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San Diego's flooding shows the toll of climate change on low-income communities

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's been one week since a major storm hit San Diego, causing flash flooding that inundated homes and swept cars off the streets. From member station KPBS, Andrew Bowen reports the disaster has highlighted how climate change is hitting low-income communities of color the hardest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Spanish).

ANDREW BOWEN, BYLINE: Monica Garcia rummages through piles of soiled belongings that she and her neighbors have taken out of their homes and placed on the sidewalk.

MONICA GARCIA: There's closet drawers, headboards. There's actually all the clothing hangers with clothes.

BOWEN: Last Monday was San Diego's rainiest day in January since 1850. Some areas got three inches in just a few hours. The floods came fast, overwhelming the city's stormwater infrastructure. Garcia's 90-year-old mother had to be evacuated to the neighbor's roof. This house has been in the family for 45 years. It's been a source of stability and safety for all the kids and grandkids.

GARCIA: And when they had financial troubles that they couldn't pay rent, this was the home where they can come to get back on their feet. And now we have nothing because we have no flood insurance and because we've had so many hardships and health issues as well. This is a total loss.

BOWEN: Garcia's neighborhood, just southeast of downtown, is predominantly Latino and low-income. Generations ago, racist housing policies kept people of color out of San Diego's white neighborhoods. A century later, that segregation persists.

JULIE CORRALES: The infrastructure in these older communities have long needed investment.

BOWEN: Julie Corrales is an organizer with the Environmental Health Coalition. The San Diego nonprofit recently secured $22 million from the state of California to help vulnerable communities prepare for climate change. But the focus has been on extreme heat. Corrales admits the risk of flooding in sunny San Diego hadn't been on their radar.

CORRALES: We're going to experience unpredictable weather and these types of rains, and we haven't been focusing on that. So I think now we're thinking, OK, we need to start building around that. How do we urgently reinforce the infrastructure? I don't think that we realized the urgency before.

BOWEN: City officials said the rainfall was so intense, it would have overwhelmed even the strongest stormwater system. And San Diego's was already underfunded by $1.6 billion.

SEAN ELO-RIVERA: I think this is a great example of why we have to be equitable in our investment in climate resiliency.

BOWEN: Sean Elo-Rivera is the San Diego City Council president. He says historic budget inequities have made infrastructure shortfalls especially bad in low-income communities.

ELO-RIVERA: I think that the council that we have now, in partnership with our mayor, has been very honest about the needs of the system, and that means providing additional resources to communities that deserve them because they were left out of the equation for so, so long.

GREGORY JENKINS: Climate change is going to play out in ways that we don't fully know at this point.

BOWEN: Gregory Jenkins is a professor of meteorology and atmospheric science at Penn State University. He says when disaster strikes, low-income households can be permanently displaced.

JENKINS: You don't know what that does to the fabric and structure of that neighborhood in terms of relationships or, you know, how someone's job is now 30 miles away or - we don't know all those things. So there are narratives that are happening at the human scale that aren't really reported.

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BOWEN: Back on Monica Garcia's street, volunteers at a taco stand are preparing lunch for residents. Garcia says she's touched by the support, but there's more they need.

GARCIA: So that's why I'm asking also the federal government to give us the aid. You have money for wars. You have money to help other countries, and we're struggling as well.

BOWEN: Garcia doesn't know what comes next for her family. The morning after the storm, a real estate agent came knocking with an offer to buy the home for cash. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Bowen in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "NORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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