How floods become a human catastrophe

The biggest threat of a climate-changing era is often the hard fact of being poor.

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

Even in the world’s richest country, the United States, a climate threat can turn into a disaster for the most vulnerable. Consider the latest floods in Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. We do not know to what extent climate change has increased these floods. We know that warmer environments hold more moisture, which can bring about excessive rainfall.

At least 37 people died in these floods 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 killed a record 80 people in December 2021.

That’s why Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, a Democrat, says he was puzzled why some communities in his state suffered repeatedly. “I wish I could tell you that in areas where people don’t have much, they keep getting hit and lose everything,” he said on twitter,

To my colleague, Christopher Flawell, who focuses on how people, governments, and industry try to deal with the effects of global warming, the answer seemed plainly obvious. So I asked him to pronounce it.

Somini: What made the recent floods so devastating in human terms?

Chris: The risk you face from this type of flood 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 is quick to flood during intense storms. You are vulnerable if you live in a house that is not built to withstand such floods. In low-income communities in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia, physical exposure and social vulnerability overlap in dangerous and often tragic ways.

Housing has a lot to do with it. Homes aren’t always built to code. In fact, in much of Kentucky, there is 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: As you wrote recently, insurance also has a lot to do with it.

Chris: The bitter truth of United States disaster policy is that, if your home is destroyed by a flood and you don’t have flood insurance, don’t rely on government assistance to make the difference. The Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide assistance, but it probably won’t be enough to repair your home. Congress has no standard for deciding whether to provide additional funding to rebuild lost homes. And even if lawmakers do come up with those funds, it could take years for them to reach the people who need them.

So if you don’t buy flood insurance because it seems too expensive, you are unlikely to have the savings you need to recover if your home is destroyed. This is a situation more and more Americans are going to find themselves in as climate change makes flooding more frequent and intense. In addition, outdated flood maps mean that some people don’t have a good way of figuring out how much risk they are facing.

Somini: Is there a counter example of people who can buy 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 larger, more expensive homes. On the other hand, I’ve been to cities in West Virginia that haven’t yet recovered from floods that happened years or decades ago.

Somini: It’s not just a flood. It’s hot too. Our colleague Anne Barnard wrote this week about the lack of cooling centers in New York City, right in the areas that need it most. Often, when we think of adaptation, we think of physical structures, such as ocean walls and raised houses. Should adaptation also address 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 began accounting for social conditions when deciding which neighborhoods should be prioritized for flood control projects. And the Biden administration has said that for major federal disaster-mitigation grants, at least 40 percent of benefits will go to disadvantaged communities.


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

Thanks for reading. We will be back on Tuesday.

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

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