Over the past several years, the country has seen an increase in extreme weather events fueled by climate change. The mid-Atlantic region alone has faced major snowstorms, heat waves, and hurricanes, forcing communities to increasingly bear financial and life-threatening risks.
While many see natural disasters as “social equalizers” that do not differentiate based on race or class, the reality is that these events exacerbate the underlying socioeconomic problems that exist year round. As a result, low-income people are often hit harder by extreme weather events due to poor quality housing in neighborhoods lacking services; living in close proximity to environmental hazards; and economic insecurity. Over the past few years, the City of Baltimore has emerged as a leader in addressing these vulnerabilities and engaging these very communities to improve their resilience.
Baltimore is highly vulnerable to many natural hazards, ranging from coastal storms and flooding to extreme heat and high winds. Given the fact that the city’s poverty rate is 25.2 percent—10 percentage points higher than the national average—the city must address the concerns unique to this vulnerable population. For instance, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City serves nearly 20,000 public housing residents, including seniors, low-income households, working class and other vulnerable people. Due to the location of their original construction, many public housing buildings are vulnerable to natural hazards and require resiliency upgrades.
In 2013, the City of Baltimore created the Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project, an effort to address existing hazards while also preparing for extreme weather events predicted to occur due to climate change. This effort has a particular focus on low-income residents and began by speaking with them to about their concerns. The City’s Office of Sustainability is also in the process of creating a plan that will include neighborhood, resident and business “ambassadors” to assist in educating members of the community on how to prepare and respond to extreme weather. This process not only helps the city recognize the vulnerabilities people are facing, but also develops a level of social cohesion that can save lives.
A poll conducted last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research confirmed that neighborhoods that lacked social cohesion and trust generally had a more difficult time recovering from a disaster or extreme event. A prime example is Chicago’s heat wave of 1995, when 739 people died in mostly low-income African American neighborhoods.
One Chicago neighborhood, called Auburn Gresham—with the same racial and income demographics as other low-income African American neighborhoods—fared better than even the more affluent neighborhoods in the city. It turns out that residents of Auburn Gresham participated in block clubs and church groups, in addition to socializing at grocery stores and diners, which many other neighborhoods lacked. During the heat wave, the block clubs checked in on elderly and sick neighbors to ensure their safety—the neighborhood banded together. Baltimore is heeding the lessons from this sort of research and helping to foster these kinds of strong relationships in economically struggling communities.
Earlier this year, Baltimore’s Commission on Sustainability—comprised of public, private, and nonprofit leaders—held its Annual Sustainability Town Hall with this theme: “Make a plan. Build a kit. Help each other.” The event was held in East Baltimore—an area historically plagued with violence, high infant mortality rates, and a much higher poverty rate than the city’s average. Free transportation was provided from other low-income neighborhoods to maximize attendance.
Hundreds of people turned out. Upon arrival, community members were asked to fill out a family emergency plan. Attendees then visited various stations to learn how city partners are helping Baltimore prepare for disasters, and were given free items for emergency preparedness kits, including flashlights and batteries, crank-powered radios, fans, face masks, can openers, and signs to place in their windows during disasters indicating whether they are “Safe” or need “Help.” The response was so positive that neighborhood groups have requested that the City repeat this event for their residents. In addition, the City plans to engage the most motivated residents to serve on Community Emergency Response Teams, which educate community members about disaster preparedness and response efforts.
According to Cindy Parker of the Commission, knowing your neighbors and recognizing their needs and abilities—such as where elderly households are or who knows CPR—is critical.
“Hopefully the activity of sort of thinking this through will help [residents] make a mental note,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “Communities who don’t work together don’t fare well.”
While this kind of preparation can make a difference for any community, it is particularly important for low-income people who have fewer alternatives, such as savings to fall back on or cars they can rely on during evacuations.
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Last month, President Barack Obama announced a series of actions to help state, local, and tribal officials prepare their communities for the effects of climate change. These actions range from helping communities develop more resilient infrastructure to fortifying our coasts.
While these steps are laudable, more action is needed to address the skyrocketing risks of climate change in low-income communities. In a recent report to the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, my colleague Cathleen Kelly and I offered a number of recommendations to do just that, including bolstering the Low Income Housing Tax Credit following disasters as well as the Low Income Energy Assistance Program in anticipation of extreme cold and heat. We also recommend that policymakers foster the kind of social cohesion that Baltimore is creating by supporting programs that build relationships between community leaders and public- and affordable-housing residents; improving disaster-relief plans for affordable-housing developments; and providing technical assistance to community-based organizations to increase their ability to respond to extreme weather events.
Social cohesion plays a significant role in our everyday lives and serves as the first line of defense during disasters. It can mean the difference between survival and tragedy. We need to work with low-income communities to prevent the next climate-related tragedy from occurring.