I recently had the good fortune to visit San Juan, Puerto Rico, while on vacation with my family. I’m not sure what I expected when we arrived, but I was surprised nonetheless.
I knew that the recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017 was still underway, but I was interested to find that rebuilding was at very different stages in different parts of the city.
Some areas looked virtually untouched by the hurricane while other areas were almost completely abandoned, boarded up, or still patched with tarps. It was clear that some Puerto Ricans had bounced back faster than others.
One of our Uber drivers was a lovely woman who had been living in neighboring Carolina for many years and who, until recently, worked for the Ritz Carlton San Juan for 19 years. She explained to us that she has been out of work since the hurricane, but that she felt financially secure because the Ritz Carlton released her 401K earnings without penalty to her.
So, between her 401K and Uber rides, she was doing fine. This made me think, however, about those who did not have retirement funds, emergency funds or other such resources to help them recover following a crisis.
Simple observation revealed that the ability to adapt was not universal here.
Adaptation is a major theme in the sustainability and climate change literature right now. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the most recent Fourth National Climate Assessment both clearly state that we are presently dealing with real impacts from climate change around the country and that adaptation strategies are of imminent importance.
Unfortunately, low-income communities are least able to adapt and, therefore, most likely to feel the disproportionate brunt of climate impacts.
The National Climate Assessment explains that low-income communities already have higher rates of adverse health conditions, are statistically more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, and do not have the resources to bounce back from natural disasters.
They have less access to the information and institutions that can help them prepare for and avoid the health risks associated with climate change, according to the report.
All of these vulnerabilities put them at higher risk to not be able to adapt to climate impacts.
An important consideration when we are making decisions related to climate or natural disaster adaptation, therefore, is participation.
Decision-makers are responsible for prioritizing the locations of physical protections, infrastructure, emergency shelters and public transportation routes. All of these priorities heavily impact low-income communities and should be determined with input and participation from those communities.
Fortunately, there are several nonprofit entities in Glynn County that are well-positioned to facilitate such participation and ensure that not only participation, but information is equalized across the county.
Their swift and unwavering attention to such an aim will certainly be an important factor in the ability of the 20 percent of Glynn County residents who live in poverty to adapt to climate change and natural disasters.