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Community groups take an equitable approach to coastal flooding response


Sea level rise is causing an increase in the frequency of high tide flooding to coastal communities around the country. As groups work to address the threat and increase their resilience, they’re making sure low-income communities are not left behind.

By Alisha Green

This article originally appeared on on August 17, 2021

Mayra Cruz was climate justice director at Catalyst Miami.

Flooding streets. Water bubbling up through storm drains instead of flowing into them. These scenes are becoming all too familiar in some coastal communities that are enduring the destructive effects of climate change, making the daily ebb and flow of the tides into an increasingly dangerous and destructive force.

Sea level rise is already causing more high tide flooding, and it is predicted to become worse. High tide flooding is accelerating in 75% of coastal communities along the East Coast and Gulf Coast, according to a July 2020 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Front street in Beaufort, North Carolina, during a king tide event. High-tide flooding causes public inconveniences such as road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure. NOAA’s National Ocean Service provides tools and information that city managers and coastal planners can use to mitigate and prevent these issues. (Photo credit: Christine Burns, University of North Carolina)

In 2019, U.S. coastal communities saw a median flood frequency of four days. By 2030, NOAA projects that number will reach seven to 15 days per year. By 2050, it could hit 25 to 75 days. 

“The impacts on an annual basis are growing in leaps and bounds,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer with NOAA and lead author of the report. “It’s occurring relatively quickly over this last decade or so, and that’s the way it’s expected to play out in the next few decades.” 

Faced with this growing threat, groups in coastal areas across America are finding ways to increase their resilience. For many of these groups, building equity into that process has become an important focus as the disparate impacts of sea level rise become clear. 

An expanding body of research points to the urgent need for ensuring low-income communities aren’t left to fend for themselves against sea level rise. One such report, released in December 2020, found the number of affordable units at risk due to sea level rise in the U.S. is projected to more than triple by 2050. 

“It’s easy to think of fancy homes by the sea being affected, but we really wanted to zero in on people who had the least capacity to prepare for or recover from flooding,” said Benjamin Strauss, a co-author of the report and president, CEO and chief scientist of Climate Central, a nonprofit research group. 

The report revealed the threat is highly concentrated in a relatively small number of locations, but that comes with a potential upside. “There’s a possibility for strategic investment to reduce the problem,” Strauss noted. 

Building momentum for those kinds of strategic investments is a priority for groups like Catalyst Miami. The nonprofit works to improve the health and well-being of low-and middle-wealth communities, and it offers leadership programs to promote education, awareness, and advocacy on issues such as climate change and housing. 

Natalia Ortiz of the CLEO Institute provides an overview of climate science at Miami Northwestern Senior High in 2020. (Photo credit: Caroline Lewis)

Talking about sea level rise “brings up a lot of feelings” among program participants, said Mayra Cruz, climate justice director at Catalyst Miami. Many feel frustrated that while investments are being made in wealthier communities to address the issue, fewer investments are being made in lower-income areas. 

To address the disparities, Catalyst Miami’s leadership programs are providing people with the information and strategies to ensure their communities are receiving equitable treatment. 

“We really want to ensure that community members have the tools that they need to advocate for the solutions that they want to see,” Cruz said. 

Education is a key step toward increasing resiliency to events like flooding, said Albert Slap, president of Boca Raton-based Coastal Risk Consulting. The company offers risk assessment to customers nationwide, along with advisory services to inform people about what they can do to be more resilient. 

Slap has seen firsthand the stark disparities in what can be done on an individual level to address risk. He has worked with clients whose budgets for addressing flooding range from an $8 million rebuild to elevate a home in Palm Beach to purchasing a water-filled bag for around $40 to act as an additional barrier against floodwaters in doorways. 

Increasingly, the conversation about addressing climate change is also becoming a conversation about social justice. 

The climate justice discussion in Miami “was a very lonely tent” when Caroline Lewis founded the Miami-based CLEO Institute in 2010. The nonprofit works to engage people of all ages on the urgency of climate science and the need for bold action.

A decade into that work, though, local governments, industries and social justice organizations have all taken up the climate justice conversation, Lewis said. 

Collaboration between these stakeholders has led to progress such as creating a way for local governments in Florida to address how they are building equity into their climate action planning. 

“Climate has become a threat multiplier to all the social justice issues we care about and worry about,” Lewis said. “When you fight the climate fight, and you use that justice lens, you’re fighting for social change.”



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