Early research shows that COVID-19 is causing the greatest harm to our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. At the same time, climate change in northeastern Illinois results in more frequent and severe storms, extreme heat, and prolonged drought. Just this week, river, stream, and urban flooding have led to street closures, power loss, property damage, and contamination. Chicago has already received 8.3 inches of rainfall this month, breaking last year’s record rainfall for May. While the region grapples with the inequities made more visible by the pandemic, we must also consider how COVID-19 is further exacerbating the impacts of climate change on these communities, further worsening their ability to recover and thrive.
As with COVID-19, flooding does not affect all people or communities equally. CMAP has previously identified geographic areas in the Chicago region that are disconnected from the region’s economic progress. Initial analysis shows these economically disconnected areas (EDAs) are more likely to be in flood-susceptible locations.
In the City of Chicago, the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that 87 percent of flood damage insurance claims were paid in communities of color. There are also disparities in national flood insurance coverage, with low-income households more likely to live in high-risk flood zones but less likely to have flood insurance. Chronic flooding and the flood-related deterioration of buildings, streets, and other infrastructure can discourage investment and depress property values over time.
Health issues from chronic flooding and exposure to mold — like stress and asthma — could make some people more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. Record levels of unemployment leave many residents struggling to cover their basic needs, let alone rebound from flood damage. As municipal revenues drop, the ability of local service providers to provide disaster recovery to impacted communities and build long-term resilience is at greater risk.
The cumulative and reinforcing effects of climate change, health issues and fiscal challenges pose barriers to regional prosperity. It will be important for our elected officials and other decisionmakers to address the following questions:
How can we transform our current system to support our most vulnerable communities and provide them with the tools, resources, and assistance they need to thrive?
Is flood recovery and resilience assistance being directed to those who need it the most?
Can investments to restart economic growth be designed to reduce both health and environmental risks, as well as infrastructure deficiencies?
Data is key to figuring out and prioritizing successful next steps. Our urban flood susceptibility index, combined with our information on economically disconnected and disinvested areas, provides a more complete understanding of these issues in northeastern Illinois. Additional data on how climate change harms communities of color and low-income communities will help us make better decisions and strengthen the region.
CMAP remains committed to re-envisioning our built environment and protecting our natural areas through our ongoing work to create a resilient region and implement the ON TO 2050 plan recommendations.