Flood Risk as Legacy Vulnerability: Reading the past into the present for environmental justice


Decades of environmental justice research has focused on identifying existing patterns of disproportionate burdens to environmental harms across social difference. However, relatively few studies examine the “legacy effect” of historical patterns. In flood risk studies specifically, several scholars have highlighted the role of systemic processes in historically shaping and producing observed disparities in flood risk patterns. These studies reveal that such relations are tied to histories of racialized land struggles and territorial dispossessions. In this paper, I argue that scholars need to do more than quantify today’s disproportionate burdens across social difference or explain the systemic processes causing those disparities. I suggest that “legacy vulnerability” helps identify how the potential for harm from flood risk to marginalized groups may reside in events of the past that have imprinted a spatially hidden, but spatiotemporally revealed unjust pattern upon today’s landscape. In a flood risk assessment of Sapelo Island, the initial results suggest that when comparing contemporary flood risk of Sapelo’s Geechee descendant (Black and mostly low-to-middle income) to non-descendant newcomer owners (mostly white and affluent) an environmental justice disparity in proportional flood risk burden does not exist. However, results of a counterfactual flood risk assessment show that approximately one-third of historically owned, Geechee property is located outside the contemporary 100-year flood zone compared to zero percent outside of it today. In other words, roughly one-third of Geechee property’s flood risk today is a legacy vulnerability directly tied to racialized land dispossessions that unfolded in the middle twentieth century.

Publication Type
Journal Article