Everyday Climate Vulnerability in Places like Memphis
Big storms like Harvey in Houston and Katrina in New Orleans garner weeks of headlines. But each American city has a climate story to tell—one that affects people every day and that can be just as devastating to families and communities over time.
Memphis—among six localities in which we work as part of the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC)—is among them.
We’re highlighting Memphis this week at the National Interagency Community Reinvestment Conference in Miami as a city in which leaders, stakeholders and citizens are making the connection between climate, disinvestment, health and economic opportunity.
Hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the conference brings together public, nonprofit, and private sector practitioners and leaders to learn how to form coalitions of stakeholders, resources, and strategies to strengthen communities in the face of social and economic challenges. This year, it is also emphasizing the importance of resilience in revitalizing communities faced with repeated devastation from the effects of climate change.
What the conference this year demonstrates is the awakening of many members of the community development field to these connections—that the people being brought out of poverty are the same ones disproportionately hurt by harsh storms and extreme temperatures. We can’t keep building and rebuilding in the same way and expect different results. And, we can’t keep accepting these losses of life and property, calculated to be in the billions of dollars nationally.
The Memphis story
In Memphis, for example, the SPARCC collaborative table Neighborhood Collaborative for Resilience (NCR)—a group of stakeholders, leaders, activists and citizens—officially launched its community advisory board last month and has begun determining high-priority issues across neighborhoods in North Memphis, one of the poorest areas in the country and one that faces problems including dilapidated housing, repeated flooding and the nation’s highest energy burden. What is special about SPARCC in Memphis is that the collaborators include residents who live in and care deeply for their community.
Take Eziza Ogbeiwi-Risher, a naturopathy specialist who was born and raised in Memphis and has recently returned to North Memphis, where she lives in a house built in the early 1900s. Ogbeiwi-Risher and her neighbors worry every time it rains that their homes will flood and their lives will be turned upside down yet again—after years of neglect and disinvestment in the community that means many of their houses lack energy efficiency and their neighborhoods the infrastructure needed for resilience in the face of climate change.
Ogbeiwi-Risher has worked for years to help the community overcome setbacks brought on by the devastating cycle of flooding from the Mississippi River, yet she sees her neighbors being forced to tear out the insides of their homes from black mold. She sees children being repeatedly hospitalized with breathing problems—14 percent of Memphis children suffer from asthma—and all in a community that shares a rich history in civil rights and culture.
“A lot of the history has been swept under the rug,” she says. “That’s something that can be used to rebuild these communities. It creates buy-in if people have pride in what they have already accomplished.”
Solutions at the intersections
Imagine that—fighting the devastating effects of climate change takes a focus on history and culture, and a committed citizenry on the ground, along with stakeholders and investors who know that for every $1 spent to reduce the risk of flooding and mitigate potential damages, $7 in benefits are generated in avoided property damage, lost employment, health costs, etc.
And there is the additional challenge of displacement for communities that do learn to work together to find solutions. The SPARCC work in Memphis, for example, comes at a time when development in other parts of the city is starting to encroach on North Memphis, threatening to displace residents and putting more pressure on water and drainage systems, highlighting the lack of storm water management and healthy housing.
But through Neighborhood Collaborative for Resilience, supported by SPARCC, residents of North Memphis are collaborating to make their needs known. And, it’s not just SPARCC but a host of organizations that are helping lead the way, including BLDG Memphis, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, and others.
As part of our SPARCC work, we are determined to support the relationship and trust-building necessary to forge improvement in North Memphis.
One of our partners in Memphis recently put it this way: “We have the unique opportunity to say to our organizations within the community and those outside that we have a vision and now you’re going to hear us.”
It’s what we call a holistic approach to community revitalization—one in which all solutions are on the table and nothing is swept under the rug any longer.