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How floods become human catastrophes

The greatest hazard of the climate-changed era is often just the hard fact of being poor.

It’s what turns an extreme weather event into a human catastrophe. If you don’t have much, you’re likely to get hit harder. It’s likely to take you much longer to recover. That’s especially true for the world’s poorest. In Pakistan, exceptionally heavy rains in some of the most remote, poorest parts the country killed 550 people this week.

Even in the richest country in the world, the United States, a climate hazard can quickly become a catastrophe for the most vulnerable. Consider the latest floods in Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. We don’t know to what degree climate change exacerbated these floods. We do know that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture, which can bring extreme rainfall.

These floods killed at least 37 people in Kentucky and two in Missouri. In Kentucky, they came on top of floods in February, 2020 and February 2021, followed by a tornado that claimed a record 80 lives in December 2021.

Which is why it was puzzling to hear Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, a Democrat, say he was puzzled about why certain communities in his state had repeatedly suffered. “I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything,” he said on Twitter.

To my colleague, Christopher Flavelle, who focuses on how people, governments and industries try to cope with the effects of global warming, the answer seemed painfully obvious. So I asked him to spell it out.

Somini: What made the latest floods so destructive, in human terms?

Chris: The risk you face from floods like this is based on two things: How exposed you are and how vulnerable you are. You are exposed if, say, you live in a steep valley that’s quick to flood during intense storms. You are vulnerable if you live in a home that’s not built to withstand floods like this. In low-income communities in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia, physical exposure and social vulnerability overlap in a dangerous and often tragic way.

Housing has a lot to do with it. Houses aren’t always built to code. In fact, in much of Kentucky, there’s no enforcement of residential building codes for single-family homes, according to the International Code Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that oversees the development of those codes.

Somini: Insurance has a lot to do with it too, as you wrote about recently.

Chris: The hard truth of United States disaster policy is that, if your home gets destroyed by a flood and you don’t have flood insurance, don’t count on government aid to make up the difference. The Federal Emergency Management Agency may provide help, but it probably won’t be enough to repair your home. Congress has no standard for deciding when to provide extra money to rebuild homes that are lost. And even if lawmakers come up with those funds, they could take years to reach people who need them.

So if you don’t buy flood insurance because it seems too expensive, you’re unlikely to have the savings you need to recover if your house gets destroyed. That’s a position that more and more Americans are going to find themselves in as climate change makes floods more frequent and intense. Moreover, out-of-date flood maps mean some people don’t have a good way to find out how much risk they face.

Somini: Is there a counterexample of people who can afford the right kind of insurance and get back on their feet faster?

Chris: Look at the Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy. In many areas, the destruction was followed by the construction of bigger, more expensive homes. At the other extreme, I’ve been to towns in West Virginia that have yet to recover from floods that happened years or even decades earlier.

Somini: It’s not just flooding. It’s also heat. Our colleague Anne Barnard wrote about the lack of cooling centers in New York City this week, in precisely the neighborhoods that need it most. Often, when we think of adaptation, we think of physical structures, like sea walls and raised homes. Should adaptation also focus on social vulnerabilities?

Chris: Some governments are starting to address the overlap between social vulnerabilities and climate risk in other ways. Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, recently started accounting for social conditions when deciding which neighborhoods should get priority for flood-control projects. And the Biden administration has said that for major federal disaster-mitigation grants, at least 40 percent of the benefits will go to underprivileged communities.


By some measures, cricket is the world’s second most popular sport, behind soccer, with as many as three billion fans. But matches can last up to five days under blistering heat, and the countries where the game is most popular, like India and Pakistan, are among the most vulnerable to climate change. In June, when West Indies arrived to play in Multan, Pakistan, the temperature reached 111 degrees Fahrenheit, about 44 Celsius. “Global warming,” one player wrote, “is already wreaking havoc on our sport.”

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message, and reply to many!

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