Flooding and injustice are deeply linked — particularly during a pandemic

Throughout the Carolinas, our communities were built based on practices that located Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities in less-valuable and often flood-prone areas.

By Gail Lazaras | August 27, 2020

As we see the damage brought by Hurricane Laura to Louisiana, Texas and inland, we are reminded that the country is only half-way through hurricane season. Unfortunately in North Carolina, we’re also surrounded by mourning COVID-19 cases. The impacts will not be felt evenly: While Black, Latinx and Indigenous People are disproportionately dying from COVID, they are also more likely to be displaced from their homes during hurricane-related floods and face more obstacles rebuilding afterward. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement is awakening the world — including the predominantly white conservation movement — to the need for racial justice. The time has come to face the deep racial inequities woven into everything from healthcare to policing to our hurricane- and flood-response systems. 

I work, as many do, to make the world a better place. I am a certified floodplain manager. Every day I work for healthy, free-flowing rivers and clean water for all. I survived Hurricane Katrina and worked its recovery, considering the human environment, for over a decade. I have worked for fair, equitable treatment of all people from the beginnings of my career. Yet, I’ve been (unknowingly) perpetuating a racist system. Today, I’m speaking out for change.  

Throughout the Carolinas, our communities were built based on practices that located Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities in less-valuable and often flood-prone areas. Flood-control measures, such as channelizing rivers and hardening riverbanks, were developed to protect more valuable real estate, usually owned by white people. These flood-control actions have subsequently been integrated into policies that perpetuate systemic racial injustice. We see this played out in communities like Biltmore Hills and Rochester Heights in southeast Raleigh, where the stormwater from downtown Raleigh and Interstate 40 regularly surge into Walnut Creek, creating incessant flooding that has gone unmitigated for decades.

As heavy rainstorms and hurricanes intensify, flooding is becoming even more frequent in areas that have historically already been wet. In North Carolina, this was felt acutely in the intensive flooding associated with Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and Florence in September 2018, which exposed the vulnerability of Black communities in Princeville, Lumberton, Wilmington and many other low-lying towns. 

When we ignore, or do not actively look for, inequities as an element of planning, racism will always be a silent and often invisible partner. It takes conscious, intentional effort to first see and then dismantle systemic racism. 

To make the changes needed to address systemic racism, we need a collaborative, community-led approach to decision-making. With community governance in place, we can focus on solutions that work for people, healthy communities and with nature.  

Luckily, solutions exist that can recalibrate our flood-management system in the Carolinas and beyond:

  • Use a community-driven approach. Most importantly, for true flood resilience, we need to embrace discomfort, listen and be open to change. Floodplain management is generally a top-down process. Can we turn this on its head? Authentic grassroots participation will change policies and how we implement them. We must embrace meaningful dialogue with communities of color. We must ask early and keep continued engagement going. How else will we know if policies are working unless communities are at the table?  
  • Protect and restore floodplains: Floodplains are the natural, low-lying areas along rivers. They store and absorb floodwaters, improve water quality and reduce flood risk. Why not take advantage of these natural defenses? Finding ways to give rivers room to tap into their floodplains can be a key element in addressing inequities, particularly in Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities that could result in reducing flood risk, improving water quality and making space for safe recreation.  
  • Help people to get out of harm’s way. Existing programs have made great strides to help people voluntarily move from vulnerable flood-prone homes. Federal programs work with local communities in North Carolina and across the country to relocate and to restore natural floodplain areas to create buffers.  However, recent studies have demonstrated that these programs tend to be administered disproportionally across communities.  Communities that are financially advantaged, generally white, are more likely to benefit from these buyout programs compared to communities of lower wealth, with more Black, Latinx and Indigenous People. This is systemic racism in action. We can do better. We must try harder to equitably identify and compensate willing sellers, focusing greater resources on the communities that need help the most. We also need to ask what cultural connections do people hold to their land? What do people lose by moving? Where are they moving to? Is it safe? Economically smart? Are we balancing protection with respect? Are we listening? This calls for deep scrutiny of policy, systems and accountability.
  • Scrutinize systems. We need to think at a watershed level and question everything. Once we realize that we perpetuate racism by blindly participating in existing systems that do not address inequities, we can question our assumptions. We can listen with an open mind. We must often ask ourselves hard questions about how much racism is at play. Now is the time to embrace discomfort and innovate. Now is the time to dismantle systemic racism in the systems we’ve taken for granted. For me, that means looking at our flood-control system through a wider lens. How does flood control management affect downstream communities? 

These solutions come with an abundance of benefits for communities and local economies. American Rivers recently released a report, Rivers as Economic Engines: Investing in clean water communities and our future detailing how the right investments in water infrastructure and river restoration can create jobs, strengthen communities and address longstanding injustices. It’s why we’re calling on Congress to invest $500 billion over 10 years to create the transformational change we need when it comes to ensuring clean water and healthy rivers for all. We have the power to address flooding and injustice, together.

Climate Change & Rivers, Environmental Justice

1 response to “Flooding and injustice are deeply linked — particularly during a pandemic”

  • David Michael Zokaites says:

    Hi everybody! I got your sticker in the mail from Niteize who added it to their product shipment. I’m an outdoor enthusiast who spent 3 hours canoeing on a windy lake yesterday. It was such a blast!
    And I’m also a candidate for mayor who firmly believes that floodplains should be reserved for flooding because otherwise we increase the risk of downstream flooding. The Earth is our home, we need to care for it if we want to live here.

    In South Dakota, we have a lot of agricultural water pollution. I need to understand how that can be reduced. You’re welcome to send me a summary of methods to reduce farm pollution.


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