of climate change will only further exacerbate this risk.
"When we talk about natural disasters as a force of nature, it gets humans out of trouble," said Anna Weber, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Many of these man-made decisions put people at risk."
Risk of inequality
A U.S. News & World Report analysis of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Risk Index - which is included at the county level in the newly released Healthiest Communities 2022 rankings - highlights the level of risk faced by racial and ethnic minority populations Adding a range of extreme weather events, including those related to climate change
The FEMA Index itself reflects a community's risk of being negatively impacted by natural hazards relative to other communities and is based on an equation involving three components: expected annual loss, social vulnerability and community resilience. The U.S. News analysis examined risk for specific demographic groups by pairing FEMA data at the census tract level with U.S. Census Bureau data on race and ethnicity to create population-weighted average risk scores for those demographic groups.
Overall, the U.S. News analysis found that Native people, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, are at greatest risk for natural disasters in the U.S. Activity, avalanches and cold snaps, while American Indians are the most vulnerable group to drought, river flooding, wildfires and ice storms.
The analysis also highlights the dangerous threat that natural disasters pose to black individuals. According to the analysis, while Blacks or African Americans in the United States are at the lowest overall risk of natural disasters, this group is also at the highest risk of being negatively impacted by hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as heat waves and flooding that occur in coastal areas. Although the evidence linking tornadoes to climate change is more difficult to establish, scientists have linked the crisis to disasters such as hurricanes, heat waves and floods.
These data add to the growing body of evidence that certain racial and ethnic communities are currently bearing the brunt of illness and death from climate change," said Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Yerby Fellow at the center. Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Salas said systemic racism plays an important role in the social, economic and health inequalities that limit the ability of communities of color vulnerable to natural disasters to adequately respond to them.
For example, discriminatory policies such as redlining associated with housing loans have led to the segregation of many racial and ethnic minority populations into less desirable areas - including areas where industrial sites and highways lead to higher exposure to air pollutants, or areas vulnerable to Flooding.
These areas also tend to have less green space, leading to higher temperatures. A 2020 study of surface temperatures in 108 urban areas across the country found that the average temperature in redline neighborhoods was 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in non-redline neighborhoods. Another study, published last October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that exposure to extreme heat for urban residents worldwide nearly tripled from 1983 to 2016.
The higher surface temperatures found in minority communities appear to help explain why people of color are disproportionately threatened by extreme heat - a dangerous and potentially fatal disparity, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 67,500 heat-related emergency department visits and about 700, on average deaths occur each year in the United States.
In California, from 2005 to 2015, the rate of emergency department visits for heat-related illness increased by an average of 67 percent among African Americans, 63 percent among Hispanics, 53 percent among Asian Americans, and 27 percent among whites, according to an analysis released in 2019. With global warming at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a recent analysis of 49 cities by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that blacks and African-Americans living with extreme temperature-related mortality rates are expected to be among the highest.
"So far, we're seeing that climate change is exacerbating many of the disparities we already see in these groups," said Nambi Ndugga, a policy analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation's Racial Equity and Health Policy Program.
Ndugga is co-author of a research brief published in May on the intersection of climate change and health equity. The brief notes that the same socioeconomic factors that contribute to poorer health outcomes for minorities and ethnic minorities - including poverty, exposure to environmental hazards and reduced access to health care - also affect their vulnerability to negative climate change-related impacts.
"People of color are more likely to experience homelessness and displacement during extreme weather events because they live in areas with more vulnerable housing and poorer climate adaptation infrastructure," Ndugga said.
But a community's pre-existing vulnerability is only one factor in determining its level of climate change and related disaster risk. Catherine Catalano, deputy director of the American Public Health Association's Center for Climate, Health and Equity, said a community's resilience and ability to recover from such events depends in large part on investments in infrastructure and social support prior to those events. However, low-income communities and communities of color typically receive less funding for capital improvements than more affluent, white communities.
"You'll see communities with more parks and other permeable surfaces and updated stormwater systems that can help mitigate flood risk," Catalano said. "It's not just about mitigating property damage, but also about mitigating mold and disease after all the flooding caused by standing water."
In addition to physical infrastructure investments, Catalano said many communities of color also tend to have weaker local food and health care systems, both of which she said are critical to recovery.
"You just see less of that investment in communities of color in the U.S. overall," Catalano said.
Maria Lopez-Nunez, associate director of organizing and advocacy for Ironbound Community Corp. a community advocacy organization based in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, N.J., said many of the 50,000 diverse residents of the working-class area feel like they live in an area surrounded by heavy industry. The community is close to power plants, wastewater treatment facilities and waste incinerators, and is known as one of the most toxic communities in the country.
"We've been dealing with toxic waste facilities and toxic polluters," Lopez-Nunez said. "With climate change, when our communities flood, toxic water flows into our communities."
While the issue of contamination and contaminated sites when natural disasters hit can present additional challenges, Lopez-Nunez said the most difficult aspect of dealing with the threat of climate change is the lack of timely federal support to help people recover quickly. She said community residents can wait more than a year until they receive any assistance in the wake of a disaster.
"There's a lot of inequality in the way we recover from disasters in this country," Lopez-Nunez said.
Events such as the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color have brought a heightened sense of urgency to the issue of equity. Access and distribution issues related to FEMA recovery assistance are no exception.
In a November 2020 report, FEMA's National Advisory Committee acknowledged that many of the government's programs "do not consider equity principles for economic assistance relief.
The report said, "Larger communities that already have significant resources through permanent assistance, smaller, less resourced, and less affluent communities are unable to access funding to properly prepare for disasters, resulting in inadequate response and recovery and little opportunity for mitigation." Status. "Underserved communities remain underserved throughout the disaster cycle and thus suffer unnecessarily and unjustly."
Illustrating a deep-rooted and almost certainly complex problem, the study shows that homeowners in white areas who apply for FEMA disaster assistance are more likely to be approved, while homeowners in less white areas tend to outperform their counterparts in repair and replacement assistance.
As with people of color, the data also show that less educated people or renters benefit less from federal disaster assistance than more educated people or homeowners, and that the wealth gap increases after a disaster.
Communities can only do so much to help themselves," said Aurora Le, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "
However, there have been some recent positive steps. in September, FEMA announced changes that allow residents to present more forms of documentation to prove occupancy or home ownership for disaster relief assistance, and allow some residents to self-certify their ownership. These actions are included in a broader equity action plan FEMA released earlier this year as part of the Biden administration's focus on promoting equity, and similar efforts are taking root elsewhere in the federal agency.
The issue has also received attention in Congress. in early May, Democratic lawmakers Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi introduced a bill to improve FEMA's data collection to "better identify inequities in its programs" and direct the agency to ensure that equity is incorporated into its disaster assistance programs.
"Frontline communities have long been disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of natural disasters, and this injustice is exacerbated by the distribution of relief," Warren said in a statement when the bill was announced.
Still, Le said such reforms are only the first step toward greater racial equity in the way the country manages emergency response and recovery efforts. FEMA also needs to take a more active role in ensuring that recovery initiatives such as housing and infrastructure development and remediation are implemented and completed, she said.
"Hurricane Harvey happened five years ago, and we still have communities in Houston that have not been rebuilt," she said.
FEMA spokesman Jeremy Edwards said the agency remains "focused" on ensuring that equity is "at the center of its efforts to better serve survivors. He noted that FEMA recently launched a new emergency manager exchange program that brings local and state emergency managers and government officials to Washington, D.C., to work with the agency on policy development and change.
"Ultimately, we know that disaster response is best implemented and managed at the state and local level with additional support from the federal government," Edwards said.