Emily Chen, a young software engineer in Atlanta, never thought she'd become an advocate for flood prevention. But when flash floods struck her neighborhood in the summer of 2022, destroying homes and displacing families, she knew she had to take action. Chen had always been passionate about technology and innovation, but the floods showed her how crucial it was to apply these skills to real-world problems. She decided to team up with a local nonprofit called Flood-Free Atlanta, which focused on reducing flood risks and educating communities about flood preparedness.
As Chen delved deeper into the issue, she discovered that flooding was a growing threat not just to her own community, but to many others across the Southeast U.S. She was appalled to learn that climate change and urbanization were exacerbating the problem, putting vulnerable populations at even greater risk. But she was also inspired by the many stories of grassroots efforts and community resilience in the face of disaster.
Chen's story is just one example of how individuals from diverse backgrounds are coming together to fight back against flooding in the Southeast U.S. In this blog post, we'll explore the challenges and opportunities of flood prevention and mitigation, and highlight some of the most promising initiatives and strategies for building flood-resilient communities.
Summer 2022 was a season of extremes in the Southeast U.S. After months of drought in Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky, storms brought devastating floods that rocked the region with multiple 1-in-1000-year events. Emily Chen, a software engineer in Atlanta, was among the many individuals whose homes and neighborhoods were severely impacted by the floods.
As she and her community struggled to recover from the disaster, Chen realized that flooding was not just a local problem, but a regional and national one. Across the Southeast, from Florida to Louisiana, Mississippi to Appalachia, people were banding together to deal with the effects of historic floods made worse by a warming climate. They were demanding more help from government officials, better infrastructure for drainage and buffering floodwaters, and greater investments in flood prevention and mitigation.
“This is not just an issue of climate change, but also of infrastructure and development,” says Sam Brody, director of the Institute for a Disaster Resilient Texas at Texas A&M University. “Our infrastructure is aging, is not well-maintained, and was built under capacity. It’s even a problem in wealthy urban communities, but it’s more prominent in smaller under-resourced communities.”
Despite the challenges, Chen and many others were determined to fight back against the rising tide of floods. They were volunteering with local nonprofits, launching grassroots campaigns, and pushing for policy changes at all levels of government. In this blog post, we'll explore the inspiring stories and initiatives of those who are working to build more flood-resilient communities in the Southeast U.S."
Emily Chen had always appreciated the rolling hills and tranquil creek beds of her neighborhood in Atlanta, but she never expected them to turn into a source of danger. Yet that's exactly what happened in the summer of 2022, when flash floods caused by intense storms wiped out entire towns and claimed dozens of lives across the Southeast U.S.
Chen was horrified by the devastation and determined to understand the root causes of the problem. She learned about the devastating impact of mountaintop removal mining, a controversial practice in which the top of a mountain is blown up to access coal seams underneath. This practice not only destroys the natural landscape, but also leaves the land vulnerable to severe floods, as the loss of trees and vegetation means that rainwater rushes downhill at an accelerated pace.
Chen was particularly struck by the work of Beverly May, a fellow activist and researcher who had documented the correlation between flood-related mortality and strip-mined mountains. May had been able to account for 35 of the 43 reported deaths in the summer 2022 floods, and had sent a flood fatality map and a letter requesting an investigation to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
“People drowned because the water came down just way too fast,” May explained to Chen. “Living on a holler that had been mined was deadly.”
Chen was impressed by May's research and determination, and decided to join forces with her and other activists to raise awareness about the impacts of mountaintop removal mining on flood risks. Together, they launched a grassroots campaign to demand greater oversight and regulation of the coal industry, and to promote sustainable and resilient land use practices.
By working together and building alliances across communities and regions, Chen and May hoped to create a brighter future for the Southeast U.S., one that was not defined by devastating floods and the destructive legacy of mountaintop removal mining.
The Gulf of Mexico region is no stranger to natural disasters, with communities in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida facing a range of challenges from hurricanes, sea level rise, land loss, and severe flooding. In many cases, these events have lost their seasonality, with heavy rain and flooding becoming a year-round concern. For Houston native Sarah Johnson, this means that she and her family have to be prepared for the worst at any time.
"We used to be able to predict when floods would come, but now it's like the rain just keeps coming and coming," Johnson says. "It's not just hurricanes that are causing the flooding; it's pollution, urbanization, and climate change."
Johnson is not alone in her concerns. Across the Gulf Coast region, individuals and communities are banding together to address the pressing challenges of floods and environmental pollution. This includes groups like the Gulf Restoration Network, which is working to protect the health of Gulf communities by advocating for stronger environmental policies and restoration initiatives.
Rolando Perez, a Houston native who has lived in his family home for over 45 years, has experienced the impact of floods firsthand. He has been flooded out five times, and each time the damage has been more severe than the last. Perez has joined the Northeast Action Collective to help support disaster relief efforts and combat environmental racism in Houston.
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“These floods seem to be increasing more and more outside of the hurricane season,” Perez says. “I believe we have had 22 of these 1-in-100 year, 1-in-1000 year type of storms in the last seven years.”
Perez’s colleague, Becky Selle, co-director of organizing, researching, and rebuilding for West Street Recovery, has pointed out that Houston’s waste treatment systems have not been updated as the population has grown. This has resulted in more raw sewage mixing with floodwaters, posing significant health risks for residents.
“Kids are standing in this water to go to school. There are massive health issues that we think are without a doubt tied to the massive street flooding,” Selle says.
Despite the challenges, Johnson, Perez, and Selle are determined to fight back against the rising tide of floods and environmental pollution. They are collaborating with community organizations, launching grassroots campaigns, and pushing for policy changes at all levels of government. By working together, they hope to build a brighter, more resilient future for Gulf Coast communities and beyond.
Environmental racism is a pervasive issue that has long plagued communities of color, exacerbating the impact of flooding and other environmental hazards. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has been at the forefront of the fight against environmental racism.
“Environmental racism occurs when environmental hazards, such as toxic Superfund sites, landfills, highways, and polluting industries, are — as a result of institutionalized discrimination – disproportionately located in or near predominantly Black and Brown communities," Bullard explains.
For communities of color, the impact of flooding and other natural disasters can be devastating. As Bullard notes, projections show that in the next 30 years, communities of color will see a 40% increase in damages from flooding. The Government Accountability Office found in 2019 that many of the Superfund sites in the U.S. are located near public housing, poor neighborhoods, and Black and Brown communities, making these communities more vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters.
Poor infrastructure in flood-prone, predominantly Black and Brown communities further exacerbates the issue. Communities like Houston and Harris County face a double whammy of more exposure to pollution from industries stoking climate change as well as more flooding damage due to inadequate infrastructure.
In low-income Houston neighborhoods, open-ditch drainage systems are notorious for getting clogged with trash and debris, leaving residents to bear the brunt of the impacts. In May 2022, the Washington Post reported that Texas allocated zero dollars to flood-prone low-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods in Houston from the $1 billion in federal funding that the state received for preventing future disasters.
The Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border is no exception. Emma Guevara with the Sierra Club and Patricia Rubio with Another Gulf is Possible have been organizing in Cameron County, a river delta on the Gulf of Mexico with a large Latino population. For years, Guevara and Rubio said, their communities have fought against the development of new natural gas facilities on one end and flooding on the other.
Rubio, Guevara, and other activists have their work cut out for them in trying to improve the situation. In 2017, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a nearly $860,000 package that was slated for drinking water, waste management, and other infrastructure development for colonias in counties like Cameron. Rubio and Guevara noted that it took 30 years of asking before one colonias community could even get streetlights.
Despite these challenges, communities of color are fighting back against environmental racism and inadequate infrastructure. Organizations like the Sierra Club and Another Gulf is Possible are working to improve the situation, with a focus on building resilience and creating a brighter future for all.
Despite the growing number of floods and other natural disasters, many historically disinvested communities, particularly those that are predominantly Black and Brown, continue to be neglected by government officials when it comes to disaster relief and infrastructure investment. In many cases, federal funds that are supposed to help these communities are diverted or mismanaged by state executives, leaving residents without the resources they need to recover from catastrophic events.
As climate change worsens, it is imperative that we prioritize prevention and recovery efforts, rather than simply focusing on relief and response. But even as the need for these measures grows increasingly urgent, funding for disaster relief remains in short supply. According to Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, director of learning and partnership at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, around 80% of funding for disasters is received in the first five days, with support rapidly dwindling as the media and public attention shift to the next disaster.
It's crucial to remember that the effects of disinvestment are not limited to one region or community. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley, and from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta, communities across the country are experiencing the devastating effects of floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. If we want to build a more resilient and equitable future, we must prioritize investment in infrastructure and relief efforts for historically marginalized communities.
Communities across the United States are feeling the effects of climate change and facing the devastating consequences of environmental racism and poor infrastructure. As the number and severity of natural disasters increase, marginalized communities are often left to fend for themselves, with little to no support from the government.
According to Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, Black and Brown communities will see a 40% increase in damages from flooding in the next 30 years, due to environmental racism. Historically disinvested communities are particularly vulnerable and often face a double whammy of pollution from industries stoking climate change, and flooding damage from inadequate infrastructure.
Activists are coming together to build strength and support each other. In Houston, Rolando Perez joined the Northeast Action Collective to help support disaster relief efforts and combat environmental racism. In Jackson, Mississippi, Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, director of learning and partnership at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, called for a focus on prevention and recovery, stating that the majority of money still goes into response and relief.
After Hurricane Harvey, Becky Selle and her community members developed West Street Recovery to help long-term flood recovery efforts and to serve as a support group for people hurt by flooding. They have found that small steps, such as planting trees and developing rain gardens, can go a long way in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Emma Guevara with the Sierra Club and Patricia Rubio with Another Gulf is Possible in the Rio Grande Valley are working to make disaster relief available to all, regardless of citizenship status, and to ensure information is disseminated in other languages for non-English speaking individuals. Guevara and Rubio stressed the importance of inclusive infrastructure development and climate adaptation, stating that they have been fighting for decades against new natural gas facilities on one end and flooding on the other.
Despite the challenges they face, many communities have shown resilience and an incredible ability to come together and support one another. In Kentucky, many residents are still in tents and campers, relying on neighbors for food, shelter, and supplies. However, they have found support from each other, with many pitching in to provide meals for those in need.
As May puts it, "That’s who we are. That’s what hillbillies do. We take care of each other." It is this sense of community and resilience that gives hope for a better future in the face of the growing threat of climate change.
Flood recovery and infrastructure development efforts are ongoing in many communities across the United States. These communities still need support from storms or events that took place several years ago. If you're looking to help, here's a list of organizations working on recovery efforts in the areas discussed in this article:
The Gulf of Mexico
Another Gulf is Possible - This collective is made up of predominantly Black and Brown communities across Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. They focus on capacity-building and direct action centered in principles of transformative justice.
West Street Recovery - This Houston-based nonprofit organization was developed in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey by concerned citizens to address disaster relief and provide mutual aid to those most affected by extreme weather events.
Appalshop - Established as a War on Poverty project, Appalshop has become a hub for creativity, culture, multimedia storytelling, and cultural preservation in Eastern Kentucky. Unfortunately, much of the works were damaged during the summer flooding. The Center for Rural Strategies and the Daily Yonder released a 30-minute documentary in February 2023 about the July floods, the damage, and the mutual aid efforts.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth - This collective has around 11 chapters throughout Kentucky, serving as a hub for mutual aid, voting advocacy, and promoting the well-being of all people in the state.
Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition - This collective of Mississippi Mutual Aid and nonprofit organizations was established to support communities across the state disproportionately affected by COVID, climate change, and infrastructure disinvestment. With the Jackson water crisis continuing, they are working to distribute fresh water to affected residents.
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