For generations, the NAACP has helped advance civil rights and build racial equity in the United States. Today, that work includes tackling climate change and addressing its impacts.

As climate change causes sea levels to rise and storms to grow more extreme, the risk of flooding is growing, particularly in low-lying coastal communities. Flooding can be dangerous. And it can do major damage to homes and businesses – so recovering afterward can require costly repairs.

Jacqueline Patterson is senior director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. She says that low-income communities and communities of color are often at the most risk of flooding. And they may have the hardest time recovering afterwards.

So to educate people about these risks and how to advocate for equitable solutions, the NAACP has offered a free training program and certification in Just and Equitable Sea Level Rise and Flood Management Response. In each two-day training, participants learned from representatives of the NAACP, the non-profit Climate Central, and other partner organizations about how global warming increases coastal flooding and how to assess the risks to their particular communities. And they learned strategies for engaging with local organizations and decision makers to push for equitable solutions.

Yale Climate Connections spoke with Patterson about the program – and the reasons it’s so essential. Following is a lightly edited transcription of that discussion.

YCC: Why are communities of color especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding?

Jacqueline Patterson: Communities of color are more likely to be coastal. If you look at the demographic map of the United States, there are more people who are located in places that are along the coast than other places.

[And within these communities,] people of color are more likely to have homes that are located in floodplains, which means that when flooding happens, then they’re more likely to have their homes flooded out.

Also, because of historic racism and so forth, [the wealth in communities of color] is lower, and so people can often only afford to buy homes in places with lower property values. And many of the resources around infrastructure – whether it’s levees or otherwise – are directly tied to property values.

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Isaac came through and inundated Plaquemines Parish, which is a [Louisiana] parish of predominantly people who have lower incomes. And when that area was inundated by Hurricane Isaac, we found out that the Army Corps of Engineers used a formula to determine which levees they were going to fortify after Katrina. They assign points to each levee based on what the economic impact would be if it was overtaken. That’s based on financing models that are based on property values, and on property taxes. This whole cost-benefit analysis – the way that formulas are used to make decisions – is often to the detriment of the most vulnerable communities. So the communities that are the most vulnerable, that have the lowest property values, are least likely to have the protection that they need from the floodwaters.

[Another reason communities of color are more vulnerable] is that toxic facilities are more likely to be in communities of color. We know that [as of 2002] 71% of African Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, and that an African-American family making $50,000 a year is more likely to live next to a toxic facility than a white American family making $15,000. And when flooding happens, and those toxic facilities are inundated, that means that toxic piles of coal ash or other sludge end up running through the streets and through the backyards and even through the homes of the communities that surround those facilities. And again, those are most likely to be [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, or BIPOC] communities and particularly African-American communities. After Hurricane Harvey, I was walking through one particular community and seeing the kids playing in the water in the aftermath, and there was a toxic facility nearby, and I was just looking at the kids playing and wondering, what is in that water that they were playing in?

Finally, homeowners in BIPOC communities and low-income communities are less likely to have flood insurance clauses, even though we’re more likely to live in flood plains. When we experienced in the South the flooding of 2011, and a lot of the flooding that’s happened since then – in Baton Rouge in 2016 onwards – we would visit communities. And we spoke to folks who would say either that they don’t have insurance at all, because they own their home and, with having to make choices around expenses, paying money every month for something that might happen falls to the wayside, compared to paying to put food on the table or energy or something that you know you need in real time. And so if people own their homes, then that would be an expendable expense if other things are pressing.

And then there are also the folks that we would encounter who thought that they were insured, because they had homeowner’s insurance. And then when they went to file a claim, they would find out that it doesn’t matter if they have homeowner’s insurance: They don’t have the flood insurance clause. And too many of the folks that we encountered did not have that critical flood insurance clause.

YCC: What are the goals of NAACP’s Just and Equitable Sea Level Rise and Flood Management Certification Training? What skills do participants walk away with?

Jacqueline Patterson: The goals of the program are to equip communities to be able to assess and forecast the impacts of sea-level rise and flooding in their communities  – so what sea-level rise and flooding they might experience in the next two years, and the next five years, 10 years, 20 years. We help communities learn how to use the Surging Seas Risk Finder tool that Climate Central offers to really be able to be investigators and evaluators of their risk.

And then, secondly, for communities to know what resources are available to them, whether it’s financial, technical, or informational resources. So we help them learn what information is out there, as well as who is out there. We help them to build relationships with groups like Climate Central, NOAA, the Sea Grant program, the Association of State Floodplain Managers. We connect them to folks and help to build and solidify those relationships, so they’re working hand-in-hand.

Participants also gain the skills of being able to advocate for the changes that they want in their communities, as well as to be able to engage with their communities to facilitate the visioning for the changes that they want: so visioning, planning, and then advocating for change.

The visioning might include infrastructure planning, and so communities walk away with the skills to be able to know what infrastructure possibilities are available to them, but also the skills of doing consensus building around planned retreat. So if all signs, looking at the Risk Finder and the Surging Seas tool, point to the fact that it’s only a matter of time before the land that a community lives on is not going to be inhabitable, like Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw [Tribe] found, we want to make sure the communities know how to build to develop and implement community-driven processes to determine how they will engage and manage retreat if that becomes necessary. So community building, community visioning, community planning skills are critical.

YCC: How can equity be centered in communities’ responses to flooding and the growing threat of sea-level rise?

Jacqueline Patterson: We need to have much better inclusive decision-making processes. We need participatory budgeting processes and budget transparency and community engagement in prioritizing how money is spent. Without participatory budgeting processes and budget transparency and community engagement in prioritizing how money is spent, there have been times when local officials prioritize spending in a way that isn’t putting the needs of communities first.

And instead of just community advisory boards, community decision-making in how the funding gets allocated and how planning happens at the municipal and even at the state level. With that happening, then we start to see the types of shifts that we need to see with regard to really putting deep investments in places that need it the most, as opposed to what too often happens where political influences follow moneyed interests.

So we have to replace the moneyed interests with the heart and with concern for the communities and the people most vulnerable in our society. We need to start there, and then know that if we plan around the folks who are the most vulnerable, then everyone will benefit.