African Americans Are Disproportionately Exposed to Extreme Heat
By Adrienne Hollis
Climate change is a threat multiplier. This is a fact I know to be true. I also know that our most vulnerable populations, particularly environmental justice communities — people of color and/or low socioeconomic status — are suffering and will continue to suffer first and worst from the adverse effects of climate change. Case in point? Extreme heat.
After reading the Killer Heat Report, most people probably used the interactive mapping tool to find specific city and county information. I know I did! See, I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. My Mom and many other family members and friends still live in the Gulf Coast area, and I am very familiar with the heat. I hung out on beaches in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, I attended college in Mississippi and graduate school in Tennessee. I've lived and worked in pretty much every state in the southeast, and now I live in Maryland.
But the extreme heat temperatures that people in the southeast are currently experiencing and will experience in the future is worse than anything I experienced. So yes, I was curious about the effect of extreme heat on African Americans.
Using data from the Killer Heat Report, we asked what effect the extreme heat days would have on African Americans. My colleague Dr. Kristy Dahl, a co-author of the report, examined the average number of days with a heat index above 105°F in counties where African Americans make up 25 percent or more of the population (which is about twice the national average) vs. those counties that are less than 25 percent African American.
Then, she further refined the data by including the average number of days with a heat index above 105°F, both historically and in midcentury. What was discovered was shocking and sadly serves as proof and an example of the above statement related to at-risk populations.
Where do we live, and are we at risk?
Counties in the Southeast have the highest concentration of African Americans. Not a surprise for those of us who are from the South, but interesting, nonetheless.
As it happens, those same areas are also where the map "lights up" for increased extreme heat days.
Taken from the Killer Heat Report
Currently, counties with large African American populations are exposed to extreme temperatures 2-3 more days per year than those counties with smaller African American populations. And by midcentury, the expectation is that those same counties would experience about 20 more extreme heat days per year.
The historical data also showed that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by extreme heat. Sh*t just got real for me! About 40 percent of the total U.S. African American population vs. 3.0. percent of the U.S. general population will be affected.
In addition, the extreme temperatures in some of the urban parts of those counties are probably hotter than surrounding counties because of the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHI).
As described in my recent blog post, the UHI effect occurs because cities are much warmer than surrounding rural areas – cities resemble an "island" of heat among a broader "sea" of cooler temperatures. Concrete, glass, asphalt and other surfaces that make up cities trap heat during the day and then release it at night, but it escapes much slower than it was trapped, so there is not much relief from the heat.
But, because we are not incorporating information on the UHI here, I think it's safe to say that we are probably seriously underestimating the real number of extreme heat days that African Americans in these counties really experience.
As I mentioned at the top of this blog, climate change is a threat multiplier. We already know that there are communities in these same coastal states that are already suffering from coastal flooding and extreme weather conditions including more frequent and severe hurricanes and 100-year flood events.
The extreme heat is almost three additional weeks' worth of extreme heat days for places that are more than 25% African American as opposed to those that are less than 25% African American. The reasons why African American communities are and will continue to experience more extreme heat days are likely complex, but it's probable that the root of the problem can be traced back to centuries of systemic mistreatment of people of color.
What I do know is that the results really personalize the climate crisis for me, underscoring the need for urgent action. Everyone is at risk from the effects of extreme heat, particularly those living in areas forecast to have the highest temperatures – and among them, those with the fewest resources to cope.
So, what needs to be done? Mitigation of the exposure to extreme heat. Cities and states need to develop emergency response plans that specifically address climate change, in this case extreme heat. These plans should focus on strengthening infrastructure and ensuring that people are equipped to deal with extreme heat conditions, both financially and emotionally. In the meantime, we can utilize resources that are already available, like this one and this one.
The goal of any plan to address the climate crisis is to ensure resilient counties, cities and states. In order to achieve that goal, action must be taken now. Inaction is not an option.
Pollution, Race and the Search for Justice https://t.co/OMWQS2NkNg @greenpeaceusa @foodandwater @ClimateReality @YEARSofLIVING
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) March 5, 2018
Adrienne L. Hollis is the lead climate justice analyst for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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