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A Diverse City Vulnerable To Flooding Rallies For Protection

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country, low-income communities of color face a disproportionate impact from the warming climate. One such place is East Palo Alto. It's just next door to Silicon Valley and more vulnerable to floods from rising seas. Ezra David Romero of member station KQED reports on how residents have mobilized to push for protection.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: The first time it flooded in East Palo Alto, all the water reminded Appollonia Grey ‘Uhilamoelangi of her home back in Samoa, and it brought her joy.

APPOLLONIA GREY ‘UHILAMOELANGI: I was outside, swimming in the rain.

E ROMERO: But then the water kept coming. Mama Dee, the nickname ‘Uhilamoelangi goes by, says the storm turned her entire street into a river.

‘UHILAMOELANGI: We did not have a shelter.

E ROMERO: Mama Dee thought her family had escaped the fear of flooding when they emigrated in the '70s. But her home has flooded twice more since, ruining her family's belongings.

‘UHILAMOELANGI: The last two floods over here - the question is, where was God?

E ROMERO: East Palo Alto has water on three sides from a creek and the San Francisco Bay, which is rising as the climate warms. In a little more than a decade, as much as two-thirds of the city could regularly flood. Climate activist Violet Saena, also originally from Samoa, wanted to help people push for urgent action.

VIOLET SAENA: We have a high percentage of residents that are low-income. That tells us a lot - that they won't have the means to be able to buy a car if the car's ruined by flooding.

E ROMERO: But a community survey she led two years ago was surprising. Overall, the community did not understand that flooding was linked to climate change or that East Palo Alto faced such a high risk. With this information, Saena and other leaders held meetings, separate ones for Black residents, Latinos and Pacific Islanders.

SAENA: It's easier for me because I'm a person of color and I do come from the islands. They see that, oh, yeah, she's part of us.

E ROMERO: It worked for Mama Dee, who said she'd had no clue about climate change.

‘UHILAMOELANGI: I can talk to Violet without fear, ask questions that sound like stupid questions. But I always have a answer.

E ROMERO: This hands-on education resulted in people showing up at city and planning meetings like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: My house is in a danger zone because it's the last street to the bridge.

E ROMERO: Major plans are in the works to protect East Palo Alto, and engaged residents are now making sure their neighborhoods are included. I meet East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero on the bike trail on top of the first recently completed levee to prevent flooding from a creek.

CARLOS ROMERO: This is a 20-year-in-the-making project. It really started in that 1998 flood. I had friends here who had four feet of water in their living room.

E ROMERO: But he says rising seas still put the city at risk for the same kind of devastation New Orleans experienced during Hurricane Katrina.

C ROMERO: Fly down here and look over the levee. You could see some of the rooftops are below that levee. So basically it's another Ninth Ward.

E ROMERO: Romero says the timeline for extending levees around East Palo Alto has been sped up, in part because of how the community has rallied for protection.

C ROMERO: As goes sea level rise goes this small, tight-knit community that, you know, is always struggling.

E ROMERO: The goal was to protect East Palo Alto from a 100-year flood, a high tide and three feet of sea level rise all at one time. Meanwhile, Mama Dee, who was flooded out three times, has joined the push to educate others.

‘UHILAMOELANGI: We are full-time volunteers for climate change to avoid another disaster. Where do we run?

E ROMERO: Mama Dee hopes her diverse community can stay put and thrive despite the encroaching sea. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in East Palo Alto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.