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Inequitable Climate: Hurricanes, Flooding & Vulnerable Communities

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Flooding completely submerges a neighborhood near Austin, Texas.
Flooding completely submerges a neighborhood near Austin, Texas. RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / iStock

Hurricanes are the costliest extreme disasters in the U.S., racking up billions of dollars in flood damages in the last few decades. Climate change will create more severe and sustained storms, with significant impacts on coastal communities. The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment hosted a webinar on September 21 to discuss how hurricanes and flooding exacerbate existing inequalities. This is the second installment of a Woods-hosted series examining the relation between climate change and extreme events with a particular focus on the impacts to vulnerable groups. Read on for excerpts from the discussion or watch the full recording here.

Related: Stanford researchers discuss equity in storm planning and response

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) first spoke about how government officials can help facilitate communication between stakeholders and policymakers, distribute resources to prepare and respond to storms, and actively include disadvantaged communities in planning. Chris Field, Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute, then joined Jennifer Jurado, Chief Resilience Officer in Broward County, Florida, and Stanford scholars Elliott White Jr. and Morgan O’Neill, both Assistant Professors in Earth System Science, to discuss the connection between climate and extreme events and how best to manage the risks associated with storms.

Extreme events require bipartisan solutions

Mace represents a district that includes the Lowcountry of South Carolina, where long stretches of beach and biodiverse marshlands drive a thriving tourism economy. She recognizes that poorer communities tend to bear the brunt of impacts after a storm, often waiting years to see relief payments materialize from government agencies.

“We want to be an equal opportunist when it comes to finding resources and funding for the flooding that we're all facing,” said Mace. “Because that is a bipartisan issue. Storms are not partisan.”

When it rains, it pours

O’Neill, an atmospheric scientist focused on “the worst storms on Earth,” explained that many of the links between climate change and hurricanes are abundantly clear. Warmer sea surface and air temperatures fuel new hurricanes in the ocean, rising sea level pushes water farther inland, and increased water vapor ramps up rainfall. But other impacts that would inform risk management and planning—like whether climate change will lead to more or less frequent hurricanes—are still largely a mystery to scientists.

Currently, hurricanes are rated as a function of sustained wind speed. But the panel discussed how this system can be misleading as the danger for coastal inhabitants primarily comes from heavy rains and storm surge. “Water is the killer, whether it's salt water from the ocean, or it's just flooding due to freshwater from the sky,” noted O’Neill.

Learning to live with water

In Broward County, Florida, the impacts of hurricanes are felt far beyond what is considered coastal. Jurado noted that many of their drainage systems depend on gravity. Often the communities that are farthest away from the immediate coastline suffer from flooding for weeks while the systems remain flooded. “If the capacity is not there, the water isn't moving,” she said. “Increasingly, we're seeing that the system is at capacity all the time. It's wet no matter where you look. The storage ponds are always full.”

New county regulations require property-owners to maintain and update infrastructure like seawalls that prevent city flooding. But these projects can require hundreds of thousands of dollars. The regulations may place an oversized burden on people who face the choice to either comply with the rules or abandon their homes in an area with skyrocketing housing prices. The county is exploring financial mechanisms that would allow communities to share the costs of updates that protect everyone.

As climate change shifts the fundamental dynamics of storms, it is also forcing us to think less about how to keep water at bay and more about how to “learn to live with water,” said White Jr.

He emphasized that although we tend to focus on human-made infrastructure like seawalls and stormwater drainage, natural defenses like wetlands effectively protect against storm surge. They also provide additional water storage with the added benefit of bringing income to rural areas through eco-tourism.

A resilient future with equity in mind

Preparing for storms and responding to extreme events is just one part of the portfolio for building climate resilience. White Jr. noted that managing retreat before residents are forced to leave is one of the greatest challenges still ahead. “We oftentimes think about a community and neighborhood as a physical place, it's a place on the map,” said White Jr. “Not only are they communities of people with connections to one another, but they have connections to the actual physical environment.”

An equitable response will require managers to think critically about how to integrate communities and provide for their cultural needs as they retreat from the coast in the long term.

As researchers continue to clarify the connection between climate change and hurricanes, resources can be used to address the problem from multiple angles – from investing in computing power to predict storm paths to updating drainage and pump systems to conserving ecosystems that are good for wildlife and the economy.  “There are compelling solutions and the investments in building resilience almost always pay off way more than the initial cost,” said Field.

For the full discussion visit our YouTube channel.

Read additional insights on equitable storm planning and response in a recent scholar Q&A.

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