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Polk County’s riskiest neighborhood

Just south of Drake University lies Polk County’s most at-risk neighborhood. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, over 50 percent of the residents between 28th Street and Keosauqua Way have three or more qualities that make them targets for the next derecho or pandemic, compared to less than 20 percent of the county. Surrounding neighborhoods sit comfortably between 20 and 30 percent. This unusual concentration raises the question: Why here?

The road to risk began with the construction of Interstate 235 in the 1960s. It fractured the historically Black neighborhood and thriving business district, stranding residents on either side. Many were put out of business and couldn’t afford to relocate, and those who could left quickly. Drug activity in the ’70s and early ’80s gave the neighborhood a bad reputation that persists to this day, and home values plummeted.

“People without a lot of resources go where they can afford to live, and because of historical forces, this is that area,” said David Courard-Hauri, professor of environmental science at Drake and neighborhood resident.

For reference, Courard-Hauri’s house was valued at $69,070 when he bought it in 2000. In contrast, a house just north of Drake was valued at $101,380, a significant difference for someone living below the poverty line or seeking refuge in a new country.

Low housing costs coupled with a bad reputation left the neighborhood neglected and avoided. Drake students are warned to avoid going east of 25th Street, and the boarded-up houses and overgrown yards are by no means encouraging.

“If you ask someone in the Des Moines area, ‘What do you think of the Drake neighborhood?’, a surprising number of them will say they find it scary or dangerous,” Courard-Hauri said. “We need to find a balance between affordable housing and run-down-feeling places. We certainly have some abandoned homes, some boarded-up homes, and it doesn’t take many of those to make a place feel unloved and scary.”

The run-down houses mask a diverse community, drawn here by unfortunate circumstances and low housing costs. This creates a hotspot for at-risk residents.

The US Census Bureau considers the following factors when determining at-risk areas: a low income to poverty ratio, having one or fewer caregivers, overcrowding, not being fluent in English, lacking full-time employment or health insurance, having a disability, being older than 65, and having no vehicle or broadband internet access. Over half of the residents in Courard-Hauri’s neighborhood have at least three of these risk factors.

Cameron Stufflebeam, Polk County’s emergency management program assistant, said they take this data into account when planning for hazard mitigation. 

Polk County has a 361-page manual detailing the at-risk populations for specific incidents. In the case of the 2020 derecho, a series of intense thunderstorms, the impact was severe for households with a low income to poverty ratio or without full-time employment. The derecho caused utility and power lines to go down for long periods of time, and residents without disposable income were unable to buy generators, fans or other resources. 

Emergency management plans are only a piece of the risk management puzzle. Courard-Hauri found a persisting quality that can help negate risk factors in his own neighborhood: community.

“What you see over and over with disasters is if people know other people in the neighborhood, they’re able to check on people and help them out,” Courard-Hauri said. “When the derecho happened, we were without power for a week, but there were people out there helping each other. I was out there with a chainsaw opening up the streets with my neighbors.”

Community-building can include creating communal gardens, hosting block parties and improving local parks. Government agencies, neighborhood associations and residents can work to bring people together so that when the next disaster strikes, neighbors can check on each other and support each other.

“For someone who is scrambling to get by, it doesn’t take much of a hit to wind up homeless or in deep debt,” Courard-Hauri said. “Anything that brings people together and builds community can be beneficial.”

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