The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Fire and drought, wind and rain. We’re all feeling the heat of climate change.

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Aerial image of flooded areas in Denhamp Springs, La., Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. More than 35,000 people in south Louisiana have been rescued from homes, vehicles and even clinging to trees as a slow-moving storm hammers the state with flooding. (Photo: Patrick Dennis/The Advocate via AP)

Louisiana is under water, California is on fire. And those paying the steepest price are the ones who can least afford it.

As massive flooding hits southern Louisiana, Oxfam is doubling down in the Gulf Coast in an effort to provide these folks with the tools they need to cope in the short term, and to protect their communities in the long term.

As of this writing, over 80,000 people have been evacuated from the Blue Cut fire east of Los Angeles, CA. In Louisiana, massive flooding has resulted in 13 deaths and the evacuation of more than 35,000; some 6,500 people are stranded in shelters, and authorities are predicting an enormous housing crisis as more than 40,000 houses have been damaged. These are the latest incidents in a summer that is breaking heat records, most likely causing the drought and fire on one side, and the increased water vapor that results in torrential rain on the other.

Oxfam has staff on the ground in the Gulf Coast, and we’re holding our breath as we see the images that are chilling and heartbreakingly familiar: water up to rooftops, roads turned into rivers, people and pets being evacuated in boats. Before the water even recedes, the prospect of the clean-up is overwhelming: houses full of water-logged belongings, simmering in the heat, full of mold and mildew. Many of these houses will be beyond salvage; nearly all will see serious damage.

But this is not the same as the wake of a hurricane. This event brought no winds, nor did it blow through quickly; a week later, it’s still raining –and waters are still rising in many places. The steady downpour has dumped more than two feet of rain in some parts of southern Louisiana. According to NOAA, “some places in the state experienced storm conditions considered once-every-1,000-year events.”

Sadly, people in the Gulf Coast, and elsewhere, are coming to realize that the math has changed, and quickly. It’s no longer once in 1,000 years, or 100 years—it is, perhaps, “the new normal.” This flood hit places that never saw heavy flooding before; most communities were caught by surprise, and many were unprepared. Oxfam staff report devastating stories, such as one man who’d paid flood insurance premiums for many years until he recently cancelled his policy because he never needed it—now his home is completely flooded. In some parishes, authorities estimate that 75 percent of homes are a “total loss”; in some places, fewer than 25 percent of homeowners have flood insurance.

Many scientists attribute the severity of the flooding to the fact that the planet is warming. “We have been on an upward trend in terms of heavy rainfall events over the past two decades, which is likely related to the amount of water vapor going up in the atmosphere,” said Dr. Kenneth Kunkel, of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, in a piece in The Guardian. “There’s a very tight loop – as surface temperatures of the oceans warm up, the immediate response is more water vapor in the atmosphere. We’re in a system inherently capable of producing more floods.”

As author and activist Bill McKibben put it, “The basic physics are simple: Warm air holds more water vapor, something that is turning out to be one of the most important facts of the 21st century.”

Time to plan for the new reality

Despite the warnings, though, few are taking a realistic look at what’s happening, and preparing for these kinds of changes. “We design our infrastructure and plan our society looking backwards, assuming that the past is a reliable predictor for the future,” Katherine Hayhoe, climate researcher at Texas Tech University and Oxfam America Sisters on the Planet Ambassador, told The Washington Post. “When climate is changing, though, relying on the past to predict the future will give us the wrong answer — and not just a wrong answer, but a potentially dangerous one,” she said. “We buy a house outside the 100-year flood zone, believing that means we’re safe; we expect our storm sewer drains and our levees to protect us from all but the rarest extremes, failing to account for how these extremes are rapidly becoming more frequent in a changing climate.”

Even as mainstream a business as Zillow is starting to sound the warning. In a new report, they warn that almost 1.9 million homes in the country (about 2 percent of all homes) are at risk of being underwater by 2100. In Florida, more than one in eight properties are in an area expected to be underwater if sea levels rise by six feet.

The most vulnerable get hit the hardest

As Oxfam and others have pointed out for many years, it is the most vulnerable all over the globe who feel the damaging effects of climate change most acutely. The reasons are many, and complicated. Some populations –the elderly, the very young, the disabled– may have a harder time getting out of harm’s way. And even if they escape, they may have a harder time finding shelter or medicine or proper food. Poverty may prevent some from having adequate insurance, or the means to rebuild; a flood can literally steal everything they have and leave them homeless. Poorer communities may be located on land that is especially vulnerable to weather hazards (housing complexes in low-lying land were especially hard hit). In North Baton Rouge, for example, which experienced extreme flooding this week, people have fewer resources to deal with an emergency, and many had no transportation to evacuate. And yet there were fewer shelters in that community, and little or no public transportation.

Taking steps to prepare for these events requires resources, which requires public investments. The maxim that “one dollar of mitigation equals four dollars of recovery” needs to guide state and local planning and budgeting. Oxfam is working with coastal communities that face increasing threats from land loss, sea level rise and extreme weather to reduce risk where people live and influence how they build homes. “We either pay now or pay later,” said Dr. Kunkel. “If we build resiliency into infrastructure, we can protect life and property.”

In addition to structural flood protection measures such as levees and barrier islands, so-called “nonstructural” measures such as retrofitting or reconstructing homes for proper elevation, flood-proofing buildings, buying out vulnerable properties and improving building codes have proven to be effective in mitigating risks. However, low-income communities face enormous challenges accessing complicated federal funding programs and other grants to cover the costs of improvements. The historic focus of nonstructural programs on individual property owners rather than communities has led to uneven implementation that can be disruptive. Rapidly increasingflood insurance premiums create even greater urgency.

Oxfam recommends increased funding for nonstructural measures (ensuring that low- and moderate-income homeowners have access), developing incentives for community-wide solutions, and improving existing programs (including elevation programs and protections for consumers against contractor fraud).

And it’s not only important to plan and prepare for the effects of climate change in the US, but it’s important to invest in poor and vulnerable communities around the globe who need the assistance to build resilience and adapt to the climate changes. Ensuring the poor have the resources they need to combat climate change will ensure more families can overcome poverty.

Sending assistance to the thousands of people affected by the flooding is urgent. At the same time, implementing protections against future losses, particularly for those communities that can least afford them, is critical.

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