Study Finds Blacks More Likely to Live Behind Decaying Levees Than Whites

On the coastline, along riverbanks, and in other low-lying areas, levees are built to keep floodwaters and storm surges contained. These structures are rapidly degrading across America, and the people living behind them are at risk of significant loss and displacement.

According to a new study conducted by scholars at Tufts University in Massachusetts and Mississippi State University, the makeup of communities living behind these levees skews significantly to minorities, people with disabilities, and individuals and families with lower income and lower levels of education.

Almost 36 million people in the U.S. reside in areas protected by a levee. The American Society of Civil Engineers declared that most U.S. levees are “below standard, with many components at the end of their service life.” To make matters worse, the risk faced by vulnerable communities living behind these levees is compounded by increasingly severe weather events and sea-level rise brought on by climate change.

According to calculations in the study, if Blacks make up 15 percent of the general population on high ground, but 45 percent behind a levee, then they are three times more concentrated behind the levee, so the disparity would be 300 percent. While nationwide the disparity for Blacks is less than 20 percent, there are high levels of disparity for Black populations behind levees in Kentucky (284 percent) and Tennessee (156 percent).

The full study, “Overrepresentation of Historically Underserved and Socially Vulnerable Communities Behind Levees in the United States,” was published in the journal Earth’s Future. It may be accessed here.

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