After the Flood
With extreme weather events on the rise, a UT professor looks at the social equity of disaster and disruption.
by jesse fox mayshark • february 27, 2019
a shopping center on cedar bluff road was still closed because of flooding on Tuesday.
Rain fell all across Knox County last week, from Farragut to Mascot and Powell to Bonny Kate. Basements, subdivisions and roadways were waterlogged in all directions. As of Tuesday night, the Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency had logged reports of more than 800 homes and businesses damaged by the storms.
The effects of floods and fires are exacerbated by underlying socioeconomics.
But if the flooding was widespread, its individual impact varies widely according to people’s circumstances.
“A difference to think about is what somebody’s resources are to bounce back from that,” said Lisa Reyes Mason, an assistant professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. “In so many ways -- in terms of having homeowner’s insurance that covers that, or being able to have that agency to push back maybe with your insurance policy, or file a claim, or have the time!”
All of those are added layers of stress for anybody, but Mason’s particular concern is the impact on people who are stressed and vulnerable to start with, because of poverty or disability or any number of socioeconomic factors.
A few days off from work to Shop-Vac a rec room or care for kids while schools are closed might be easy to absorb for some people, while for others it could mean lost wages or even losing a job. And for the 36 percent of Knox County residents who rent their home, repairs and clean-up could depend on the goodwill of a conscientious landlord.
“What we really know about poverty is that people cycle in and out of it all the time,” Mason said. “So when you have something like this happen, a flood, if you’re a lower-income family that’s affected by that, you use up what few economic resources you might have.”
Mason specializes in the intersection of climate change and social inequality, all the ways that extreme weather and climate events can exacerbate underlying instability for individuals and families.
Even in East Tennessee, which is more protected from climatological extremes than many places, recent years have seen both all-time record highs and extraordinary cold spells. An “exceptional drought” in 2016 set the stage for deadly wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains. And this month is already unofficially the wettest February ever recorded in Knoxville, capped by the more than 5 inches of rain that fell Saturday.
Mason noted that the month’s precipitation is in line with the most recent National Climate Assessment, published by the federal government last November. (And derided by President Donald Trump.) In the section on the Southeastern United States, the report says, with italics included, “Extreme rainfall events have increased in frequency and intensity in the Southeast, and there is high confidence they will continue to increase in the future.”
“It’s really all rooted under this umbrella of weather extremes,” Mason said. “How do people here experience weather extremes, how is their health, or their mental health, or their finances impacted?”
The 2016 fires in Gatlinburg, for example, destroyed motels, mobile homes and apartment complexes that provided affordable housing for the local workforce. Their displacement is the kind of effect that Mason thinks local and state leaders need to incorporate more deliberately in emergency planning.
Erin Gill, sustainability director for the city of Knoxville, said social equity is a big part of the city’s planning for what has come to be called “climate resilience” -- the ability of a community to adapt and respond to climate and weather conditions.
“If we’re not able to address the needs of those who have the most needs, then we’re missing a big chunk of the conversation,” Gill said.
For example, she said, hotter temperatures in the summer may not be a problem for people who can afford to just crank up the air conditioning. But for others, higher utility bills can be an unsustainable burden.
Some of Mason’s current work involves engaging with people in vulnerable communities and learning how to talk about these issues in concrete ways -- to help people think about, for example, the possible benefits of creating rain gardens in their yards to trap water runoff and decrease flooding.
“You can’t just show up and say, ‘We have this great program for you,’” Mason said. “It has to be something that people actually want.”
She worked on one survey in the First Creek watershed along Broadway, asking low- to moderate-income residents if they were aware of options to reduce runoff.
“About 60 percent or so expressed some kind of interest in it, in learning more,” Mason said. To her, that suggests a lot of opportunity for civic and community leaders to raise awareness and help people take small steps that can have a cumulative impact.
“It’s an example of green infrastructure, these rain gardens, that if you had enough people in a watershed adopt them, you could make an impact on how much water is going into stormwater runoff,” she said.
Those kinds of conversations may be easier after last week’s events.
“As people have more personal experience with it,” Mason said, “they might then say, ‘Oh, wait, what was that again? How can my neighborhood prepare?’”