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How can low-income communities adapt to climate change? Community forum begins dialogue

The historic entrance arch to the Lewis Place neighborhood, which will receive state aid nearly a year after a tornado damaged 91 homes in the area.
Adam Allington | St. Louis Public Radio
Lewis Place entry arch, designed in 1890

When natural disasters hit, neighborhoods where many residents live in poverty often have a harder time rebuilding than their more affluent neighbors.  

The Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity (M-SLICE) is hosting a panel discussion Wednesday evening to brainstorm the future efforts to build infrastructure resiliency on the city's north side.

The expected effects of climate change — hotter summer days and more frequent, extreme weather —have prompted investments in public works, flood mitigation and disaster preparedness. But M-SLICE founder Romona Williams wants to make sure those steps are made with vulnerable communities in mind.

“Communities of color have been excluded from this process,” Williams said. “Why are these communities allowed to deteriorate?”

A tornado in the Lewis Place neighborhood

When tornadoes ripped through St. Louis on New Year’s Eve in 2010, almost 600 residences were impacted. Thirty percent were low income households and one in five homes was uninsured, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA later denied federal disaster funding to the region because the scope of the destruction did not meet the level of a “major disaster.” That left cleanup management to state and local agencies.

The city allocated $712,000 in federal Block Grant funds to homeowners, but many buildings remain damaged or vacant in the Lewis Place neighborhood in North St. Louis.

“Those vacant properties are still standing with water damage. Roofs are off of those LRA (Land Reutilization Authority) properties. There's mold, lead, infestations of rodents. All of that is in that community, and the kids are unable to really play and be free in the community because of those conditions,” said M-SLICE coordinator Sherlisha Wilkins.

City spokesperson Maggie Crane said the Block Grant funds came with requirements that limited what the city could do: damaged homes had to be owner-occupied at the time of the tornado to qualify for assistance. Real estate taxes had to be current, and only tornado-related repairs were eligible. 

In the Lewis Place neighborhood, 229 parcels are currently owned by the city of St. Louis, according to a database kept by the Land Reutilization Authority.

“It deteriorates the value of our neighborhood, for the city to own those properties and not make them a priority in their development plan,” Wilkins said.

"We do prioritize properties throughout the city," spokesperson Crane said. "These are private properties that have been privately abandoned and left for taxpayers to care for." 

Creating resiliency on the north side of St. Louis

M-SLICE organizers said Tuesday’s forum is a kickoff for an ongoing effort to improve climate resiliency on the city's north side, with the help of a Washington-based environmental sustainability nonprofit called EcoAdapt.

EcoAdapt’s executive director, Lara Hansen, said the group has applied for a federal grant to help local groups develop “vulnerability assessments” of their community’s environmental risks related to climate change. They plan to focus initial efforts in St. Louis and Salt Lake City.

“North St. Louis is pretty much at the end of its ability to withstand much more,” Hansen said. “It’s a pretty clear case of this is a community in the United States — a country that views itself as being fairly immune to the challenges of climate change — where vulnerability is very high.”

A forum at the New Northside Convention Center

Panel discussions begin at 6:30 p.m. at the New Northside Convention Center at 5939 Goodfellow Blvd. in Jennings. Breakout sessions and focus groups will continue until 9:30 p.m. A list of speakers can be found here

For more St. Louis health and science news, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.

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