A little girl surveys the high water levels in Jacksonville after Hurricane Irma recedes.
A little girl surveys the high water levels in Jacksonville after Hurricane Irma recedes. Mark Makela/Reuters

In two Florida cities, we mapped where low-income communities live, and how they’re affected by flood risks.

In a stroke of luck, Hurricane Irma turned out to be less “nuclear” than Florida had expected. Still, even as it weakened to a tropical storm Monday on its way up to Georgia and the Carolinas, it left behind a trail of floods and fallen trees. In Florida, an estimated 13 million people were left without power; the extent of the devastation in the Florida Keys is just beginning to surface.

Disasters tend to worsen the already present inequalities in their paths. Irma is no different. The hurricane hit small islands in the Caribbean with all its strength, flattening buildings and leaving around 36 dead. In Florida, too, it’s the poor people of color, the disabled, and the elderly—who may not have been well-positioned to weather the storm in the first place—who will probably pay heavier tolls in its aftermath.

To understand the risks lower-income communities in the storm’s path were exposed to, CityLab mapped the concentration of low-income people of three Florida cities below using Census and National Weather Service data.

Tampa Bay, in particular, was bracing itself for Irma. As the Washington Post recently reported, the region’s low-lying terrain, vulnerability to sea level rise, immense growth in population, and rapid development put it at grave risk for climate change-related disasters. On Sunday, Tampa’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn tweeted, “We are about to get punched in the face by this storm.” That prediction was not entirely fulfilled as the storm wavered and lost steam. Still, Irma’s strong winds and heavy rain didn’t let the region off the hook—authorities have just started to deal with the waterlogged streets, crumpled electrical lines, and snapped trees.

Like in other parts of Florida, a lot of beach-side property in Tampa Bay tends to belong to folks who can afford to pay the premium for the Bayou views. The newer crop of these mansions and luxury apartments tend to be built with flood risk in mind. But the older stock in flood zones may not be as secure. And pockets of poor and elderly communities live in and near flood zones, too.

The following map shows the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, which was in the zone for intense hurricane force winds. The deeper the red, the higher the poverty. And the zigzag line skirting the bay shows the flood watch zones:

(Soren Walljasper/CityLab)

While the West Coast was spared a direct hit, it still suffered. Residents of Miami, for example, remain without power and storm surges rushed into the areas near the beach. As Vox’s Alexia Fernandez Campbell explained, Miami-Dade and Broward counties are better positioned to withstand strong weather events, because of their updated building codes. This is especially true for the posh areas in Miami Beach.

Climate change-related flooding in some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods has gotten less attention. Liberty City, the majority-black neighborhood that served as the backdrop for Oscar-winning film Moonlight, is actually on higher ground, and therefore less vulnerable to storm surge flooding—putting it at risk for “climate gentrification.” Still, its residents were anxious about their vulnerability. “We’re in the inner city here. People don’t want to help folk like us,” a resident told the Miami Herald. “Nobody is leaving Liberty City because there’s nowhere for them to go.”  

Further north, Jacksonville fared worse. The city experienced record flooding—especially, but not limited to, around the St. Johns river. According to Jacksonville.com, several working-class neighborhoods in the city’s north and its suburbs were inundated too.

(Soren Walljasper/CityLab)

The Associated Press estimated that most residents in Florida’s flood zones do not have insurance. With climate change, stronger, more unpredictable storms might become more frequent—and Florida, whose governor dismisses this threat, is particularly susceptible. Meanwhile, it’s going to become harder and harder to move its growing population out of harm’s way.

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