Changing the way Americans prepare for the worst

By Anna Kramer

Founded by freed slaves just after the Civil War, Princeville, NC, was the first US town incorporated and governed by African- Americans—many of whose descendents still live there today. But the town’s founders “had to take whatever land they could get,” wrote Emily Yellin in a 1999 New York Times’s article. “In 1865, that was a snake-infested, mosquito-ridden swamp in a flood plain. It was land that the white people in nearby Tarboro, on the northern side of the river, did not want.”

Turns out, some things don’t change.

When the muddy waters of the Tar River coursed through eastern North Carolina on Sept. 16, 1999, it was Princeville that bore the brunt of the flooding. All told, the rising waters killed six people; destroyed or damaged 1,183 homes; and, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory, “all but erased the town.”

Sadly, Princeville isn’t an isolated case. Worldwide, the most vulnerable communities are the ones hit hardest by natural hazards like droughts, floods, and storms— threats that are becoming more frequent and severe, owing to climate change.

Mapping communities at risk

This summer, Oxfam commissioned Susan L. Cutter and Christopher T. Emrich of the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute to map social vulnerability in the southeastern US—site of the country’s most persistent poverty. Cutter and Emrich identified counties in 13 states that reveal a high level of vulnerability to floods, hurricane-force winds, sea level rise, drought, or a combination of these hazards.

What makes a community vulnerable? A mix of physical factors and social characteristics, including demographic, economic, and housing conditions. In Miami-Dade County, FL, for example, over 50 percent of the land lies within a flood zone and 100 percent within a hurricane wind hazard zone. So, faced with a major hurricane, people in socially vulnerable neighborhoods in the county—like Miami’s Little Haiti, home to many poor immigrant families—are at greatest risk of property loss, injury, and death. And it is these families that have the fewest resources to respond to or recover from a disaster.

As a next step, the institute will share its Social Vulnerability Index with policy makers, emergency management officials, and community leaders. The institute and Oxfam hope these findings will inform smarter disaster preparation plans for the nation’s most disadvantaged areas.

As for Princeville, in late 1999 town leaders voted against a federal buyout that would require residents to relocate, opting instead to rebuild with stronger buildings. That recovery process continues 10 years later.

“[At first] I said there is no way I’m going back, I was so devastated,” one Princeville resident told The New York Times shortly after the floods. “But then I thought about it, and I said, ‘Why should I give up what my ancestors worked so hard to leave us?’”

Protecting vulnerable Americans from disaster

At the national level, we need to:

  • Support legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and provides resources for poor people here and abroad to build their resilience.
  • Strengthen disaster preparedness plans by prioritizing assistance to those least able to cope when disaster strikes.
  • Promote coastal restoration, rebuilding projects that create more resilience to high winds and flooding, water efficiency projects, and early warning programs— all of which can also create jobs.

Click here to learn more and see the full set of social vulnerability maps.