Unequal Flood Risk in Athens-Clarke County for Disadvantaged Communities

A Q&A with graduate student on the project, Haley Selsor

Haley Selsor is an IRIS graduate student in the College of Engineering, under IRIS Director, Dr. Brian Bledsoe. Her work is located here at the heart of the University of Georgia, where she examines how flooding in Athens-Clarke County inequitably impacts disadvantaged communities.

1.       What feels most important to you about your research on flooding in ACC? How do you think it has the potential to change the world?  

I was surprised to learn that many government officials are unaware of flood risk predictions other than FEMA’s 100-year flood zone, even though FEMA underestimates increased flooding due of climate change and land development.  

Since government officials are the ones making decisions about investment in infrastructure, it seems most important to inform them of two things: 1. Flood risk is growing and 2. Disadvantaged communities experience disproportionate flood risk.  

This research quantifies and locates socially inequitable flood risk, and my hope is that it can be a small piece in the vast body of research in working towards more flood-resilient cities. 

2.       How are you conducting your research?  

I did a preliminary study of Athens last fall using ArcMap. I used flood data from First Street and demographic data from the 2018 American Community Survey.  

3.       It sounds like this is the kind of project where social issues intersect with water resources. Can you speak to the challenges our community is facing in this regard?

The challenges our community is facing are not unique to Athens. They reflect the same issues faced across the country where disadvantaged populations have a greater risk of being impacted by environmental hazards. What varies from place to place is the people who make up the disadvantaged community. We found that in Athens, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and people under the poverty level are anywhere between 1.4 and 1.85 times more likely to be at-risk for flooding.  

A next step in our research is to analyze natural infrastructure as a solution. However, when it comes to implementing a solution, it is crucial to hear from the disadvantaged communities we are looking to help. At the end of the day, those who make up the disadvantaged community are the ones experiencing inequity, so their insight is a valuable contribution to decision making. 

Inequitable flood risk did not appear overnight, or even over the past decade. It is largely a product of the historical development of cities. In the southeast especially, historical residential segregation and redlining have caused Black communities to be concentrated in lower lying areas with lower property values.  

4.       What are your findings so far? 

Like I mentioned, we found that in Athens, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and people under the poverty level are more likely to be at-risk for flooding, and this reflects the trends across the country.  

We also found that the gap of inequity varies according to storm size. In some places, there are greater disparities for smaller storms like the 5-year storm. This means that addressing inequitable flood risk can begin on the small scale and work up to the larger scale of the 100-year storm. 

5.       What are next steps for your research? 

There are a few next steps focused on the Brooklyn Creek watershed here in Athens. The first is to develop and run our own hydrologic and hydraulic models to produce our own prediction of flood inundation for multiple storm sizes.  

The next is to do another social vulnerability analysis like we did in the preliminary study but with more factors such as family makeup, health insurance enrollment status, and age, in addition to race, ethnicity, and income. We’ll be able to use the 2020 Census data, which is at a finer scale.

After that we will run natural infrastructure and hybrid infrastructure scenarios to determine how natural infrastructure can reduce inequitable flood risk for different storm sizes. 

6.       What do you find most exciting about your work? Most challenging?  

For me, the most exciting and challenging part is the same. It is researching in the intersection of engineering and the social sciences. It has the potential to provide new insights into flood risk, but it is also challenging to combine methods and approaches from two different disciplines.   

7.      Do you have any collaborators or funding sources you’d like to acknowledge? 

I’d like to thank Dr. Brian Bledsoe and Rod Lammers for their help in this work. I’d like to thank AT&T, the National Science Foundation, and the US Army Corps of Engineers Engineering With Nature Initiative for their support of this work.