Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Superstorm Sandy, Extreme Weather Events Hit Low-Income Communities the Hardest
Press Release

RELEASE: Superstorm Sandy, Extreme Weather Events Hit Low-Income Communities the Hardest

New Report Outlines Recommendations to Improve Disaster Readiness and Resiliency in Low-Income Communities

Washington, D.C. – Today, the task force charged with developing a strategy for rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy released a new report outlining 69 policy recommendations. Against this backdrop and as states impacted by Sandy continue to implement recovery plans, the Center for American Progress released a new report that examines the unique challenges that low-income communities face after extreme weather events. In addition to analyzing why extreme weather hits low-income individuals the hardest, the report puts forward policy recommendations to address these underlying vulnerabilities and ensure that the government’s response to disasters better serves low-income communities.

“Many people view extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, as social equalizers, but the truth is that if you were facing economic hardships before a storm hit, recovery will only be that much harder,” said Tracey Ross, Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress and author of the report.

The report, “A Disaster in the Making: Addressing the Vulnerability of Low-Income Communities to Extreme Weather,” takes a close look at how poor quality housing, environmental factors, and economic instability all exacerbate the consequences of extreme weather events.

  • One of the primary reasons that low-income people are disproportionately affected by extreme weather is due to the quality of their housing. Fifty-five percent of the storm-surge victims of Superstorm Sandy in New York City were very low-income renters, whose incomes averaged $18,000 a year. The city had no plan that took into account the shoddy construction and the age of the affordable buildings housing low-income New Yorkers. As a result, even after much of New York City had returned to normal, residents of public housing towers were stranded due to power failures and elevator outages.
  • The location of much affordable housing results in environmental factors that can exacerbate the problems low-income communities and communities of color face in extreme weather, such as heat islands, low-lying ground, and the placement of landfills. African Americans, for example, are 52 percent more likely than whites to live in densely packed neighborhoods, which tend to be significantly hotter than nearby rural areas. At night, the temperature difference between a dense city and a nearby rural area can be as high as 22 degrees.
  • The fact that low-income families lack economic stability creates additional challenges for low-income individuals in the aftermath of a disaster. A critical concern of families in poverty or living on the brink is potential job loss. Immediately following Superstorm Sandy, job reports revealed that New York state lost 29,100 private jobs, while New Jersey lost 8,100. Those most affected were the people who traditionally have trouble finding jobs: older workers, single parents with child care concerns, and immigrants who speak little English.

In order to address these sources of vulnerability, the report makes the following recommendations:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, should provide funding and technical assistance to public housing authorities and community-based organizations to work together to ensure the safety of public housing residents. HUD should outline the specific responsibilities for public housing agencies after disasters, including assessing vulnerabilities of the property, developing evacuation plans, outlining roles and responsibilities between public housing agency staff and community partners, noting where elderly and disabled residents live, and updating these lists as people move in and out.
  • The government must hold the Community Development Block Grant Disaster-Recovery program accountable for ensuring that the necessary funds are allocated to low-income communities during natural disasters. After Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana used millions of dollars from the CDBG-DR program to assist homeowners, but African American homeowners received an average of $8,000 less than white homeowners. The discrepancy was a result of basing award amounts on housing values rather than the cost of repairs.
  • Congress should pass legislation that increases support for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to account for housing shortages brought on by extreme weather. Relief legislation that was passed in response to Hurricane Sandy did not include increased support for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.
  • Congress should increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to provide low-income households with the resources to pay for cooling and heating during extreme weather events.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, should advise state and local governments in disaster-prone areas to develop plans for how emergency cleanups will be conducted. Planning early can allow for community input far in advance of any disaster to ensure there is community buy-in.
  • The president and Congress should oppose budget cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to ensure adequate funding for Disaster SNAP, or D-SNAP, assistance. Cuts proposed by House Republicans would restrict low-income communities’ much-needed access to food during extreme weather events.
  • Congress should increase post-disaster unemployment benefits and extend the period during which affected citizens can receive such benefits. This kind of assistance is the main source of ongoing income for tens of thousands of disaster victims.

Related resources:

To speak with CAP experts on this issue, please contact Madeline Meth at [email protected] or 202.741.6277.