Drowned out

Floods’ worst ravages will be visited upon California’s poorest

This section of Highway 20 near Williams was closed due to flooding after a series of atmospheric river storms dumped heavy rain and snow across Northern California. Photo taken Jan. 12 (California Department of Water Resources)

By Mark Kreidler

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main, and co-published here with permission.

California’s vulnerability to destructive flooding is anything but a secret. Meteorologists and climatologists have been warning of the enhanced risk for years, as climate change drives the state through cycles of extreme drought and then warms the winter air to produce violent downpours like the bomb cyclone and atmospheric river events of the past few weeks.

The effects are felt up and down the map, including in key agricultural areas and low-lying rural patches. But they are not felt equally; another reality experts have been speaking about for some time.

The worst of California’s flood woes, both this month and into the long future, will be visited upon the state’s poorest residents. These are the workers and families who often live in affordable housing units or lower-cost rentals placed in some of the highest-risk areas for flooding, housing that was often built poorly (or cheaply) in the first place.

That trend will continue. According to a 2020 study, the number of affordable housing units in California at risk for flooding will increase 40 percent by 2050, as the state joins New York and New Jersey among the coastal areas most likely to experience a dramatic surge in both major flood events and the damage ensuing from them.

And flooding isn’t the only concern for these families. Their homes are disproportionately placed in areas of the state that leave them the most exposed to climate-change fallout, including extreme heat. They often are reliant on landlords to modernize or adapt their units to the rapidly changing environmental conditions around them.

Those last few conclusions are not from an advocacy group for the rights of lower income Californians, though they might as well be. Instead, they’re the words of the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, delivered less than a year ago.

In a post assessing climate change’s impacts on the state, the LAO cited recent research showing that communities designated by the government in the 1930s as “hazardous” for real estate investment—a process known as redlining—“tend to experience hotter temperatures and more flood risk than other areas. In addition, these areas often have fewer parks and trees and more paved surfaces,” meaning less ability to absorb runoff water during storms or prevent radiating and escalating heat in the summer.

And that is where, disproportionately, poorer families end up living, “due in part to historical housing discrimination practices that restricted which racial groups could live and purchase homes in the communities that contained larger and more developed water systems,” the LAO report notes.

In the winter of 2023, that puts many lower income California residents in the crosshairs of increased flood risk. The state’s rising sea levels will result in more routine tidal flooding, scientists say, in addition to helping create the kinds of superstorms that have pounded the state over the past several weeks.

The authors of the 2020 study, including scientists from the national nonprofit Climate Central, counted three California cities among the 20 most vulnerable in the country. Suisun City in Solano County, Corte Madera in Marin County, and Foster City in San Mateo County all were cited because of their low elevation and their clusters of affordable housing in flood-risk zones.

“In the Bay Area, we built the cheaper housing and the low-income housing on the Bay side, and the rich people live in the hills,” San Mateo County affordable housing advocate Evelyn Stivers told Cal Matters when the report appeared. (Foster City has begun levee improvements that experts believe will mitigate some of the area’s flood risk.)

Stivers’ words may resonate with those in Los Angeles who have studied that city’s flood risk. Researchers from UC Irvine last year reported that the damage from a “100-year flood,” so named for its rarity and ferocity, would land hardest on Black and low income L.A. residents.

The reason? They live disproportionately in the low-lying communities nearest to the region’s dilapidated network of storm drains, dams, basins, levees and other water control mechanisms, which will overflow. In a worst-case scenario, the researchers said, major flooding would push water into Compton, Bell Gardens, Southgate, North Long Beach and other areas between the Dominguez Channel and the Los Angeles River—perhaps six feet deep.

It isn’t all about elevation, either. Higher income neighborhoods and communities have the ability to do more to prevent the worst impacts of flooding, like constructing seawalls and levees, and their residents are far more likely to have access to flood insurance than lower income residents.

Solutions to an issue that is both environmental and societal won’t come quickly. Half of California’s 6 million renter households are lower income and thus have little political clout, with a patchwork of renter-advocate groups lobbying on their behalf, often locally. Despite the fact that renters account for 44 percent of the state’s population, they didn’t even have a caucus in the California Legislature until late last year.

In its post, the LAO suggested that state lawmakers could become more involved in decisions on new home construction, a process generally left to cities and counties now.

The Legislature might mandate, for example, that local governments include mitigation for climate risks in new construction, or influence where state-funded affordable housing is built, “given the amount of state investment involved and the vulnerable communities it serves.” The LAO also mentioned targeting direct assistance to certain neighborhoods and incentivizing landlords to modernize their homes or rental units.

It’s a huge process, and it needs to begin sooner, not later. In declaring a state of emergency amid another storm wave on Jan. 4, Gov. Gavin Newsom said his action would allow the government “to respond quickly and support local officials in their ongoing response.” That is the here and now, and it is necessary—but no more so than developing a longer-range strategy that acknowledges what the next decades of flood damage could do to the vulnerable communities already suffering it.

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