Differences in disaster: A series of observations

A benefit-cost analysis on flood mitigation projects can miss the mark on equity if you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks. Communities already best-positioned to recover need less help doing so.

Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

In the first post about findings from my recent report for the Iowa Policy Project, I outlined impacts on low-income residents who have few options than to live in a flood-risk area, and few resources to cope or rebound.

Sand barriers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Flood Center picture.
Photo: Iowa Flood Center

So what about preventing floods? Mitigation measures are great but are usually expensive and may be best positioned well upstream of the location where their protection helps most. Most people look to state or federal grant assistance in funding mitigation projects, but with resources being scarce — and they’re always scarce — a funding criterion has been established to assure mitigation measures must protect at least as much economic value as they cost.

On its face, this benefit cost analysis sounds quite reasonable, but it has a few consequences that, even if unintended, can be foreseen.

Consequence One: If you only spend the big bucks to protect the big bucks, then communities that may be best positioned to recover without help are given greater resources with which to protect themselves.

Consequence Two: How do you value the cost of displacement, lost economic opportunity from missed jobs, extra commute times, uninsured property loses, community fragmentation? Some of this can be valued, some cannot, and most of it is only clear after a disaster. This makes it hard to implement mitigation when funding justifications must happen first.

Consequence Three: Assuming you justify and pay for mitigation measures, have you just increased the value of the protected land to the point that current residents are suddenly priced out? Gentrification can be spurred by improved environmental and hazard risks as much as it can through beneficial tax codes, new transportation links or economic development incentives.

Previous, Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently
Next, Part 3: It all comes down to equity

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.

Differences in Disaster: A series of observations

A lower income family’s experience from flooding can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

Part 1: Flooding hits different families differently

I’ve just wrapped up a paper on the different outcomes people experience following a disastrous flood destroying their world. Not only is a family’s experience different from the world they lived in prior to the flood, but depending on who they are, a lower income family’s experience can be profoundly different from that of a family of greater means.

It’s not shocking to hear that the poor in America live in a different world than anyone else, but Americans living in poverty are more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one. Additionally, when Americans living in poverty recover, they usually recover worse off than they were before disaster struck. This is not the case for the well off. The well off tend to increase their net worth following a disaster.

Why is that? First, and most obvious, if people can afford to live in areas not prone to disaster, they usually choose to do so. Beach-view mansions in Malibu notwithstanding, people don’t usually build their home in known flood plains if they can afford to live elsewhere.

So if you’re located in a dangerous area, you usually can’t afford not to be there. Disaster strikes, the flood waters have started to recede and in preparing to rebuild you look to disaster recovery assistance to help you out. But there’s a problem. Disaster recovery assistance doesn’t come quickly, especially assistance from the federal government. This delay presents a real problem for those unable to absorb the cost of replacement shelter, replacement clothes, increased commutes to work (assuming the job is still there following a disaster).

The delay leaves people desperate for help , willing to jump on any assistance money that appears (even if doing so bars them from participating in larger programs later) or willing to sell their home or property to opportunistic investors who do have the ability to wait out assistance program delays. Having sold, or having grabbed available funds, you are worse off than you were before. Some with more resources can weather the paper storm that follows an actual one, and come out better than they were before.

Next, Part 2: Flood mitigation protects different families differently

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Visit the Iowa Policy Project website for his December 2019 report, Flooding and Inequity: Policy Responses on the Front Line.