National News Desk

Impoverished communities pay for worsening impacts of climate change: Experts

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ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Across the small town of Gloster, Mississippi, passersby can still see remnants of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Claudette and Hurricane Ida: tarps on roofs, fallen trees, damaged cars and homes hit hard by rain, debris and strong winds.

Both of the storms tore through the area in quick succession over the summer — Claudette in June and Ida in August, leaving a trail of damage and power outages.

Jimmy Brown, an activist who works with the local NAACP, says that when the power goes out in Gloster as it did for half of Amite County during Ida, it can stay out for days or weeks — and help can be hard to come by.

In the last five years, Gloster has had at least 774 outages and extreme weather events are the main culprits, according to Entergy Mississippi representatives.

Brown, who has lived in this impoverished small town all of his life, says his community members are finding it more difficult to manage as the effects of climate change continue to intensify.

“I call us the forgotten communities,” Brown said in an interview with ABC News. “This is heartbreaking when you really sit down and think about it. But you have to, in order to make some changes, you’ve got to go out and do something to try to help try to make it better.”

Experts say climate change causes hurricanes and other storms to intensify, and with that, those most frequently in their path, particularly the Gulf states, such as Mississippi, are faced with an uncertain future.

For the poor, the effects are particularly acute.

Research suggests that the impoverished are impacted in several ways: they are less prepared for the effects of extreme weather events and then don’t have the resources to either recover or move.

On top of that, as in the case of Gloster and other impoverished places, the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations are compounded — in this case by poor air quality from local industry.

Only getting worse

Gloster, a small majority-Black town of only 869 people, has a poverty rate of more than 50%, with a median household income of about $17,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Data from the National Hurricane Center shows that at least 14 storms have affected Mississippians in the last four years, resulting in floods, strong winds and heavy downpours.

After Hurricane Ida in August, Gloster was one of several places in Mississippi to qualify for public and individual assistance to recover from the disasters. FEMA often provides temporary housing, funds for disaster-caused expenses and more for natural disaster victims.

“I’ve met quite a few individuals who had been affected by Hurricane Harvey and they were displaced from their homes, and I heard stories about mobile homes being wrapped around trees,” Erniko Brown, an activist with the environmental advocacy group Dogwood Alliance said about residents she’s helped in Gloster. She is unrelated to Jimmy Brown.

For those living in vulnerable populations in vulnerable areas, climate change is another expense that many can’t bear. And it’s only going to get worse for the people of Gloster and towns all across the country just like it, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which is a congressionally mandated report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Existing inequalities in poor communities will only be exacerbated due to climate change, the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows.

According to a 2018 study published in Cambridge University Press, natural disasters reduce household income, destroy homes, and force families to give up a larger fraction of their wealth.

The study reports that natural disasters are a “key factor for pushing vulnerable households into poverty and keeping households poor.”

Poor property owners can’t afford to modify their homes to withstand strong winds, erosion, or flooding, the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows. Instead, the repairs only make them financially tied to houses that are at greater risk of damage.

“People were just trying to live in what they had left of a home,” Erniko Brown said. “One woman told me about her mother and father living in their mobile home although it had mold in it, and they felt like calling FEMA, but there’s so much red tape.”

Impoverished communities are often composed of renters and people who do not own their property, the report says, which makes it harder to advocate and invest in better climate-prepared housing. Poverty also makes it harder for people to evacuate or relocate during or following a major natural disaster.

This research found that impoverished communities are more likely to be exposed to the negative environmental impacts of climate change, like intensified storms, and will often take longer to recover from natural disasters.

Hits keep on coming

When one storm hits Gloster, the blue tarps, fallen trees and home damage are often still in sight when the next storm creeps up on the small rural town, according to Jimmy Brown.

He says that the community has taken a lot of hits in recent years — businesses have slowly closed, there is no longer a school in the town, and they rely on many outside emergency services to get assistance.

Representatives from the Red Cross say that in the last five years alone, it has helped more than 28,000 people affected by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and home fires in Mississippi. Overall, they say it’s helped 767,100 people across the U.S

“This increasing rate of climate-driven disasters has become an unsustainable burden on those most vulnerable, notably low-income populations and low-income communities of color, the elderly and people with disabilities,” Jennifer Pipa, vice president of American Red Cross Disaster Programs, told ABC News.

Of the U.S. households the Red Cross provided assistance to following disasters in 2020, the Red Cross reported that 63% had incomes at or below federal poverty levels.

“Until recently, what was an episodic series of acute events has now become a chronic condition of devastating climate impact, leaving families and neighborhoods without the opportunity or time to prepare or recover effectively on their own,” Pipa added.

Storms often leave lasting destruction and damage in their wake: the total cost for the 2020 hurricane season almost reached $47 billion, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy reports. The research shows 2020 was the seventh most expensive hurricane season in history.

Nine of the 10 costliest hurricane seasons in the Atlantic have occurred since 2004, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Hurricanes and flood-related events cause more economic damage than other types of natural disasters, according to NOAA.

Between 2010 and 2018, flood damage has cost the U.S. $17 billion annually, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency representative Michael Grimm in House testimony.

Since 1980, the total amount of damage has surpassed $1 trillion, according to research from the flood research organization First Street Foundation.

It was estimated that flood damage would cause $20 billion of damage in 2021 to homes with a substantial risk of flooding. First Street Foundation also found that this amount is expected to rise to $32 billion annually by 2051.

Compounded by other injustices

Like many injustices, environmental tragedies are affecting Gloster from many different angles.

In February, following action taken by the Mississippi Department of Environment Quality the wood pellet manufacturer Drax Biomass agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle allegations that its facilities emitted three times more air pollution than permitted over Gloster. The company did not admit to wrongdoing and a Drax spokesperson at the time said that the company had monitored the emissions and notified MDEQ of its breach.

Local environmental advocacy organizations say they have heard reports of asthma, rashes, throat irritation and more impacting the people of Gloster since the factory arrived in 2016.

“My first time experiencing it — the air was so thick,” Erniko Brown said. “My eyes and my nose were burning and I couldn’t be out there. I think I was out there for maybe five minutes.”

“We take our environmental responsibilities seriously, are committed to complying with all local and federal regulations and have worked with the local authorities in Mississippi to install equipment at our plant, which ensures we are operating within the permitted emissions limits,” a Drax spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News.

“We monitor our emissions regularly and report them to the state environment agency – the Mississippi Department for Environmental Quality,” the statement read.

In rural, impoverished areas like Gloster, the Fourth National Climate Assessment reports that there is an increased risk of exposure to extreme heat and poor air quality, lack of access to basic necessities and fewer job opportunities.

With environmental injustices compounding, activists in the South have pleaded with legislators to come and survey the damage and the impact on the livelihoods of those who feel they’ve been forgotten in the conversations about climate change and environmentalism.

“Please come to a rural community and see what kind of effect it is having on us,” Jimmy Brown said.

Erniko Brown called on legislators to remember the smaller communities, who she says are suffering while lawmakers wait patiently for solutions as climate injustices worsen.

“If we are the richest nation in the world, then we need to be able to provide some of the resources to the people in the communities that are being left behind,” she said.

ABC News’ Julia Jacobo and Ayushi Agarwal contributed to this report.

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