Gov. Andy Beshear told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday that the water “swept some people miles away from where they were” and that “it’s going to take weeks for everyone to be accounted for.”
However, the floods shine a light on a larger truth: low-income communities and communities of color are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.
Deke Arndt, chief of climate science and services at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, recently highlighted the uneven impact of climate change.
Sixteen of the Kentucky deaths occurred in Knott County, the governor’s office said Monday. Seven people were killed in Breathitt County, two in Clay County, two in Letcher County and three in Perry County.
These five counties are among the poorest counties in the US, according to data from the 2020 US Census.
It’s a relentless issue, experts say: Flooding, in particular, hits already vulnerable communities hard. To help protect against climate-related risks, we need to think about disaster mitigation not as a short-term goal — but rather as a long-term goal.
Development pushes vulnerable groups to the margins
First, over many decades, low-income communities and communities of color have been established in locations that are more physically vulnerable to extreme weather events.
“As a city expands, certain groups usually get pushed into marshlands or creeks or other high-risk areas,” Montano told CNN.
Infrastructure also plays a role. Low-income communities tend to receive far less investment in their infrastructure, which in turn makes them more vulnerable.
“Well, when there is a storm or other hazard occurs, the infrastructure is not able to withstand those impacts the way more updated infrastructure in a more affluent community can,” Montano continued.
Other issues of social vulnerability also matter. Wealthier people have the money to build their homes using higher-end building materials and building codes. In addition, wealthier people have more money to spend on risk mitigation.
Njoki Mwarumba, assistant professor of emergency management and disaster preparedness at the University of Nebraska Omaha, echoed some of Montano’s sentiments.
“One thing that is often misunderstood and doesn’t get the attention it needs is the fact that people don’t wake up and decide to be vulnerable,” Mwarumba told CNN. “Often, when we try to reach people in their communities from a point of vulnerability, we lose the systems that He made this vulnerability.”
Poor education, historical trauma in Native American and Black communities, marginalization and disinvestment: Many variables combine to create vulnerability.
What should be done next?
Mwarumba explained that we should focus more of our attention — our knowledge, our data — on addressing some of these root causes of unsafe conditions.
“This is important, because during recovery, you want to think about not only immediate response but also long-term mitigation,” he said.
In the aftermath of a disaster, people often say they want to go back to “normal.” This impulse is understandable, but people should not try to return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.
“You want to review your building needs,” Mwarumba said. “Because if you’re trying to get back to normal quickly, that means you’re setting yourself up for another event. And that event will actually get worse because you’re going to be dealing with the effects of the event you’re going through right now.”
Montano pointed out the importance of full, strong media coverage.
“These disasters are not isolated events. The problems we see in Kentucky will be strikingly similar to the problems we see in Arizona, Missouri and anywhere else that is affected by a disaster,” he said. “That’s important for the public to understand, because when you see problems coming up over and over again, that means they’re systemic problems.”
Maintaining media coverage also matters.
“The reporting on Kentucky is going to stop in a few days, but in a way, then the devastation is just beginning,” Montano said.
Recovery from the floods will be long and difficult. It is vital that the media continue to cover what is happening and hold governments accountable.
Indeed, what governments choose or refuse to do after a disaster matters greatly and can have enormous consequences for the people at the center of an extreme weather event.
“We often frame climate change as a science issue or a technology issue or an energy issue or a political issue,” Arndt said, “but it’s ultimately an anthropological issue.”
To put it a little more bluntly: Which lives do we value? And which ones are we putting at risk?