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Low-income Texas communities of color face flood risk

AUSTIN, Texas — May is usually the wettest month in Texas. While the state is currently experiencing a drought, this actually increases the risk of flash floods. Climate change is also causing more frequent and more severe weather-induced flooding.

Even so, the Texas Department of Insurance reports that only 14% of homeowners have a flood policy. And low-income communities of color most often end up underwater more than others.


What do you want to know

  • Texas agencies are working with FEMA to update outdated state flood hazard maps
  • The Texas Department of Insurance reports that only 14% of Texans have a flood policy
  • More than 7,000 people in Austin are at risk of flooding according to the city’s 100-year-old floodplain
  • Localized flooding from poor infrastructure, development, and storm sewer runoff disproportionately affects low-income people and communities of color

In the rue de Frances Acuna, when it rains, it pours.

“It’s like God just threw a bucket of water on us,” she said.

A person stands in a flooded street. (Courtesy of Frances Acuna)

Acuna lives on Brassiewood Drive in the Dove Springs community of South Austin. They are mostly Latino families, although gentrification has driven many people out.

Catastrophic floods happen here now every few years. It’s above average, and it’s only going to get worse.

Walking down her street, she points to houses that have water stains from the last flood.

Brassiewood Drive is located along the Williamson River and is not far from Onion Creek. Although Williamson Creek is basically in their backyard, it’s not because of neighborhood issues. The community is more prone to localized flooding due to aging infrastructure, lack of drainage and surrounding development.

“The water has nowhere to flow except into the neighborhood,” Acuna said.

Directly across the street is a high-risk flood zone, according to FEMA Cardsbut Brassiewood Drive is not.

A map showing flood risk in Austin. (FEMA)

You can still see the flood damage to Acuna’s house. In his garden, part of the concrete foundation collapsed.

Acuna can’t afford flood insurance and doesn’t have the money to fix it. Her home is primarily affected by localized flooding, which is not eligible for federal assistance. FEMA must declare a disaster to states and individuals to qualify for funding.

Because Acuna doesn’t live in a high-risk flood zone, its insurance is actually cheaper, but it misses out on some of the flood insurance programs and options for people who live in those areas.

“You know, we work check by check, you know we don’t have that extra money,” she said.

The City of Austin is part of the National Flood Insurance Program, which allows residents to purchase flood insurance from the federal government.

The Watershed Protection Department is currently working on a flood risk reduction project in Brassiewood, but his community is not the only one at risk in Austin.

City of Austin Floodplain Administrator Kevin Shunk says there are more than 7,000 properties in Austin that are at risk of flooding in the 100-year floodplain.

“Overall, we have a lot of flood risk throughout the city of Austin,” he said.

FEMA is also working with the city on a study in the Onion Creek watershed, which includes Dove Springs.

In 2020, the city began a five-year effort to update floodplain models and maps.

“We have local flooding happening because the infrastructure doesn’t have the capacity to carry the floodwaters,” Shunk said.

Debris washed away by the floods. (Courtesy of Frances Acuna)

But it’s also a statewide problem.

Saul Nuccitelli, deputy director of flood and community science for the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), said Texas has one of the highest death rates in the nation.

“Floods don’t respect political boundaries, do they? said Nuccitelli. ” Water flows [to] go where you need to go.

He says FEMA has limited funding to do flood hazard mapping, especially localized flooding, which is more difficult. TWDB is remapping Texas flood risk areas should include all communities affected by flooding.

Nuccitelli says they’ve already updated about a third of the state and expect to complete the maps by 2024.

“We’re going to cover the entire state, map every place, even rural places like parks and such. We will show the risk of flooding everywhere.

Areas at risk of flooding generally have lower land values. These areas also tend to have aging infrastructure and less green space to absorb runoff.

Flood in a neighborhood street. (Courtesy of Frances Acuna)

Systemic racism in the city’s development, such as redlining and segregation, also plays a role in why communities of color disproportionately live near or in floodplains.

Acuna is actively working with multiple agencies to help communities like hers, which she says have struggled for too long to stay afloat.

“Each year is going to be more crucial to be prepared and, you know, protect your home from the elements, but how do you do that if you can’t afford it?” she says.