Extreme Weather Hurts Low-Income People Most

Waves from Hurricane Sandy crash onto the damaged Avalon Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 as Sandy churns up the east coast. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, as the storm forced the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain.    (National Journal)

Low-income communities are disproportionately affected by extreme weather, according to a report out Monday from the Center for American Progress that offers policy recommendations to shore up infrastructure and protect against future damages.

The report, "A Disaster in the Making: Addressing the Vulnerability of Low-Income Communities to Extreme Weather," states that neighborhoods where a majority of residents live at or below the poverty line are ill-prepared to deal with fallout from storms and other weather-related disasters. As a result, extreme weather hits low-income communities harder.

"While many describe storms and other extreme weather as 'social equalizers' that do not differentiate based on ethnicity, race, or class, the truth is that these events exacerbate our underlying economic inequities," writes Tracey Ross, the report's author and a senior policy analyst with the center's Poverty to Prosperity program.

Ross uses superstorm Sandy to illustrate her point. The majority of New York City storm-surge victims were low-income renters, she writes, citing a statistic provided by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Residents of subsidized high-rise apartments were trapped inside their homes in large numbers during the storm, often because they had nowhere to go and no way to leave. In other cases, elderly or disabled individuals living at or below the poverty line were stranded inside high-rise towers when power outages put elevators out of service.

To prevent these outcomes in the future, the report offers a number of policy recommendations aimed at strengthening the resilience of low-income communities to extreme weather. The report suggests public-housing authorities retrofit existing structures to guard against storm damage. It notes, however, that renovation can lead to rent increases and recommends expanding availability of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to offset a rise in prices.

The report also calls on policymakers to address economic and environmental risk factors. It suggests making disaster-mitigation insurance more affordable for low-income individuals and recommends restored funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which saw a 30 percent cut in its operating budget from 2011 to 2012.

Ross also points out that "following a disaster, one of the immediate concerns of families is food security," and emphasizes the importance of safeguarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, as well as the related Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP. The report also urges extending benefit payout periods for disaster unemployment assistance and unemployment insurance programs.

In a final note of warning, Ross writes: "We cannot continue to ignore our nation's housing crisis, the environmental justice issues that continue to plague our communities, and the growing economic inequality that inhibits our country's growth. Resiliency in low-income communities is an investment we can and must make."