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As the floodwaters slowly recede, people throughout the upper Midwest are struggling to salvage their homes, their farms, and their lives. Some will readily bounce back. But others — including those who are the most vulnerable — may enter a downward spiral from which they can’t recover.

Floods and other natural disasters are sometimes seen as great levelers, affecting rich and poor alike. The reality is different. New research published by the American Sociological Association shows that disasters — and the federal aid that follows — leave affluent, white communities better off, while their poor neighbors of color slip deeper into poverty. That has certainly been our experience in Houston, where — a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey — many of my low-income neighbors are still waiting for help.

In many low-income communities, what are called natural disasters are layered upon long-standing harms and inequities. Our communities are reeling from disinvestment, redlining, industrial decline and the lack of affordable housing. Floods and other disasters can exacerbate those problems — and inequities in federal disaster assistance can make matters worse.

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, Hurricane Irma damaged four times as many rental units as homeowner-occupied units. But this disparity was not reflected in federal disaster assistance; homeowners in one accounting received three times as much assistance as renters. Because communities of color are overrepresented among renters, this disparity worsens racial inequity in recovery.

In Puerto Rico, many low-income residents who lost their homes in Hurricanes Irma and Maria were denied assistance. Many live in homes that were built by hand and passed down through generations; nearly half lack clear titles to their properties. But FEMA required homeowners to present formal titles to access emergency funds. So, of the 1.1 million households who requested help from FEMA, 58 percent were denied.

And, from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to the Jersey Shore, low-income communities are displaced by disaster, while their wealthier counterparts are allowed to rebuild.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After Harvey, my nonprofit group joined with our community and partners to develop a framework of four basic rights that are key to equitable recovery:

  • The right to stay and return home to neighborhoods that have adequate storm protection and other essential public infrastructure — especially in neighborhoods that have experienced longstanding public and private disinvestment. Renters, including those in subsidized housing, must have a right to stay in safe and accessible housing.
  • The right to choose whether and where they want to relocate. Survivors must be informed of all housing opportunities and options available to them.
  • The right to equal treatment. Every neighborhood — regardless of the race, ethnicity, economic status, or disability of its residents — must be provided quality, equal levels of flood protection and equal access to essential public infrastructure.
  • The right to have a say. We must ensure that people in forgotten communities are included and their feedback is seriously considered. Survivors must help design the recovery, know where they are in the process, and be empowered to speak and be heard, in their own language.

Our hearts go out to those in the Midwest who have joined the ever-growing ranks of disaster survivors. As they have learned, disasters aren’t fair. But federal disaster assistance — paid for by our tax dollars — should be.

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Chrishelle Palay is the director of the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, created in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, affiliated with The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.

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