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Hawaii's Volcanic Eruption Could Hit Low-Income Residents Hardest

Impoverished communities are often the most affected by natural disasters.
Concerned residents attend a community meeting in the aftermath of eruptions from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on May 7th, 2018, in Pahoa, Hawaii.

Concerned residents attend a community meeting in the aftermath of eruptions from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on May 7th, 2018, in Pahoa, Hawaii.

Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano continues to erupt, spewing molten rock and sulfur dioxide from more than a dozen fissures that have opened up in a residential area on the southeastern corner of the Big Island.

Over the last seven days, lava has oozed across more than 100 acres of land—sometimes erupting in fountains of lava that reach 330 feet into the air—forcing thousands of residents to evacuate and, as of Wednesday evening, destroying at least 36 buildings, including 26 homes.

Eruptions are not unusual activity for Kilauea; the volcano has been erupting continuously for more than 30 years. But whereas lava typically flows directly into the sea, it is now coming up through cracks that have opened up in the subdivisions of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.

Leilani Estates has long been considered a high-risk zone. While the volcanic risk keeps big construction developers at bay, it also keeps home prices low, giving some low-income residents and retirees the only shot they'll have at owning a home in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Hawaii has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation; in 2016, one in six residents was living in poverty, and, according to Census Bureau data, 30 percent of Leilani Estates' population (estimated to be around 1,600 people) live below the poverty line.

It's too soon to know which residents in the subdivision will be most affected by the eruption, or how long it will take them to recover, but, generally speaking, impoverished communities are often the most affected by natural disasters. For example, low-income and minority communities were the hardest hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Maria last year. Here, the Brookings Institution lays out why natural disasters are so much more detrimental to low-income communities:

[L]ower income Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods or buildings more susceptible to storm shocks. Substandard infrastructure in affordable housing units and low-income communities place residents at greater risk to the effects of a severe storm. ... Low-income and minority families are also more likely to live closer to noxious industrial facilities and are thus more at-risk to chemical spills and toxic leaks resulting from storm damage.

Decades of data show that, when natural disasters strike in the United States, the rich leave for less disaster-prone pastures, but the poor don't have the option. As a group of researchers wrote in Scientific American in 2017:

Poverty rates also increased by one percentage point in areas hit by super-severe disasters. That suggests that people who aren't poor are migrating out or that people who are poor are migrating in. It might also mean that the existing population transitioned into poverty. We contrasted decades with high disaster activity to decades of comparable calm, thus making it unlikely that we are simply observing areas with higher poverty rates.

Poorer communities, especially those in high-risk areas, are also less likely to have home or renters insurance, and thus struggle to recover from the economic shock of a natural disaster. Both residents and insurance companies are well aware of the lava hazards in Leilani Estates, and few companies provide plans that cover damage from lava flows.

No casualties have been reported so far, and roughly 1,800 residents have been ordered to evacuate to nearby community centers; thanks to cracked roads and dangerous fumes, few have had the opportunity to go back and check on their houses and possessions. No one knows exactly how long the current eruption will last, but many Leilani Estates residents are already eager to return to their homes.