Under Water in More Ways Than One: Assessing the Impact of Historic Flooding and Foreclosures on Atlanta's Vulnerable Communities

By Carpenter, Ann | Partners in Community and Economic Development, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Under Water in More Ways Than One: Assessing the Impact of Historic Flooding and Foreclosures on Atlanta's Vulnerable Communities


Carpenter, Ann, Partners in Community and Economic Development


COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE NATION HAVE BEEN STRUGGLING WITH BOTH NATURAL AND MANMADE DISASTERS, AS THE FORECLOSURE CRISIS AND RECESSION WORE ON THROUGH HURRICANE AND FLOODING SEASONS.

In September 2009, a series of slow-moving storms produced unprecedented flooding in metropolitan Atlanta, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of households and causing extensive property damage to thousands of other homes. Rainfall during Atlanta's September 2009 flooding exceeded 12 inches in an 11-day period in many areas (see figure 1). The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported road closures and other major events due to flooding--such as drowning and significant property damage--in 10 counties. U.S. Geological Survey rain gauges recorded floods up to 1.6 times the maximum flood level, with a volume and velocity so great that many of these gauges malfunctioned.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

According to Brian McCallum, assistant director of the U.S. Geological Survey Georgia Water Science Center in Atlanta, "If a 500-year flood was a cup of coffee, this one brewed a full pot. ... This flood was off the charts." (1) Existing flood maps did not help predict flooding patterns because they did not reflect such changes as increases in impervious surfaces (sidewalks and parking lots), aging storm water infrastructure, and parched soils, which caused rainwater to collect rather than drain away. The magnitude of rainfall had not been experienced in the state's recorded history, which meant that many of the affected neighborhoods were caught unprepared.

In total, the flood was responsible for 10 deaths and approximately S500 million in property damage. (2) Significantly, this severe flooding had an impact on neighborhoods in Atlanta that were already struggling with foreclosure. These communities, now literally as well as figuratively under water, tended to be the most socially vulnerable: low-income and minority, with low home-ownership rates and with few resources to recover from either a natural or financial disaster. According to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor, "Some of those affected took a double-dunk: their mortgages are already under water, which means they won't have any equity to borrow against to rebuild." (3) Adding to the challenge, many affected Atlanta residents lacked flood insurance, which is required only for residents living within the 100-year flood plain boundaries. The September 2009 flooding was measured as a once-in-500-years event.

Despite the historic magnitude of both the floods and the foreclosure crisis, experts have done little research into the compounding impact of these disasters on already vulnerable communities. To begin to understand their combined effects, we have to examine flooding and foreclosure data for the 20 counties in metropolitan Atlanta to see what correlations, if any, appear. Could policy and resource directions help these communities build greater resilience in the face of inevitable future shocks?

A Look at the Data: Where Do Foreclosures and Flooding Converge?

A merging of September 2009 foreclosure data from Lender Processing Services Inc. Analytic Services (LPS) with current Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 500-year floodplain maps produced a combined index of the probability that households were at risk of flooding and foreclosure. These two data sets were also indexed geographically with residential land cover data (information obtained from aerial maps showing housing unit density) to further highlight affected owner-occupied, single-family residential areas. (4)

The largest concentrations of severely affected neighborhoods were in South Fulton and Clayton counties and parts of Cobb and Gwinnett counties, areas that are typical older, inner-ring suburbs (see figure 2). The analysis actually underestimates the severity of flooding. The 500-year floodplains were often breached during the 2009 flood, but the data still provide a reasonable measure of the risk of extreme flooding in Atlanta's neighborhoods.

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Under Water in More Ways Than One: Assessing the Impact of Historic Flooding and Foreclosures on Atlanta's Vulnerable Communities
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