In an article by the Louisiana Illuminator, the author made some very crucial points about how hunkering down and weathering hurricanes is not enough. The United States isn’t prepared for the dramatic effects of climate change, and Louisiana, my state, is front and center in this battle. Hurricane Ida impacted Baton Rouge badly, yet we got off lucky compared to the rest of southeastern Louisiana. Since I’ve moved back home, I’ve noticed that these record-breaking storms are more intense and frequent every year.
The authors of the article, Marina Lazetic and Karen Jacobsen, both from Tufts University, pointed out that as they study refugees and migration worldwide, they are seeing that the communities most at risk are being pushed into permanent displacement and homelessness or deeper into poverty with each climate-related disaster.
They noted that there was no time for New Orleans to prepare for Ida as it formed into a Category 4 hurricane. When it had first formed, we all thought it was going to be a Category 1 or 2 — 3 at the worst. We blinked and it was a Category 4. Mayor Cantrell of New Orleans urged residents to hunker down since mass evacuations require coordinating and navigation through the red tape of multiple parishes and states. There simply wasn’t enough time. And many who stayed behind did so because they couldn’t afford to evacuate. I was one of those people. I don’t have a car and I wasn’t about to leave my pets behind.
The article also noted that Native American communities that live in the bayous of our coast are facing the risk of permanent displacement. The Houma people, who have been recognized by the state as a tribe since 1972, saw many of their homes destroyed or damaged. Although Louisiana recognizes them as a tribe, the federal government does not, and due to this, the tribe is not eligible for federal community assistance. Members would have to apply for assistance as private citizens, and many were left without housing.
You would think that FEMA would help, but the article pointed out what many of us locals realize. FEMA aid favors wealthier homeowners. Thanks to segregation, most of the low-income communities live in higher-risk areas. An example is the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, where low-income neighborhoods were the most affected. I have a story about this as well. During this time, I was married to my then-husband. We actually were moving from Houston to North Carolina to be close to his sister. When we got to North Carolina, I received a phone call from one of my customers at a store we had set up. I was selling my jewelry and he had his graphic design business. The store was completely underwater. And our apartment, which was across the streets, was as well. We lost everything that got left behind. I applied for FEMA aid but we were denied. (Later on, the marriage fell apart and I moved back home to Louisiana to restart my life.)
FEMA is the main source of post-disaster funding and focuses mostly on the recovery and reconstruction of property. This favors homeowners and wealthier individuals, and the article pointed out that the aid is allocated based on cost-benefit calculations designed to minimize taxpayer risk. If the property values are higher, then FEMA’s payments for damages are higher. This is why wealthier neighborhoods are easily able to rebuild and poor neighborhoods are left rotting.
The authors also mentioned the National Flood Insurance Program, which helps those who can afford insurance. However, those who can’t are not able to recover their losses. The authors point out that the government could help by minimizing the risks and impact of displacement by planning and preparing for both slow- and rapid-onset events.
Instead of focusing on recovering property, the government should focus on protecting those who are most at risk. The authors also pitched a brilliant idea. The government could set up an agency that is focused on climate-related migration and displacement to research how at-risk areas will be affected. They can then work with residents to find solutions.
“In our experience, the most effective agencies are those that work closely with local communities.
“Strengthening protection in at-risk areas and supporting low-income communities recovering from disasters can help reduce economic and political polarization, population loss, and economic decline, and boost protection for all.”
Until the US government is willing to do this, we are simply not prepared for the eventuality of mass displacement, homelessness, and poverty that will come as a result of climate change. I worry about next year. My duplex apartment has withstood Andrew, Katrina, Rita, Ida, Delta, and many others. But next year could be worse, and moving is simply not an option for me at this time.
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