Governor Andy Beshear told CNN’s Jim Sciutto Tuesday that the water “swept some people miles away from where they were” and that “it will take weeks to account for everyone.”
Yet the floods shed light on a broader truth: low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
Sixteen of the Kentucky deaths occurred in Knott County, according to the governor’s office on Monday. Seven people were killed in Breathitt County, two in Clay County, two in Letcher County and three in Perry County.
These five counties are among the poorest in the United States, according to data from the 2020 United States Census.
It’s an inexorable issue, experts say: flash floods, in particular, hit already vulnerable communities hard. To help protect against climate-related risks, we need to think of disaster mitigation not as a short-term goal, but rather as a long-term one.
Growth pushes vulnerable groups to the sidelines
For one, over the course of many decades, low-income communities and communities of color have been built in places that are physically more vulnerable to extreme weather events.
“As a city expands, some groups are usually pushed into swamps or bayou or other high-risk areas,” Montano told CNN.
Infrastructure also plays a role. Low-income communities tend to receive far less investment in their infrastructure, which in turn becomes more vulnerable.
“So, when there is is if a thunderstorm or other hazard occurs, the infrastructure is unable to withstand those impacts as the more up-to-date infrastructure can in a richer community, ”Montano continued.
Other social vulnerability issues also matter. The wealthiest people have the money to build their homes using building materials and building codes of the highest standard. Furthermore, wealthier people have more money to spend on mitigating risks.
Njoki Mwarumba, assistant professor of emergency management and disaster preparedness at the University of Nebraska Omaha, echoed some of Montano’s feelings.
“One thing that’s constantly misunderstood and doesn’t get the attention it needs is the fact that people don’t wake up and decide they are vulnerable,” Mwarumba told CNN. “Often, when we try to reach out to people in their communities from a vulnerable point of view, we lack the systems that done that vulnerability “.
Diseducation, historical trauma in Native American and Black American communities, marginalization and divestment – many variables combine to create vulnerability.
What should happen next?
Mwarumba explained that we should turn more of our attention – our knowledge, our data – to addressing some of these root causes of unsafe conditions.
“This is important, because during recovery, you want to think not only about the immediate response, but also about long-term mitigation,” he said.
After a disaster, people often say they want to go back to “normal”. That impulse is understandable, but people shouldn’t be struggling to get back to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.
“You want to rethink your construction needs,” Mwarumba said. “Because if you’re trying to quickly get back to normal, that means you’re setting yourself up for another event. And that event will actually be aggravated, because you’ll have to deal with the effects of the event you’re going through.”
Montano stressed the importance of full and vigorous media coverage.
“These disasters are not one-time events. The problems we see in Kentucky will look remarkably similar to the problems we see in Arizona, Missouri and anywhere else hit by a disaster,” he said. “This is important for the public to understand, because when you see problems recur again and again, it means that they are systemic problems.”
Maintaining media coverage is also important.
“The news about Kentucky will drop in a few days, but in a sense, that’s when the disaster has just begun,” Montano said.
Recovery from the flood will be long and difficult. It is imperative that the media continue to cover what is happening and hold governments accountable.
Indeed, what governments choose to do, or refuse to do, after a disaster is very important and can have huge consequences for the people at the center of an extreme weather event.
“We often frame climate change as a scientific or technological issue or an energy issue or a political issue,” said Arndt, “but ultimately it’s an anthropological issue.”
Put simply: which lives do we value? And what do we endanger?