Doing More to Protect Frontline Communities Ten Years After Katrina

, lead economist and climate policy manager | August 17, 2015, 10:05 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Communities on the Front Lines of Climate Change

As we come up on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the terrible devastation wrought by the hurricane is in the headlines again. For those who experienced the storm first-hand, the ongoing struggle to recover is ever-present and this must be a wrenching anniversary. What can we do as a nation to support frontline communities to be better prepared and protected for future disasters? How can we better account for the growing risks to coastal communities, especially in light of sea level rise and worsening storm surge?  And how can we ensure that we channel our investments in an equitable way so as to build resilience in all communities?

Building equity into disaster recovery efforts

Major storms like Katrina cut a wide swathe of destruction but they have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities that may lack the means to get out of harm’s way, or live in places that are more prone to flooding or more exposed to wind damage. Low income and fixed income households may also not be able to afford to pay for insurance that could help cover their losses. The elderly can be particularly vulnerable. All this means that recovery efforts and preparations for the next storm must be done with a view to protecting those most at risk.

In the case of storms like Katrina, two federal agencies play a major role in disaster aid and recovery: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Once a presidential disaster declaration is made, a number of federal response and recovery programs are triggered, with funding attached as approved by Congress. Through various programs deployed in the wake of Katrina, FEMA has spent nearly $10 billion in Mississippi. The agency has also spent nearly $20 billion in Louisiana on recovery, rebuilding, and mitigation after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In addition, Congress appropriated $19.7 billion in supplemental Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program funds administered by HUD for Gulf Coast disaster recovery in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005.

Targeting these major sources of funding more effectively, and ensuring that they are helping communities become resilient instead of just rebuilding as before in potentially maladaptive ways is an important opportunity to do better. As my colleague Erika wrote: We simply can’t afford to still play business as usual.

Furthermore, we’ve got to make sure that aid also flows to those who rent, instead of just to homeowners; that communities get help navigating myriad administrative hurdles in applying for aid (including translation services, if needed); and that those who are displaced have the opportunity to return if they want.

Mississippi’s housing crisis as an example of policy missteps

Gulfport, MS

An aerial shot of Gulfport, MS taken after Hurricane Katrina. Photo credit: Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Public Affairs Division.

If we think about shelter as being a basic human need, Mississippi’s experience in the wake of Katrina points out the importance of ensuring that disaster aid funding prioritizes rebuilding and repairing safe, affordable housing in frontline communities. For example, a study from the RAND Corporation estimated that affordable housing units in Harrison County, MS, which were already in short supply prior to the storm, declined by 25 percent due to damage from Katrina.

Recovery efforts put a greater emphasis on repairing single-family owner-occupied homes compared to multi-family rental units. This furthered the shortage of affordable housing, with rents climbing for the remaining units. Employment losses, healthcare costs and property damage caused by the storm have taken a further toll on low income communities.

A striking example of the missteps in recovery efforts was the diversion of disaster aid from rebuilding affordable housing to building the Port of Gulfport. Local groups had to sue HUD to remedy the situation.

Growing risks raise the urgency for building resilience

The damage to the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina was incalculable, with a huge storm surge of 25 to 28 feet reaching far inland. Scientific projections show that land subsidence along the Gulf coast, combined with accelerating sea level rise due to climate change, will lead to an estimated increase in local sea level of an additional 19 inches by 2050 in Mississippi and Louisiana. The rapid loss of coastal wetlands to growing development and industrial activities is simultaneously reducing natural protections against storm surges and flooding and worsening their impacts.

These growing risks make it ever more urgent that we adopt a more protective, science-based approach to planning for the future, one that includes the perspectives of frontline communities and their first-hand experience of climate impacts.

There are some tough choices ahead in places where the seas will ultimately win out. Coastal Louisiana, for instance, is already experiencing loss of coastal land which is set to grow significantly over time. Those who live in these highest risk places deserve the resources to make sure that, even in these difficult circumstances, they have options available to them.

Preparing and protecting communities ahead of time

What about preparing before disaster strikes? A recent GAO report found that despite numerous expert recommendations highlighting the value of pre-disaster mitigation efforts, we tend to spend much more on post-disaster recovery:

For example, from fiscal years 2011-2014, FEMA obligated more than $3.2 billion for HMGP post disaster hazard mitigation while the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program obligated approximately $222 million.

And a 2014 report from the Office of the Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security found that:

Over 8 years since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has not obligated approximately $812 million of the $2.16 billion in authorized mitigation funds… This $812 million represents missed or delayed opportunities to protect lives and property from future disasters.

Investing adequate resources in preparing communities ahead of the next disaster is critical. It’s a smarter, more cost-effective way to use limited taxpayer dollars, and can help us plan ahead instead of merely being in an emergency response framework.

What’s more, FEMA and HUD need to do more to proactively engage with frontline communities, understand their needs, and build working relationships before a storm hits. That will make recovery efforts more effective and more in line with what a community wants.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is the primary source of federal funds to help communities become more resilient in the wake of disasters. FEMA’s Public Assistance program provides assistance for debris removal, emergency measures, and restoration of infrastructure. Where cost-effective, this includes funding for measures to reduce future risks in conjunction with the repair of damaged buildings and infrastructure. Through these programs, FEMA pays up to 75% of a project’s costs, while the state contributes 25%. HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program is another source of federal funds for recovery and rebuilding.

Local groups fight back

A FEMA trailer decorated for an environmental justice mission. Photo credit: Leah Mahan, maker of the film Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek.

A FEMA trailer decorated for an environmental justice mission. Photo credit: Leah Mahan, maker of the film Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek.

Local residents in Gulf coast cities and towns affected by Hurricane Katrina have fought back hard to protect and revitalize their communities, and regain decision-making power. Through organizations, including the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, the NAACP, the Steps Coalition, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Gulf Coast Fund, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Greater New Orleans Organizers’ Roundtable, regional collaborations like Gulf South Rising, and many others they are advocating for environmental and climate justice and putting pressure on state and local officials to include their perspectives in how funds are used and how the region plans for coastal development and restoration.

Making resilience policies more effective and equitable

There are some clear opportunities to help ensure frontline communities are better prepared and protected. These include:

  • Targeting funding for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery to those most at risk. FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and disaster aid programs, and HUD’s CDBG program should specifically allocate a portion of funds to meet the needs of frontline communities, especially low income and otherwise marginalized communities. States should also follow new guidance issued by FEMA that encourages states to become more resilient by requiring that they incorporate climate change considerations in scoping and developing their hazard mitigation projects. It should be noted that using a strict cost-benefit test for projects could leave low income communities at a significant disadvantage in accessing funds for disaster preparedness. Programs like HUD’s HOME and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program should target adequate funds for the repair and rebuilding of affordable housing and rental housing in a timely and more climate resilient way.
  • Providing access to the best-available actionable science, data and tools. State and local adaptation planning should be informed by the best available actionable climate science, and must be developed in consultation with local stakeholders. Scaling up these efforts, linking them where useful, localizing the information as much as possible, making them widely accessible to communities, and building local capacity to use them will require national level commitment and funding. The Obama Administration’s Climate Data Initiative is an important step forward. But Federal government agencies need adequate funding from Congress to create publicly accessible databases for critical data, and also to create tools that allow different types of data coming from different agencies to be more easily combined to give a fuller picture of the multiple stressors communities might face. Recent helpful examples include NOAA’s Digital Coast initiative and the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, but these too can be improved with additional data layers and more localized information
  • Creating a National Resilience Fund. Ultimately, we will need a national resilience fund, authorized by Congress, with an adequate level of funding to help prepare and protect communities from the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and coastal flooding. Because some communities will bear the brunt of climate impacts in a disproportionate way, as a nation we need to prioritize their funding needs. There’s also no escaping the fact that there will be tough choices ahead for some communities which are at the greatest risk from sea level rise and may eventually have to move. Even under those circumstances, communities should have choices including through fair buyout and resettlement programs and support for safeguarding items of cultural significance.

Addressing climate change must be a national priority

The ‘Katrina 10 Week of Action’, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, is a powerful testament to the strength and endurance of frontline communities in the Gulf Coast states. It’s also a reminder that if we fail to take action to protect frontline communities, the devastation and hardships they face today will be a reality for many more communities tomorrow. Let’s honor the losses that so many, many people suffered through Hurricane Katrina, and other more hidden daily disasters unfolding even now in frontline communities, by ensuring that the core American values of fairness and equity are a part of all our climate solutions.

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  • T Michelle Gapinski Goodale

    Isn’t meeting [with ] someone a prerequisite to sharing a Rooibos with them? #Katrina #NOLA

  • UncleBen4Now

    In a few decades, Florida and the Gulf States will be underwater sandbars. If you want to be prepared, move out now. If you want to stay, don’t expect the government to keep bailing you out. pun intended

    • rachelcleetus

      Hello, thank you for reading and commenting. Many parts of our country are experiencing risks that are worsening due to climate change — from drought and wildfires in California and the Northwest to coastal flooding in Florida to extreme precipitation in the Midwest. The recent National Climate Assessment lays this out clearly: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/
      That’s why investing in preparing and protecting our communities must be a national priority, rather than letting the burden fall solely upon the communities who find themselves on the frontlines through no particular fault of their own.
      Yes, resources are limited and we must make smart choices about how we spend the money. That includes making sure that we don’t just continue to build and rebuild in ways that exacerbate risk, and instead invest with a view to enhancing climate resilience.

      • UncleBen4Now

        As long as nature survives, we will face natural disasters.
        You mentioned California…a desert, for the most part. Drought has always been a risk, and desalination plants, which is the only logical solution, have been put on the back burner for decades. Building homes with a no vegetation area around them, and using fire proof/resistant materials, allows people to live relatively safely in high risk areas.
        The Midwest has always had spring flooding, to some degree, in various locations. Since the, once in 500 year, Mississippi River flood, some people/towns have been relocated to higher ground. Something that needs to be done for all floodplain residences and businesses and entire communities.
        But, the Gulf Coast, for the most part is at or even below sea level (New Orleans). The earthen dikes on the Mississippi River were/are no match for the spring floodwater. Any attempt at damming the ocean is also an exercise in futility. Since Katrina, the government has thrown billions of dollars at saving the acreage along the Gulf Coast, and homes and people still are not safe and never will be. A great many families were relocated, but many more chose to remain in the high risk area, expecting the government to bail them out when the next Katrina hits them.
        The government should not be responsible to relocate or reimburse people that choose to live in super high risk areas. People that stay, should bare the financial burden, for their own choices. Save only their lives, if possible, not their properties.