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How Do Poor, Coastal Communities Respond to Flood Risk? The Example of Texas’ Colonias

In the deep south of Texas, where the coast is battered by hurricanes passing through the Gulf of Mexico, the most vulnerable of communities also dwell. In unregulated settlements, called colonias, an impoverished population lives in substandard housing along the Rio Grande’s flood plain, under great threat from severe storms. Despite their direct exposure to this serious risk, no research has explored the colonia population’s vulnerability to floods, nor are they involved in risk planning. Dr. William Donner is now addressing this situation with an innovative, interdisciplinary approach. Through a better understanding of their specific vulnerabilities—social and environmental—he hopes to inform better policy to help protect residents of the colonias and populations like them around the world.
Along the Texas-Mexico border here, the population is 95% Hispanic, and includes many migrants and undocumented workers. The unemployment rate in this extremely poor region is two to three times higher than the average. The colonias emerged following the largely unregulated development of agriculturally poor land, and many of these settlements lack even basic services like potable water, sewers and paved roads. Poor communities, with few options for affordable housing, were forced to buy plots in these vulnerable coastal areas. The lack of physical infrastructure contributes to preventing the runoff of floodwaters, intensifying the risks for residents.

The colonias are also constantly changing and relatively unknown to authorities; only loosely kept records are available. To begin collecting the necessary data, Dr. Donner will use electronic cartography of the region to identify and map the locations of colonias. Randomly selecting certain settlements to study, he will interview their inhabitants to learn about their points of vulnerability and possible strategies for coping: Do they prepare for floods? Respond to warnings? Have they already suffered major damage? What do they experience as the major threats to their community, in these socioeconomic and environmental conditions? To tie those two threads together, Dr. Donner will collaborate with researchers from the natural sciences to incorporate analyses of the flood risk in this region. They will develop models to predict inundation patterns for the Gulf Coast hurricanes that have a heavy impact on the colonia populations. This novel combination of social and environmental sciences will help provide a more complete, precise picture of the risks faced by this poor population.

Knowing how the people of the colonias might respond to a major environmental event could help generate innovative policies to mitigate the risks involved. This knowledge could be applied to other poor, coastal populations, like fishing communities in Southern India, that don’t have the means to protect themselves. With the risk of severe weather increasing worldwide, more coastal peoples could fall under this category, making efforts to plan for their protection more important than ever.

Scientific title: An Environmental and Socioeconomic Evaluation of Hydrological Risks in Lower South Texas

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The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


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