Growing up in the Los Angeles area, the coastal allure was an integral part of my childhood. Then adulthood led me to Maryland, and my new coastal haven is along the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the region faces an imminent threat: devastation from flooding and climate change that can destroy native habitats and wildlife and displace families.
By now, it is well known and documented that, as polar ice melts due to increased air temperatures, the sea level rises. Around the world, sea levels are increasing by 6 inches every 100 years. The Chesapeake Bay, however, experiences a faster rate due to the sinking land underneath. Since the 1600s, when Maryland was founded, the area has experienced a significant rise of 3 feet. Current projections indicate an additional rise of 1.3 to 5.2 feet over the next 100 years. According to Chesapeake Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge: Public Awareness and Response, “if the current sea level rise trajectory persists, it could result in the invasion of the bay into the land, destroying 167,000 acres of marshland and three million people’s homes by 2100, impacting approximately 20 million people in the region.”
Sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay also jeopardizes wetland habitats, home to numerous species and human-made structures. Farms, homes, roads, bridges and buildings in low-lying areas will require relocation, restructuring and rebuilding, leading to an extreme financial burden. The infrastructural reconstruction of major metropolitan areas, such as Baltimore, would cost exorbitant amounts of money.
In addition, researchers and policymakers are recognizing how climate change is causing disproportionate harm to certain communities. The Latino community is more acutely affected by the effects of climate change because of where many in that community live and work.
Maryland is experiencing unprecedented Latino population growth. It accounts for 34.3% of the state’s population growth since 2000, which represents a 193% increase in the number of Latino Maryland residents. In Baltimore, the Latino population has more than quadrupled since 1980, reaching 45,927 in 2020. Most Latinos in Maryland live in coastal sea level rise- and flooding-prone counties such as Montgomery, Prince George, Anne Arundel, Kent and Dorchester. This makes that community more vulnerable to water-related disasters than the general population.
Nationally, understanding the unique vulnerabilities of different communities is critical to implementing effective disaster resilience strategies. One in four Latinos in the United States lives in a county that experienced a federal disaster declaration for flooding in 2023, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Forty-four percent of Latinos live in counties with high flood risk, as opposed to 35% of non-Latinos. Decades of land-use decisions and infrastructure investments (or lack thereof) have shaped this unequal exposure. And Latino households lose an estimated $29,000 in wealth — higher losses than other demographic groups. The Chesapeake Bay region is no exception to this trend.
Because Latino communities are often at the greatest risk, local and federal authorities should engage them, give them a voice and empower them to help build local resilience against increased flooding.
Latino communities in Arizona, California and Nebraska are working to mitigate flooding by investing in green infrastructure using nature-based features for water management, such as floodplain restoration, tree planting and wetland conservation. They are working with their representatives to address cultural barriers and develop bilingual materials. They are working with government agencies for effective communication and access to resources. They are also tackling root causes by addressing historical disinvestment and investing in durable, affordable housing to mitigate vulnerabilities.
As we confront the reality of climate change and its disparate impacts, it becomes evident that Maryland’s interest lies in empowering Latino front-line communities to increase their resiliency against flooding. In doing so, we not only safeguard their homes and well-being but fortify the entire Chesapeake Bay region against the growing threats posed by climate change.
The importance of unity and collaboration cannot be overstated. All communities, organizations and policymakers must recognize the unique vulnerabilities of the Latino community and actively contribute to their resilience efforts. By acknowledging the disparity in exposure and wealth loss, we can collectively work toward a more equitable future in which the impacts of flooding are mitigated and communities stand united in the face of adversity.
The journey from the coastal allure of Los Angeles to the Chesapeake Bay watershed unveiled a shared responsibility — a call to action that transcends individual experiences and compels us to work together. By investing in resilience, addressing root causes and fostering unity, we can transform the looming threat of flooding into an opportunity for collective strength and shared hope. Through collaboration, empathy and a commitment to a sustainable future, we can build a resilient, inclusive and hopeful tomorrow for all.
Shanna Edberg is a Maryland resident and director of conservation programs at Hispanic Access Foundation.