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Catastrophic floodwaters in Kentucky have killed more than three dozen people.
Gov. Andy Beshear told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday that the water “swept some people miles away from where they were” and that “it’ll take weeks to account for everybody.”
Climate change has supercharged extreme weather events, including the deadly flooding that struck Kentucky, Missouri and Arizona last week.
Yet the flooding throws a light on a wider truth: Low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
Deke Arndt, the chief of climate science and services at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, recently underscored the uneven impact of climate change.
“Lots of images of people getting rescued from high water this week. I worked with emergency (management) for 10 years, and here’s the truth: they never pull folks from their homes in affluent neighborhoods. Once you see it, you won’t unsee it,” Arndt tweeted last Thursday.
“In the context of our changing climate, Big Weather, but especially flash floods, aggressively targets the vulnerable and underinformed,” he added.
Sixteen of the deaths in Kentucky occurred in Knott County, according to the governor’s office on Monday. Seven people were killed in Breathitt County, two in Clay County, two in Letcher County and three in Perry County.
These five counties are among the poorest counties in the US, per data from the 2020 US Census.
“The reality is that when creeks get up and out of their banks, they almost always find the folks who are already living closer to the margins, whether these are people in manufactured housing or mobile homes or people in homes that are well within the floodplain,” Arndt told CNN. “We saw it in eastern Kentucky last week. We saw it in my home region of western North Carolina last summer.”
It’s an unrelenting theme, experts say: Flash floods, in particular, punch hard on already vulnerable communities. To help protect against climate-related hazards, we must think about disaster mitigation not as a short-term goal – but rather as a long-term one.
Growth pushes vulnerable groups to the margins
There are a few reasons why the climate crisis afflicts some communities more than others, said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the author of the 2021 book “Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.”
For one, over the course of many decades, low-income communities and communities of color have been built in locations that are more physically vulnerable to extreme weather events.
“As a city expands, certain groups are usually pushed into marshlands or bayous or other high-risk areas,” Montano told CNN.
Infrastructure also plays a role. Low-income communities tend to receive far less investment in their infrastructure, which in turn becomes more vulnerable.
“So, when there is a rainstorm or another hazard happens, the infrastructure isn’t able to withstand those impacts like the more up-to-date infrastructure in a wealthier community can,” Montano continued.
Other social vulnerability issues matter, too. Wealthier people have the money to construct their homes using higher-standard building materials and building codes. Further, wealthier people have more money to spend on mitigating hazards.
“Think of the infamous example of celebrities in California hiring private firefighters,” Montano said. “They’re better able to protect themselves when these hazards happen.”
Njoki Mwarumba, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster preparedness at the University of Nebraska Omaha, echoed some of Montano’s sentiments.
“One thing that’s consistently misunderstood and that doesn’t receive the attention it needs is the fact that people don’t wake up and decide to be vulnerable,” Mwarumba told CNN. “Often, when we try to address people in their communities from a point of vulnerability, we miss the systems that made that vulnerability.”
Miseducation, historical trauma in Native American and Black American communities, marginalization and disinvestment: Many variables compound to create vulnerability.
What ought to happen next?
Mwarumba explained that we should direct more of our attention – our knowledge, our data – toward addressing some of these root causes of unsafe conditions.
“This is important, because during recovery, you want to think about not only the immediate response but also long-term mitigation,” she said.
In the aftermath of a disaster, people frequently say that they want to go back to “normal.” That impulse is understandable, but people shouldn’t strive to return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.
“You want to rethink your building needs,” Mwarumba said. “Because if you’re trying to quickly get back to normal, what that means is that you’re predisposing yourself to another event. And that event is actually going to be compounded, because you’re going to be dealing with the effects of the event you’re currently going through.”
In other words, disasters are very comprehensive, as CNN’s Rachel Ramirez recently stressed, and it’s vital to consider what recovery and preparedness mean beyond just the present moment.
Montano pointed out the significance of full, vigorous media coverage.
“These disasters aren’t one-off events. The problems we see in Kentucky are going to look remarkably similar to the problems we see in Arizona, Missouri and anywhere else affected by a disaster,” she said. “This is important for the public to understand, because when you see problems come up again and again, that means these are systemic problems.”
Sustaining media coverage matters, too.
“The reporting on Kentucky is going to drop off in a few days, but in some ways, that’s when the disaster is really just beginning,” Montano said.
The recovery from the flooding is going to be long and difficult. It’s crucial that media outlets continue to cover what’s happening and hold governments accountable.
Indeed, what governments choose to do, or refuse to do, after a disaster matters greatly, and can have tremendous consequences for the people at the center of an extreme weather event.
“We often frame climate change as a science issue or a technology issue or an energy issue or a politics issue,” Arndt said, “but it’s ultimately an anthropological issue.”
Put a little bit more bluntly: Which lives do we value? And which do we put in harm’s way?