When Hurricane Idalia struck the “Big Bend” region of Florida—where the panhandle meets the peninsula—in August this year, news media and insurance industry coverage reported that Florida “dodged a bullet” because the powerful category 3 storm made landfall in a rural part of the state instead of a major city.

Yet the Big Bend region lacks many of the climate resilience assets of larger metropolitan areas, making disasters like Idalia uniquely destructive. The rural counties where Idalia hit are among the state’s poorest, with 1 in 5 residents living in poverty and median household incomes about $15,000–$20,000 below state averages. Residents in Idalia’s path were also deeply underinsured, with flood insurance take-up before the storm in hardest-hit Taylor, Dixie, and Levy Counties at just 5 percent.

These disparities mean that although actuarial damages may be lower in rural areas like Big Bend, the relative impact of disasters can be exceedingly high.

Compounding these challenges, rural areas are also home to a disproportionate share of people with disabilities—about 1 in 3 rural adults has a disability—and many rural areas have unique and diverse vulnerabilities to climate change–related hazards.

Compared with urban areas, rural places are at greater risk to numerous climate threats, such as extreme heat and wildfire. They also tend to have fewer resources to address these risks because they have smaller tax bases, are farther from essential services, and have less local and government capacity to plan, fund, and implement climate resilience interventions.

Because of climate change, the severity and intensity of environmental disasters like Idalia are increasing. However, gaps in evidence and data mean we know very little about what disabled people in rural areas need in the face of current and future climate threats.

Understanding existing evidence gaps and opportunities for action will help improve climate outcomes for people with disabilities everywhere, including the many rural areas where disability vulnerabilities are disproportionately high.

Federal agencies can consider these recommendations as they apply the White House’s new Climate Resilience Framework (PDF) to their climate programming and investments:

  • Explicitly consider and prioritize people with disabilities in program designs, grantmaking populations, and eligibility criteria, and invest in better evidence and data about different regional, disability, and climate vulnerabilities to inform these improvements.
  • Look to disability-led nongovernmental disaster recovery programs for examples of inclusive programs and priorities that are responsive to the needs of diverse populations and different disability types.
  • Consider existing federal models that already prioritize disaster response resources and assistance to other populations with specific needs as a roadmap to target supports to disabled people in rural communities.
  • Institutionalize robust evaluation processes and metrics to ensure programs and stakeholders can assess and track progress toward climate and disability equity goals.

Read the full article about climate planning for people with disabilities by Anne N. Junod, Nina Russell, and Corianne Payton Scally at Urban Institute.