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Racial Disparity in Disaster Response in the United States: A Case Study of Aid Under FEMA

Natural disasters strike Americans indiscriminately; unfortunately, federal disaster relief doesn’t reach them the same way.

Black Americans receive less Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief funding on average than their white counterparts. Their communities take longer to recover in the wake of natural disasters and they are less likely to relocate to areas with fewer disasters.1 This is the result of the historical segregation of black communities into undesirable housing, the systematic devaluation of black property, and the persistent lack of development in black communities.

FEMA bases relief funding on the real estate market and property appraisals.2 In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The agency insured private mortgages to “caus[e] a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house.”3

However, black Americans never benefited from this policy. “Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing.”4 The historical practice of redlining cities forced black people in many urban centers into segregated housing with squalid conditions.5

As a result, many black people were excluded from home ownership and forced out of white neighborhoods. They were barred from building wealth through housing—one of the primary drivers of wealth creation in the United States.

These disparities of wealth and power have profound impacts, not just on living conditions but on land management as well. The segregated housing that people of color were forced into was often built on land with more hazardous conditions. For example, governments were more likely to place toxic waste incinerators near low-income, communities of color.6

Land management disparities persist today. Residents who live in the “lowest-lying areas or in neighborhoods without green space to absorb water—are often poor and members of minority groups.”7 In fact, “study after study has since shown that those communities are disproportionately exposed to fumes, toxic dust, ash, soot, and other pollutants from such hazardous facilities located in their midst.”8

The results of such land management decisions are stark. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “[d]amaged areas were 45.8 percent African American, undamaged areas, only 26.4 percent. For the city of New Orleans alone, these figures were 75 percent and 46.2 percent, respectively.”9

The consequences of historical racism reach further than housing disparities. Black Americans have been routinely ignored by American financial institutions. “Most black neighborhoods are ‘banking deserts,’ neighborhoods abandoned by mainstream banks. As a result, many black Americans live in neighborhoods that are less desirable, have fewer amenities, and have lower levels of investment—leading to lower property values. The FDIC’s surveys on the ‘unbanked and underbanked’ reveal that 60 percent of blacks are either unbanked or underbanked,” further barring them from the wealth generation such systems offer.10

When they aren’t excluded, black Americans have often been targeted and taken advantage of by financial institutions. “Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein found that blacks pay an average of $425 more for loans than white customers.”11 As a result even high-earning black families live in neighborhoods with fewer amenities, lower property values, and more environmental hazards. “Black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.”12

The consequences of this historical financial exclusion can be devastating for people recovering from disasters. After a disaster hits, FEMA determines the allocation of relief funding based on prior property values. The agency does not take into account historical racism’s role in determining market values.

Without responding to this reality, FEMA perpetuates the cycle of systemic racism. By failing to consider historically racist policy’s effect on the market, FEMA reinforces the effects of those racist systems. As a result, historically disadvantaged communities do not receive adequate funding to rebuild properly. “After Hurricane Andrew (which struck Florida and Louisiana in 1992) Blacks and non-Cuban Hispanics were more likely than Whites to receive inadequate settlement amounts and black neighborhoods were less likely to have insurance with major companies.”13

Though system racism prevents black Americans from receiving sufficient federal disaster relief to this day, some progress has been made in this area. In 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 13985 seeking to advance racial equity and support of underserved communities. The order calls for federal agencies to conduct equity assessments on their operations and find opportunities for closing disparities in outcomes. The 2022-2026 FEMA strategic plan underlines the importance of striving for equitable outcomes. However, these measures do not go far enough.

The federal government should implement proactive measures to ensure historically disadvantaged communities receive adequate funding in the wake of natural disasters. FEMA cannot rely solely on market forces to assign relief funds to people affected by disasters. The agency should create zoning that evaluates communities based on levels of historic discrimination and underdevelopment. Communities affected by natural disasters in disadvantaged zones should receive increased funding from FEMA in the wake of disasters.

If FEMA continues assigning aid based solely on market real estate values and property appraisals, communities that have been routinely excluded and discriminated against are doomed to receive insufficient funds for their needs. The vicious cycle of discrimination and underdevelopment will continue.

If disadvantaged communities are not properly supported in the wake of disasters, communities that have had to live under the shadow of environmental hazard will be sentenced to continue living under threat. Communities that have been overlooked and underdeveloped will be forced to recover with too few resources and too little support.

This was the case in 2022 when a tornado destroyed much of a majority-black community in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Many residents were poor and didn’t have access to resources like the internet and insurance coverage. Lack of weatherproofing left homes especially vulnerable to the violent winds. “Almost three weeks after the tornado, Rolling Fork’s mayor said about 500 people—roughly a third of the town’s population—remained displaced.”14

Natural disasters do not have to sentence communities to economic doom. In fact, in white communities with adequate federal support, they often don’t. “One 2018 study by sociologists from Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh looked at counties that each suffered the same amount ($10 billion) in hazard damage. In those events, Black survivors’ wealth decreased by an average $27,000 while White survivors’ average wealth increased $126,000.”15

Creating a system of disaster relief that takes into account historic discrimination and lack of investment would help disadvantaged communities recover faster and more equitably. It would also start the process of righting historical wrongs.

In the past, white communities that have been affected by disasters have been allowed to build back stronger and flourish. Why not give the same opportunity to black communities?

  1. Lauren Lee, “Racial Disparities Are Working against Disaster Recovery for People of Color. Climate Change Could Make It Worse,” CNN, April 14, 2023,  ↩︎
  2. “Fact Sheet: FEMA 101: How Federal Disaster Aid Works,” FEMA, April 30, 2019, ↩︎
  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, May 22, 2014, ↩︎
  4. Coates, “The Case for Reparations”. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. Manuel Pastor et al., “Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina,” Race, Poverty & the Environment 13, no. 1 (2006): 21–26. ↩︎
  7. Thomas Frank and News E&E, “Flooding Disproportionately Harms Black Neighborhoods,” Scientific American, June 2, 2020, ↩︎
  8. Maudlyne Ihejirika, “What Is Environmental Racism?,” NRDC, May 24, 2023, ↩︎
  9. Pastor et al., “Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina.” ↩︎
  10. Mehrsa Baradaran, “8. The Color of Money Matters,” in The Color of Money (Harvard University Press, 2018), 247–77, ↩︎
  11. Mehrsa Baradaran, “8. The Color of Money Matters.” ↩︎
  12. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.” ↩︎
  13. Pastor et al., “Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina.” ↩︎
  14. Lauren Lee, “Racial Disparities Are Working Against Disaster Recovery for People of Color. Climate Change Could Make It Worse,” CNN, April 17, 2023, ↩︎
  15. Lee, “Racial Disparities Are Working against Disaster Recovery for People of Color.” ↩︎