But you won’t see that story from all the beachfront property news coverage
Carrying countless tons of rain and high winds with it, Hurricane Florence – downgraded to tropical storm status – hit the Carolinas with a ferocity that made sisters Maria and Irma nervous. It was the Category 3 to 4 hurricane that the National Weather Service was calling “the storm of a lifetime.”
Yet, even though it hit areas with some of the highest concentrations of Black residents in the United States, mainstream news coverage will give the impression that only White people owning tony beachfront property and businesses are the ones suffering most.
But in the Carolinas where the Black population is more than 3 million and in Virginia where it’s more than 1 million, these are the communities that are likely to be hit the hardest.
The slow moving storm wreaked havoc with life threatening storm surge, catastrophic flash flooding and major river flooding to the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia.
The news caused the mandatory evacuation of more than 1 million residents. Businesses have been temporarily shut down and homes are boarded up. Neighborhoods have become ghost towns.
But, sometimes unseen, underappreciated and under-reported, is the suffering of populations already struggling under the weight of longtime social and economic pressures. Those pressures expand when natural disasters hit.
These populations can’t just pack up and run. History proves it. According to a Yale study, due to years of redlining, people of color have also been historically relegated to lower, flood-prone areas in Atlantic coastal states.
The Brookings Institution found that the natural disaster isn’t the “great equalizer” everyone thinks it is. Instead “severe weather shocks exacerbates inequality.” Writes Brookings’ Richard Reeves: “[L]ower income Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods or buildings more susceptible to storm shocks. Substandard infrastructure in affordable housing units and low-income communities place residents at greater risk to the effects of a severe storm. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, low-income neighborhoods were more affected than wealthier ones, as poor families were more concentrated in flood-prone parts of Houston. Low-income and minority families are also more likely to live closer to noxious industrial facilities and are thus more at-risk to chemical spills and toxic leaks resulting from storm damage.
“Second, poorer families are less well insulated against the economic shock that often accompanies the physical one. In the eight counties most severely-affected by Hurricane Harvey, only 17 percent of homeowners held flood insurance policies, which are more commonly held by wealthier households.”
And in a recent report that assessed the impact of hurricanes on Black communities, Hurricane Harvey impacted some communities more than others. The study showed that Black and Hispanic residents were more likely to report damage to their homes and vehicles.
The disparities continue post-hurricane. Today, there are dozens of Black families displaced from Hurricane Harvey, in addition to still countless Black families spread across a “Katrina Diaspora” throughout the Southeast U.S. – since 2005.
Going back to Harvey: Only 13 percent of Black residents who applied for FEMA assistance were approved in comparison to 34 percent of white residents and 28 percent of Hispanic residents.
Now that it’s being reported that President Trump transferred almost $10 million from FEMA to ICE, it seems that gap in governmental assistance will only widen.
In line with income, Black residents are less likely to report having flood insurance, renters’ insurance or homeowners’ insurance (indeed, only 12 percent of American homeowners nationwide have some sort of flood insurance). For Black residents who don’t have many resources, this makes it harder to bounce back from the already devastating impact of a major flood or hurricane.
It’s why Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who’s also Ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, has made the National Flood Insurance Program a major agenda item – even if the topic seemed obscure. She was thrilled when FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – finally delivered a report that admitted the need for an “affordability framework” for the troubled program. “The framework confirms what I have long known,” said Waters earlier this summer. “The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is not just a program for wealthy beachfront homeowners. In fact, with this framework, FEMA confirms that low-income homeowners and renters tend to live in the highest flood hazard areas.
“We now have evidence to show many of the low-income families in special flood hazard areas actually inherited their homes or are retirees who are particularly vulnerable to unaffordable flood insurance premiums.”
And while 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Florence, the process is costly. When you factor in the the cost of gas, flights and lodging, evacuation isn’t always an option for many. Especially for low-income communities of color that won’t have the type of discretionary or emergency funding to cover the unexpected and dire expense.
When Hurricane Katrina barrelled through Louisiana leaving 1,833 dead, the Congressional Research Service found that 73 percent of the people displaced were Black. After the hurricane, 70 percent of the White residents were able to get back into their homes within a year, less than half of the city’s Black residents were able to do the same.
There was also widespread controversy over how the media covered the effects of the disaster. Or as [old] Kanye put it, Black people were reported as looters while White people were “looking for food.”
As Florence approached, the South Carolina Department of Corrections announced that it wouldn’t evacuate inmates at the Ridgeland Correctional Institution. More than 1,000 people will be left behind in the facility, including prison staff. A 2017 profile of the demographics of the SC Department of Corrections shows that a majority of the inmates are Black.
The decision was met with swift backlash from protestors and the ACLU.
Unfortunately, these numbers are only a few examples of the disparity in treatment and long-term impact a hurricane can have on Black communities. As Florida A&M researchers Tanveer ul Islam, Elijah Johnson and Ariana Marshall found in their report titled Assessing Socio-economic Vulnerability of African Americans to Hurricanes in the Gulf States
“The more socially vulnerable a community is, the less coping capacity it will have facing a disaster.” Examining that report, Al Jazeera US correspondent Michelle Klug offered vivid illustrations in her quick analysis …
Hundreds of years of systemic racism, discrimination and neglect have made these communities socially vulnerable. Stripped away of the necessary infrastructure or resources needed to prepare, they are also placed in the eye of the storm.
As residents and governments assess the wreckage from Florence, vigilance from the public is key to ensure the past is not repeated. Yet, there is lingering doubt the current administration will even care to address or acknowledge the unique challenges of diverse and distressed populations. The memory of Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is still fresh in the national mind, and those territories’ majority Brown and Black populations have not fully recovered. While the expectation is that government is held accountable to its duty to protect all citizens, the future of federal response is uncertain as the Trump administration continues rejecting climate change as a problem.
In the meantime, the Black communities on of the Carolinas and Virginia are weathering a storm (and many after it) that has been centuries in the making. It will more than likely take decades for them to ever rebuild.