A Lesson From Sandy: Why We Need to Fortify Vulnerable Communities

One year ago this week, we all received an unforgettable warning about the potential of climate change to alter our lives. When Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast it destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, and worse -- it cut short the lives of 150 residents.

The storm drove home a somber lesson -- one that Hurricane Katrina first taught us eight years ago. When disaster strikes, those with the fewest resources have a harder time preparing, escaping, and recovering.

Climate change threatens all of us. But low-income Americans and communities of color are especially vulnerable to disasters, severe weather, and pollution. Yet this problem has by and large failed to enter the public discourse.

In all of the conversations about climate -- and throughout the significant gains we've seen, including the president's Climate Action Plan -- there has been little to no mention of the unique vulnerabilities of these communities.

In New York, six of the waterfront boroughs most susceptible to storm surges are predominantly low-income communities of color -- South Bronx, Sunset Park, Red Hook, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the North Shore of Staten Island.

And it's not just storms that affect people of color disproportionately. One study showed that African Americans in Los Angeles are twice as likely to die in a heat wave, due to a combination of lack of access to vehicles and air conditioning, and neighborhoods that are concrete-dense and provide little shade.

Meanwhile, communities of color bear the brunt of health risks associated with climate pollution. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a polluting coal plant; coal pollution causes asthma, heart disease, cancer, and an estimated 13,000 premature deaths each year.

We have to acknowledge that the social, economic, and infrastructural stability of a community all help determine how well it will survive a flood, a fire, or a hurricane. We need to be clear about identifying places that need the most help shoring up these factors. And our resources should be distributed accordingly.

Since Sandy struck, "resilience" has become a buzzword. There's a lot of talk about helping communities bounce back after disaster strikes. And that's important, because it's time for us to start thinking not just about how to eliminate the carbon pollution that causes climate change, but how to deal with the effects that we're too late to stop.

But there's more to the story. For communities of color and poor Americans, the idea of bouncing back doesn't work. If you're struggling to feed your kids and keep a roof over your head before a disaster strikes, the goal of returning to business-as-usual after the disaster passes is simply not enough.

We need to aim higher. Not only should climate action plans like the president's address the fact that some communities are at greater risk than others, they should actively work to fortify these communities.

Vulnerable communities don't just need funds to create emergency shelters; they need long-term investment in the things that will make them stronger -- including public health, economic vitality, and social cohesion. These neighborhoods don't need a plan for a rebound; they need a plan for a rebirth.

And climate investments offer an opportunity to do just that. Consider stormwater infrastructure. We know that we have to fix and overhaul stormwater infrastructure in many of our cities in order to respond to the increased risk of floods we face as a result of climate change. In fact, the EPA has estimated that we need to spend $188.4 billion just to make basic repairs to America's crumbling stormwater infrastructure. But there's a tremendous opportunity -- because that investment will create roughly 2 million jobs. If we connect these opportunities to folks who have historically been left behind, we'll build stronger communities in the process.

But it's not just people of color and low-income Americans who have a stake in this issue. It's all of us. These communities are just the canary in the coalmine. They show us where everyone is headed if we don't act. We're all in the same boat -- some are just the first to feel the wave hit.

These communities have something to teach us, too. The same neighborhoods hit hardest by climate change have already survived through decades of divestment, pollution, meager public services and other hardships. In many of these places, nonprofit organizations, faith groups, and green businesses are already working together to address the social, economic and health needs that influence their ability to adapt.

We can't prevent another disaster like Sandy and Katrina from striking. What we can prevent is much of the chaos, destruction, and senseless loss of lives that we witnessed. More importantly, we can seize this opportunity to bring good jobs, clean air, and economic prosperity to communities on the edge. The right climate strategies will make sure they do more than bounce back; they'll ensure that they come back stronger, healthier, and more vibrant than ever before.