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When The Big One Strikes, People Of Color Will Be Hit The Hardest

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When The Big One Strikes, People Of Color Will Be Hit The Hardest

It turns out natural disasters don't just reveal inequality; they actually make it worse.

Earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, all widen the gap. That’s according to sociologist Junia Howell who has studied the aftermath of disaster. Her conclusions are startling.

"If you're white, over time, you're actually going to accumulate more than if you never had that disaster in the first place. But for black people, for Latinos, for Asians — it’s not true," said Howell, who is an assistant professor at University of Pittsburgh and urban research scholar with Rice University.

She and colleagues studied 13 years of data to examine how well people did, or did not, recover after a natural disaster. [Note: She shared two years of additional data with KPCC/LAist for the maps and chart below.]

That study found that white Americans who experience disaster accumulate significantly more wealth than any other group, even compared to white counterparts that don’t experience that natural disaster. Howell was interviewed for an episode of our podcast,The Big One, that focuses on what would happen to L.A.’s economy after a major earthquake.


Bottom line: Howell’s study found white Americans who experienced natural disaster had the highest predicted wealth accumulation of any racial or ethnic group. Blacks, on the other hand, had an overall loss of wealth when they experienced disaster.

Predicted wealth accumulation for whites and blacks attributable to natural disasters, 2015

Search any U.S. address or city name below to jump to the county it's located in. The darker the shade of green or red, the more wealth accumulated (whites) or lost (blacks).

SOURCE: Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States.

Note: All prices are in 2015 dollars adjusted for inflation.

To predict wealth, the researchers took into account the race, education and homeownership status of residents who lived in U.S. counties that experienced disasters. The whiter and more educated you are, the more likely you recover and do even better in the long run.

When we think about what those findings mean for L.A. keep in mind:

Most people who live in L.A. — about 73 percent — are people of color, according to recent census estimates.

They rent.

They don’t have renters insurance.

They don’t have much money saved.

Less than half of the people in L.A. County have a bachelor's degree.

The things that give you a leg up in recovery — advanced education, assets like a home, the safety net of money in the bank — most Angelenos don’t have.


So just how much does this kind of disparity cost in the long run? In the most extreme cases the researchers analyzed — similarly educated white and black homeowners — the difference was roughly $100,000.

Predicted wealth accumulation by race attributable to natural disasters in Los Angeles County, 2002-2015*

Hover over the chart to reveal exact figures by year.

SOURCE: Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States.

Note: All prices are in 2015 dollars adjusted for inflation.

*No natural disasters reported 1999-2001 in Los Angeles County.


For every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04, according to The New York Times. The Federal Reserve reports that blacks and Latinos trail whites in home ownership, car ownership, savings and income.

When it comes to recovering from disaster, having wealth in the first place holds the key to putting your life back together.

Stay with us. It works like this: If you own a home and you have insured it, you will probably get the chance to rebuild after it’s damaged or destroyed. That means you potentially come out of the disaster with an updated house that’s worth more than before the disaster.

Howell, whose focus of study is wealth inequality, called home insurance “an amazing safety net�? for those who can afford it. At the same time, she said it’s “one of the biggest kind of known elements of how these inequalities unfold.�?

Even if you do have renters insurance, and many people do not, you will not see the same benefits. You might recover some of your damages but you won’t be able to build wealth like a homeowner with that rebuilt house has.

Aside from personal insurance, Howell said national and local officials make decisions that affect property value that fall along racial and socio-economic class lines.

“White middle class communities are being favored for the paving new roads, making sure the electricity is back on, making sure homes are back up and running for residents,�? Howell said. She added such decisions — even if they aren’t intentionally racist — are tied to deeper issues of inequity when it come to where stores, hospitals and other essential resources are located in communities.

In Houston, for example, houses in disadvantaged neighborhoods had blue tarps for roofs for years after 2008’s Hurricane Ike even though there was a big pot of money set aside to help low-income people. Only 60 out of 2,400 applications for home-repair received federal funding by 2011. Most of the houses without approved applications were in low-income neighborhoods, according to Howell.

Damage caused by the Big One may be indiscriminate, but the process of recovery, especially depending on who you are, will not be.

To hear more about disaster inequality and the economy after an earthquake, listen to Episode 5 of The Big One.

More from The Big One
Questions about earthquakes and The Big One? Ask us!