Govt. Andy Beshear told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday that the water “swept some people miles away from where they were” and that “it’ll take weeks to account for everybody.”
Yet the flooding throws a light on a wider truth: Low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
Deke Arndt, the chief of climate science and services at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, recently underscored the uneven impact of climate change.
Sixteen of the deaths in Kentucky 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 counties in the US, per data from the 2020 US Census.
It’s an unrelenting theme, experts say: Flash floods, in particular, punch hard on already vulnerable communities. To help protect against climate-related hazards, we must think about disaster mitigation not as a short-term goal — but rather as a long-term one.
Growth pushes vulnerable groups to the margins
For one, over the course of many decades, low-income communities and communities of color have been built in locations that are more physically vulnerable to extreme weather events.
“As a city expands, certain groups are usually pushed into marshlands or bayous 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 a rainstorm or another hazard happens, the infrastructure isn’t able to withstand those impacts like the more up-to-date infrastructure in a wealthier community can,” Montano continued.
Other social vulnerability issues matter, too. Wealthier people have the money to construct their homes using higher-standard building materials and building codes. Further, wealthier people have more money to spend on mitigating hazards.
Njoki Mwarumba, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster preparedness at the University of Nebraska Omaha, echoed some of Montano’s sentiments.
“One thing that’s consistently misunderstood and that doesn’t receive the attention it needs is the fact that people don’t wake up and decide to be vulnerable,” Mwarumba told CNN. “Often, when we try to address people in their communities from a point of vulnerability, we miss the systems that made that vulnerability.”
Miseducation, historical trauma in Native American and Black American communities, marginalization and disinvestment: Many variables compound to create vulnerability.
What ought to happen next?
Mwarumba explained that we should direct more of our attention — our knowledge, our data — toward addressing some of these root causes of unsafe conditions.
“This is important, because during recovery, you want to think about not only the immediate response but also long-term mitigation,” she said.
In the aftermath of a disaster, people frequently say that they want to go back to “normal.” That impulse is understandable, but people shouldn’t strive to return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.
“You want to rethink your building needs,” Mwarumba said. “Because if you’re trying to quickly get back to normal, what that means is that you’re predisposing yourself to another event. And that event is actually going to be compounded, because you’re going to be dealing with the effects of the event you’re currently going through.”
Montano pointed out the significance of full, vigorous media coverage.
“These disasters aren’t one-off events. The problems we see in Kentucky are going to look remarkably similar to the problems we see in Arizona, Missouri and anywhere else affected by a disaster,” she said. “This is important for the public to understand, because when you see problems come up again and again, that means these are systemic problems.”
Sustaining media coverage matters, too.
“The reporting on Kentucky is going to drop off in a few days, but in some ways, that’s when the disaster is really just beginning,” Montano said.
The recovery from the flooding is going to be long and difficult. It’s crucial that media outlets continue to cover what’s happening and hold governments accountable.
Indeed, what governments choose to do, or refuse to do, after a disaster matters greatly, and can have tremendous consequences for the people at the center of an extreme weather event.
“We often frame climate change as a science issue or a technology issue or an energy issue or a politics issue,” Arndt said, “but it’s ultimately an anthropological issue.”
Put a little bit more bluntly: Which lives do we value? And which do we put in harm’s way?