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To some, climate change is a vague idea, a hazy future. In parts of the South, it’s become a devastating reality.
“When you drive down the street there’s piles and piles of furniture, clothing, shoes, sound systems, just about anything you find inside a home,” Hilton Kelley, an environmental activist and former actor, says of Port Arthur, Texas, in Harvey’s aftermath. “It really looks like a war zone in many of our neighborhoods.”
For the residents of Port Arthur and nearby Houston, Hurricane Harvey was just the latest battle in the region’s ongoing conflict with an increasingly volatile Mother Nature.
“Katrina, we should’ve learned from that. If we didn’t learn from that we should’ve learned from Rita. If we didn’t learn from Rita, we should’ve learned from Ike. If we didn’t learn from Ike, we should’ve learned from Gustav,” says Kelley of the area’s stormy history. “How many hurricanes do you have to go through in 15 years to realize that this is the new norm?”
Port Arthur, like the South as a whole, is both uniquely located to feel climate change’s effects and uniquely vulnerable to its dangers, experts say. From Florida and the Gulf Coast to Kentucky and Southern Appalachia, the rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather that come with climate change threatens to disrupt local economies and endanger working class communities.
“The southern U.S. is basically ground zero for climate change,” says Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and the so-called “father of environmental justice.”
There’s the South’s geography, for one. Surrounded on one side by rising seas and susceptible to the heat waves and droughts of the lower latitudes, it’s suffered more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters than any other U.S. region going back to 1980. Texas alone has seen 94 of such events in that time frame, nearly 25 more than any other state.
“In Texas you get everything. You get ice storms and blizzards and tornadoes and flash flooding and haboobs and of course hurricanes,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University who contributed to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.
But geographic hazards are only part of what makes the South particularly at risk to climate change, Hayhoe says. There’s also the sheer number of people affected, and how vulnerable they are.
Despite the hazards, states like Texas have taken few steps to reduce risk. Although Texas leads the U.S. in terms of dollars paid for flood claims, it ranks among the worst in flood-control spending and doesn’t require its communities to enroll in FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Suburban sprawl has led to new houses and developments being built on flood plains, and complicated emergency response. And migration to Texas and the South generally have only increased the region’s exposure, particularly for those pushed to the low-lying and less desirable areas.
“These weather and climate extremes broaden the gaps between haves and have-nots. If you have insurance versus if you don’t, if you can evacuate or you can’t,” Hayhoe says. “There’s a socioeconomic component to individual vulnerability.”
That vulnerability is a major reason why the South is set to be America’s biggest loser in the coming battles with a changing climate. An studypublished this summer in the journal Science, which used innovative methods to estimate climate change’s economic costs by region, predicted that climate change would hit the South the hardest: desecrating crop yields, increasing mortality rates, and exacerbating income inequality in what is already the country’s poorest region.
Harbingers of those dire predictions can already be seen in this year’s hurricane season.
Port Arthur, a low-lying, low-income, predominantly African-American community on the coast, proved more vulnerable than either Houston or south Florida.
“Other communities are thinking about rebuilding and reconstruction and shoring up infrastructure and making sure plans are being put in place to build a more resilient community,” Bullard says.
“Folks in Port Arthur, they’re just trying to get away from the pollution and the mold and the bad housing conditions to get to somewhere that’s high and dry.”
Communities such as Port Arthur stand to lose the most as extreme weather and rising seas threaten, Bullard says.
“Disasters actually create and amplify those health inequalities and other inequalities,” Bullard says.
“Those vulnerable, marginalized, low-income, people of color communities are the ones that will feel the negative impacts worst, first, and longest.”
The South’s politics, past and present, only add to the problem, Bullard says.
“Because of the way that the southern region developed and the way that the racial and ethnic segregation footprint was translated into policy, you’ll find a disproportionate share of poor people and people of color in the most vulnerable hotspots,” he says.
“The South has a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and resistance to civil rights, and an disproportionate share of climate deniers who are in power in terms of governors and decision-makers.”
A few places are bucking the regional trend by preparing for what tomorrow’s climate may bring.
Two Southern coastal cities in Hurricane Irma’s path, Miami and Charleston, South Carolina, have taken steps to address rising sea levels. Miami is raising its streets and installing water pumps, and Charleston has spent or set aside at least $238 million on drainage projects aimed at reducing flooding.
In Charleston, sea levels have risen about a foot over the last century, due in part to sinking ground, says Doug Marcy, a coastal hazards specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The city also experiences frequent tidal floods.
“Just tides alone are starting to get into the stormwater system and fill them up, then when we get rain events they can’t drain,” Marcy says. “So you’ll have a sunny day but water will be in the streets and they have to close the streets and put up barricades.”
Both the floods and sea level rise will get worse: by 2040, the sea level could rise another 1.5 feet, and the tidal floods, which happened around twice a year as recently as the 1970s, could occur 180 days a year, according to projections.
To combat the rising waters, the city is building 10- and 12-foot-wide tunnels beneath the city as well as new pumping stations and other drainage improvement projects in the coming years. Though Charleston’s mayor John Tecklenburg has voiced his support for the Paris climate change agreement, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and many of its lawmakers oppose it, and some city officials don’t directly frame their efforts in terms of climate change.
“To me it doesn’t matter what the cause is. What matters is the tide is rising and that’s having an impact on our people,” says Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s director of emergency management and resilience.
“Citywide there are people who know that this is happening because they see it happening to themselves and their neighbors and they understand what needs to be done.”
Farther south, the choices are more stark, the future more foreboding.
“We must look at a new way of building for those people who choose to stay here,” says Kelley, the activist and Port Arthur native. “If we want Port Arthur to survive, if we want Beamont to survive, we must look at a new way of existing on the gulf.”
Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report