Flood restorations risk increasing inequalities: Katrina strikes again

A unique controversy is disrupting the lives of people living in one of the least affluent areas in the United States. After the hurricane Katrina of 2005, which hit the Mississippi Delta hard 17 years ago, the state of Louisiana had vowed refreshments to repair or rebuild houses damaged by the flood. These were buildings, mostly single-family houses, located in areas that are still in danger. Under the rules of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the renovation of the buildings under these conditions was conditional on the buildings being lifted in relation to the flood. In practice, the typical houses of the American Dream were to be transformed into a kind stilts.

A little over two years ago, we published the first scientific text on the subject Flood protection, the multifaceted techniques – passive defense – that can be used on a neighborhood, block or building scale. The book Flood protection in urban areas (Springer, 2019) dives into the theoretical basis and hydraulic rules to improve project selection implemented so far based on holistic criteria. There can not (see Figure 1) is an extreme measure when the depth of the water leaf and its impact energy do not allow solutions with a minor impact on the landscape.

It is a mitigation method which in Europe is generally not included in the flood risk management plans; but in many areas of the planet, this solution is an ancient and consolidated solution that is still widely used today (see, e.g., Figure 2). Other of my students developed the master’s thesis on the theme of stilts, applied on the arch of the oxen at the Tiber, where they were to build the stadium of Rome.

In 2022, Louisiana sued about 3,500 citizens – each nine of those who received grants – for not having used the refreshment properly. In practice, they renovated or rebuilt their homes damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, still in the flood zone, without lifting the ground. The $ 30,000 relief that Louisiana had guaranteed to about 32,000 families since 2008 was actually contractual bound to this solution, able to guarantee greater resistance to future floods. In fact, not enough clarity has been made on this point: some homeowners claim to have been comforted by government officials regarding the use – flexible, we would say – of the subsidies granted as a non-repayable subsidy. In practice, according to them, the absence of cant would not be contrary to the agreement on which the grant is based.

There are many Louisiana families in difficulty due to the urgent request to repay the refreshment, a total of $ 103 million. Currently, the case is pending, likely destined to open a dispute very hard for both parties. Although General Russel Honoré, who led federal troops in New Orleans after Katrina, called the state’s lawsuits against its citizens a “farce,” the institutions are doing their job. And the banks offer soft loans to the damned so they can pay off the debt.

The issue is very sensitive due to the rather modest social class of most of those affected. Refreshment of environmental disasters it turns out to be an additional detonator of the social divide. In 2019, a federal parliamentary commission, set up after Hurricane Katrina, warned the government that aid in a way supports disproportionate the richer areas. Government disaster relief exacerbates inequality, enriches affluent areas and punishes low-income communities and ethnic minorities. As Thomas Frank reports Scientific American (E&E News, January 7, 2021) is an incredibly important topic: according to Dave Kaufman, director of security at the Center for Naval Analysis, “the greater the disaster, the more federal aid flows and the more inequality of wealth by race “.

The refreshment conditioned by the limitation of the pile dwelling does not belong to the philosophy of our local resilience. However, several floods, given to both public and private entities, have resulted in relocation, often fully funded, sometimes partially. It would be interesting to know if this restriction has really been respected. Are there cases where the beneficiary has actually rebuilt properly in a safe area but without leaving the exposed area or making it green? And this soothes, which sooner or later comes again flooded with probability one, is it still a permanent or temporary residence? Is the site still hosting items in jeopardy, good for future refreshments?

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