Communities of color bear a disproportionate flood risk

·4 min read

Data: First Street Foundation; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

A national study out earlier this year from the nonprofit First Street Foundation supports what experts have long believed: The National Flood Insurance Program undercharges for flood insurance in certain areas, making it cheaper and easier for people to live in dangerous places if they’re willing to take the risk.

The big picture: The group found 4.2 million properties across the country face major flood risk and pay too little in flood insurance; a quarter of those were in Florida. And the data show the risk is racially lopsided.

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  • In more than two-thirds of states, areas with more minority residents also have a greater share of unmapped flood risk than the statewide average, the New York Times reported last year.

Zoom in: For decades, Austin, Texas, has spent tens of millions of dollars buying and demolishing homes in the working class, heavily Latino area along Onion Creek after finding that flood maps for the area underestimated actual risk.

  • In 2013, floods hit Austin in the early hours of Halloween, killing at least three people and damaging more than 500 homes. Some parts of the city received nearly 10 inches of rain in 24 hours.

  • Other major floods damaged or destroyed homes in 1981, 1998, 2001 and 2015.

What they're saying: “In my community it’s a matter of if, not when, the next big flood happens,” Vanessa Fuentes, a City Council member representing the Onion Creek area, tells Axios.

Flashback: In the wake of the 2013 flooding, an analysis by the Austin American-Statesman found that the city paid on average $191,000 a piece for more than 100 properties around Onion Creek between 2014 and 2015.

  • That included relocation payments aimed at helping homeowners buy comparable homes in less-flood-prone areas.

  • Most of the houses the city purchased were subsequently demolished.

Yes, but: Many homeowners in the area have bemoaned how the buyout packages have torn the neighborhood fabric.

  • “We would like to preserve our neighborhood, and we're concerned that they're destroying homes that, if they do true mitigation, would otherwise be livable,” Mike Rodriguez, president of Onion Creek Homeowners Association, told KVUE in 2019.

State of play: At the end of September, the Austin City Council will likely vote to adopt a climate equity plan, which will accelerate city efforts to tamp down carbon emissions because of what it describes as the “unjust impacts” of climate change on communities of color and low-income people.

  • That follows an April city-staff report that recommended a host of flood mitigation strategies, including the creation of a home repair program to help low- and moderate-income households make small-scale floodproofing improvements on their properties, such as building drainage swales.

What’s next: Climate scientists forecast more frequent, harsher storms — and more flooding — in Central Texas, an area of the country known as Flash Flood Alley.

  • The actuaries appear to agree: Texas historically has among the highest insurance rates in the country because of weather-related risks ranging from tornadoes to hurricanes. Rates for the average home in Texas have increased every year since 2012, by as much as 12.9% in a single year, per Texas Department of Insurance data.

  • “We typically lead the nation in hail claims, have 367 miles of coastline, and most of our state’s metro areas are either on the coast or in Flash Flood Alley,” Ben Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Insurance, told Axios.

Plus: While Texas doesn't require homeowners to purchase flood insurance, properties in a high-risk flood zone typically need coverage as a condition of a bank loan.

  • “Flood insurance can cost $400 to $500 a year,” Fuentes told Axios, “and that’s a huge new cost for working-class families.”

The bottom line: Fuentes in January, referring to the earlier Onion Creek floods, said "it is essential that this issue remains a priority in order to prevent further loss of life and displacement, which unfortunately disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of our community.”

  • Fuentes says she hears from new residents moving to fast-growing Austin who are amazed at all the undeveloped green space by Onion Creek.

  • But she says that natural beauty hides the area's dark history. “Hundreds of families were displaced, homes were demolished and some people died,” Fuentes says.

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