After Baton Rouge: Recovery, Relief, Return
Some are already calling it the “forgotten flood.” Baton Rouge’s unprecedented flood damage, which began in earnest on August 12, has been referred to as a once-in-a-thousand year rain. Yet it failed to capture public attention for days, nearly costing federal and private aid to the 60,000 homes damaged in disaster-declared areas and almost one third of Louisiana’s parishes.
Fortunately, President Obama issued a major disaster declaration on August 14 and broadened the areas eligible for federal recovery assistance two days later. On August 24, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced a state housing plan that would address temporary housing needs as well as long and short term repairs. But as federal and public attention increases, one factor must not be overlooked: pathways for displaced residents — especially low-income residents — to return home.
Climate displacement, in which people are displaced by climate change or natural disasters, is a terribly familiar subject to Louisianans. After Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 1.5 million people — sometimes referred to as “climate refugees” — were displaced, traveling as far as Washington State to find refuge from their underwater homes. Approximately 53 percent of those who left New Orleans returned to the area one year after the hurricane. And while some chose to stay in their new communities, many — particularly the economically disadvantaged — could not afford to return.
The burden of Hurricane Katrina was disproportionately skewed against low-income New Orleans-area residents. As one study noted, “Those with the strongest desire to return [to New Orleans after Katrina] may be the least able to do so because they lack housing, family, and perhaps other necessary resources.”
What’s more, this inability to return had long-term physical and economic repercussions: Those who did not return to the region were two times more likely to be underemployed or unemployed and were more likely to lack higher education than those who returned. The inability to return home was also linked to decreased wage earnings, higher depression rates, and an increased need for health and other social services.
Low income, climate displaced households can become overlooked for multiple reasons. The data on where the climate displaced go are often scarce, and recovery policies in the past have focused on homeowners, salary-based earners, and residents who can be traced through federal documentation, such as tax returns or change-of-address notifications. But it is the harder-to-trace households — such as the elderly in multigenerational owned housing, the undocumented, unemployed, homeless, or wage-based earners in transitional or rental housing — who suffer the worst impacts of climate displacement, including lack of affordable housing, a dearth of social services, and recovery funding policies that tend to favor rebuilding damaged structures above rehoming climate refugees.
For these reasons, federal and state policies must focus on returning people from all socio-economic demographics, so recovery efforts can assist everyone and restore communities as quickly as possible. For the 20 percent of Baton Rouge residents living in poverty before the flood — a community with a greater percentage of poor residents than the national average — the ability to return home could provide an economic lifeline.
But increasing attention to the return of low-income community members after an extreme weather event offers several other benefits as well. These include: reducing federal funding on temporary housing; reducing unexpected fiscal, housing, and social services strains on host communities; and increasing resilience for future climate events by maintaining community ties and social cohesion.
Past extreme weather disasters have led to promising policies for mitigating climate displacement. Following Hurricane Katrina, for instance, Louisiana’s “Road Home” program provided a path, albeit long and bumpy, for 130,000 homeowners to rebuild as long as they reoccupied homes with three years. Similarly, after Hurricane Sandy, New York and New Jersey developed several programs aimed at returning whole communities, including low-income residents. In New York City, the Rapid Repairs Program helped approximately 20,000 households avoid long-term displacement by restoring basic home services through a city-sponsored use of contractors and the “Build it Back” program prioritized rebuilding aid to low-income households. Furthermore, New York City and New Jersey both offered programs for emergency rental assistance.
While these programs have been criticized for delays in funding and availability, each iteration of post-disaster recovery funding has offered new insights into how states and localities can retain their populations, reduce federal spending on temporary housing, and strengthen the social and economic fabric of communities. These lessons are ones that should not be forgotten as Baton Rouge communities and state and federal policymakers determine how to develop and fund programs to recover, rebuild, and return residents. Given the changing climate and associated frequency of extreme weather events, this will not be the last time Louisiana — or any other state — will have to fight climate displacement.
Danielle Baussan is the Managing Director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.