Flooding and Inequity

As a current intern with the Iowa Policy Project, URP graduate student Joseph Wilensky investigated the disparate impact of natural disasters on vulnerable populations in Iowa. His research has gained public interest and his paper,  Flooding and Inequity: Policy responses on the front line, has received coverage in the Cedar Rapids Gazette and on Iowa Public Radio.

Drawing from national and local resources, including the University of Iowa based Iowa Flood Center, Wilensky found that residing in a frontline community is an important indicator of everything from evacuation compliance during a disaster to successful long-term recovery after one. The paper also noted that vulnerable populations are more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one when compared to non-vulnerable individuals.

In the paper, Wilensky notes that “[w]e have seen here in Iowa the disparate impacts of flooding on vulnerable populations, and there are things the state could do better to protect these vulnerable community members to weather a disaster and the transitions that follow.”

“Vulnerable communities are in risk before, during and after a disaster,” he said. “Their members are more likely to live below the poverty level, to experience unemployment, to have lower levels of education, to have a disability, and to speak English as a second language. They are more likely to lack access to a vehicle to go to work, and they are more likely to be parents, be elderly, to identify as African American or Latino, or to be the female head of a household.” 

Challenges for those communities may increase as climate models predict accelerated trends in increased rainfall, particularly in the Midwest. The report notes precipitation in the Upper Mississippi River Basin has risen on average about one inch per decade since the 1970s. The number of five-year record rainfall occurrences in two-day storms is expected to rise by 30 percent by the mid-century period of 2041-50.

To help frontline communities and their members who may lack the ability to recover or move from hazardous areas, Wilensky notes several policy options:

  • “Rebalance” mitigation efforts with an emphasis on community impact and vulnerability rather than up-front economic loss, the latter putting higher-value properties ahead of those less able to cope on their own.
  • Put more flexibility in FEMA guidelines to ease community burdens and allow for a creative use of funds.
  • Better direct Community Block Development Grant funds to the best place for mitigation efforts — not necessarily within the damage area, but outside if needed. Flood mitigation is best placed upstream.
  • Keep state funds flowing pending the arrival federal aid, which might be delayed after a federal disaster is declared and Iowa stops processing and paying disaster claims.
  • Support a watershed coordinator with state funds to guide applications for assistance, as these applications must be well-supported and well-documented, and more difficult for small communities to deliver.

Wilensky’s paper was published by the Iowa Policy Project.  Both the executive summary and the full paper are available online.