Why Texan Communities of Color Are Particularly Vulnerable to Hurricane Harvey

By Ayana Byrd Aug 28, 2017

Though Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Friday (August 25), three days later, the state’s residents continue to experience its devastation. As the rain continues and the flooding intensifies, it appears the storm will be most catastrophic for communities of color.

Hurricane Harvey is the first Category 3 or higher storm to hit the United States since 2005, which means winds reached 111 to 129 miles per hour, bringing with them "devastating damage." Buzzfeed reports that two people were confirmed dead on Saturday (August 26), one in Rockport and the other in Houston. And Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials estimate that upwards of 30,000 people will have to temporarily move to shelters

“This will be a devastating disaster, probably the worst disaster the state’s seen,” William “Brock” Long, a FEMA administrator, told The Washington Post on Sunday (August 27). “The recovery to this event is going to last many years to be able to help Texas and the people impacted by this event achieve a new normal.”

Though various places in the state are affected, The Washington Post reports that, “the unfolding disaster reflects the special vulnerability of Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, which is barely above sea level, sits next to the stormy Gulf of Mexico, and has grown into a sprawling, heavily paved metropolis notorious for flooding.”

Within Houston, and throughout Texas, those hardest hit will be communities of color. There are a number of reasons why they are particularly vulnerable. One is because many residents of these areas were not able to evacuate. As The Atlantic reports:

While many South Texans evacuated north per the recommendation of Governor Greg Abbott, poorer or disabled residents may not have had the resources or the capability to follow that advice. Many undocumented immigrants, as well, may have chosen to stay behind because Border Patrol refused to suspend its checkpoints during the storm. (The governor did affirm, however, that shelters will be exempt from immigration enforcement.) 

Another reason is because of where lower income communities of color are typically located within cities. They are often in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to flooding and, per The Atlantic, “near petrochemical plants of superfund sites that can overflow during the storm.”

Beyond Houston, there are the Texas neighborhoods called “colonias,” which are located near the U.S.-Mexico border, and consequently, in the direct path of Harvey. These areas are often built on flood zones and lack sufficient wastewater infrastructure. The website for the Texas Secretary of State says there are approximately 400,000 Texans living in the states 2,294 colonias, and 64.4 percent of them are Latinx. According to The Atlantic, “more than 70 percent of colonia inhabitants are U.S. citizens.”

It is not uncommon for immigrants or communities of color to be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, what is not as clear is the correlation between climate change and hurricanes. Per an article in The New York Times, the science connecting the two is "still emerging." Yet, as The Times reports in an interview with Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, even if global warming does not change the number of storms, “tropical storms and hurricanes do gain energy from warm water, so the unusually warm water that has accompanied climate change ‘can have a role in intensifying a storm that already exists.’”

As rescue efforts continue today (August 28), CNN reports that “rain totals could reach another 2 feet—with isolated instances of 40 to 50 more inches—along the upper Texas coast.”