Government

Study: Flood recovery rules work against Iowa's most vulnerable

Poor least able to cope with more frequent disasters, research finds

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, is followed by Pete Gaynor, acting administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Age
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, is followed by Pete Gaynor, acting administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, as they walk April 12 past items damaged in flooding in western Iowa’s Pacific Junction. A study released Thursday found that in floods like this one, which many experts believe are becoming more frequent, there can be a substantial gap between the time an area is declared a federal disaster and FEMA aid for residents, farmers and merchants arrives. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)
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With flooding expected to become more common across Iowa, vulnerable “front-line” communities including the poor and people of color are likely to be hurt the most, according to a study released Thursday by the Iowa Policy Project.

The study examined the immediate and longer-term impacts of flooding, finding that wealth is a “strong indicator” of a community’s ability to rebound from the impacts of a disaster.

“Frontline communities often lack the ability to fully recover or move away from hazardous areas,” wrote “Flooding and Inequity” author Joseph Wilensky, a graduate student studying urban planning at the University of Iowa.

As severe floods become more common in part due to climate change, “these communities may be trapped in a cycle of disaster and recovery, coming out worse each time until communities are broken apart and their members forced to move to other locations” that might not be any safer, the study concluded.

One problem is real estate: Poor communities often are in flood plains, where land is cheaper. Low-income residences often are lower build-quality, too, compounding their susceptibility to damage, Wilensky wrote.

Iowans affected by disaster can qualify for government assistance, but there can be significant delays between disaster and payout. The study reported that, after the catastrophic floods of 2008, Iowa was able to spend only 3 percent of $798 million in federal block grants within a year due to federal distribution rules.

“If you’re a low-income person, you can’t just say you’ll use your savings until the (Federal Emergency Management Agency) money comes — you don’t have any savings,” David Osterberg, Iowa Policy Project founder and researcher, told reporters Thursday morning.

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Another problem involves the cost-benefit analysis used to determine mitigation and recovery efforts.

In general, the cost of the protection envisioned must not exceed the value of the property being protected, Wilensky writes. This rule favors wealthier communities, making it “much easier to justify an expensive mitigation project to protect higher-valued homes or land than homes or land of front-line communities, even if these wealthier locations are better positioned to recover due to inherent community wealth,” the study states.

This cost-benefit analysis is used by both federal and state agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, according to the study. The rule often was cited, for example, as an obstacle for Cedar Rapids receiving federal aid to help construct its permanent flood protection system.

Wilensky proposed a review of these analyses as a possible policy solution. The study also recommended the state reconsider its rules on disaster assistance.

“Iowa currently stops processing and paying disaster claims once a federal disaster is declared, but federal funds may not arrive to a community in a timely fashion,” the study said. “While the stop-payment measure was implemented to reduce state governmental expenditures in favor of federal funds, its implementation leaves residents without relief and leaves low-income communities vulnerable to severe disruption.”

According to the study, accepting state funds does not prevent claims to federal funds, but state funds must be repaid if an applicant later gets federal aid.

The study added that residents of front-line communities impacted by recurring flooding are more likely to live below the poverty level, endure unemployment, have a disability and identify as African American or Latino, the study added.

“The big picture is that, nationally, you see that front-line communities of ecological disasters suffer the hardest and recover the slowest, the most incompletely, of any community when disaster strikes,” Wilensky said. “Iowa doesn’t necessarily differ.”

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