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How floods become human catastrophes

The greatest danger of the climate-change era is often simply the hard fact that you are poor.

It is what turns an extreme weather event into a human catastrophe. If you don’t have much, you’ll probably be hit harder. It will probably take much longer for you to recover. This is especially true for the world’s poorest. In Pakistan, exceptionally heavy rainfall in some of the most remote, poorest parts of the country 550 people killed this week.

Even in the richest country in the world, the United States, a climate risk can quickly turn into a catastrophe for the most vulnerable. Think of the latest floods in Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. We do not know to what extent climate change has exacerbated these floods. We do know that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, which can cause extreme rainfall.

The floods killed at least 37 people in Kentucky and two in Missouri. In Kentucky, they came atop flooding in February, 2020 and February 2021, followed by a tornado that claimed a record 80 lives in December 2021.

Therefore, it was puzzling to hear Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, say that he was amazed at why certain communities in his state had suffered repeatedly. “I wish I could tell you why areas where people might not have much are still getting hit and losing everything,” he said said on Twitter.

To my colleague Christopher Flavelle, who focuses on how people, governments and industries are trying to cope with the effects of global warming, the answer seemed painfully obvious. So I asked him to spell it out.

Somini: What made the latest floods so destructive, in human terms?

Chris: The risk you run from floods like this is based on two things: how vulnerable you are and how vulnerable you are. You are exposed if, for example, you live in a steep valley that floods quickly during severe storms. You are vulnerable if you live in a house that is not built to withstand this type of flooding. In low-income communities in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia, physical exposure and social vulnerability overlap in a dangerous and often tragic way.

Living has a lot to do with it. Homes aren’t always built to code. According to the International Code Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that oversees the development of those codes, there isn’t even a single-family housing code enforcement in much of Kentucky.

Somini: Insurance has a lot to do with it too, as you wrote recently.

Chris: The hard truth of United States disaster policy is that if your home is destroyed by a flood and you don’t have flood insurance, you shouldn’t count on government support to make up for the difference. The Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide help, but it probably won’t be enough to fix your home. Congress has no standard for deciding when to provide additional funds to rebuild lost homes. And even if lawmakers come up with those funds, it could take years to reach the people who need them.

So if you don’t buy flood insurance because it seems too expensive, you probably won’t have the savings you need to recover if your home is destroyed. That’s a position more and more Americans will find themselves in as climate change makes flooding more frequent and intense. In addition, outdated flood maps mean that some people don’t have a good way of figuring out how much at risk they’re at.

Somini: Is there a counterexample of people who can afford the right insurance and get back on their feet faster?

Chris: Look at the Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy. In many areas, the destruction was followed by the construction of larger, more expensive houses. At the other extreme, I’ve been to cities in West Virginia that have yet to recover from flooding that happened years or even decades earlier.

Somini: It’s not just flooding. It’s also heat. Our colleague Anne Barnard wrote this week about the lack of refrigeration centers in New York City, precisely in the neighborhoods that need them most. When we think of adaptation, we often think of physical structures, such as sea walls and raised houses. Should adaptation also focus on social vulnerabilities?

Chris: Some governments are starting to address the overlap between social vulnerabilities and climate risks in other ways. Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, has recently begun to consider social conditions when deciding which neighborhoods should be prioritized for flood control projects. And the Biden administration has said that for major federal grants for disaster relief, at least 40 percent of the benefits will go to underprivileged communities.

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By some standards, cricket is the second most popular sport in the world after football, with a whopping three billion fans. But matches can last up to five days in blistering heat, and the countries where the game is most popular, such as India and Pakistan, are the most vulnerable to climate change. In June, when the West Indies arrived to play in Multan, Pakistan, the temperature reached 111 degrees Fahrenheit, about 44 degrees Celsius. “Global warming,” wrote one player, “is already damaging our sport.”


Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message and answer many!

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