Brie Sherwin


The past decade has brought on some of the worst cases of flooding due to natural disasters and the resulting leaching of some of the most hazardous environmental contaminants back into nearby, often low-income, communities. Natural disasters are not “great equalizers” when it comes to recovery. Lower-income individuals are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are more susceptible to flooding and are near industrial areas and hazardous waste sites, leaving them more vulnerable to toxic leaks from storm damage. There is also a serious inequity when it comes to access to recovery based on average income levels of neighborhoods. More affluent people are relocating out of flood zones, while housing prices decline and poorer families move in. These trends will continue, all while federal resources are often not enough to sustain or even rebuild areas most in need and those in power are not doing enough to address disaster prevention.

We are experiencing stronger hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, which scientists have shown is due to climate change. In the past two years, we have seen storms that have created flooding of biblical proportion in Texas and North Carolina, yet these states continue to build in areas known to flood for the sake of economic development and tourism. And, they do so with little regard to the scientific consensus of the impending impact of hurricanes and flooding on coastal areas of the United States.

As cities assess modifications to zoning, land use, and real estate development, it is critical to acknowledge climate science, however inconvenient, and take measures to address disaster preparedness, aimed particularly at helping the most vulnerable communities. Instead of waiting for changes to federal environmental laws, this article argues that state legislators and city planners should be planning and executing rules that acknowledge climate data; actively engage community leaders and businesses to assist low-income communities; and enhance, not suspend, the oversight process of industries capable of leaching environmental contaminants during and after a hurricane.

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