Nov. 2 (UPI) — Scientists have identified coastal communities where poverty, poor infrastructure and exposure to the elements combine to create a unique level of vulnerability to natural disasters.

These varying levels of risk are showcased on a new map of the Caribbean and South America published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

“We found that more than 500,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean are living in areas where coastal hazards and poverty converge,” lead researcher Juliano Calil said in a news release. “These are communities where scarce critical resources are consistently placed in hazards-prone areas, further exacerbating the impacts of coastal hazards.”

The 2017 hurricane season decimated many vulnerable communities in the Caribbean. To better protect populations from future natural disasters, policy makers must know where resources are needed most.

To identify the most vulnerable communities, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Cantabria, in Spain, analyzed a variety of factors driving risk, including the number of people, the value of assets in a community and the amount of valuable resources and infrastructure lying in harms way.

The most vulnerable communities are those with large populations, limited assets and a large number of exposed resources. The research showed the Sinaloa state in Mexico to be especially at risk. El Oro in Ecuador and the province of Usulutan in El Salvador are also high-risk hotspots.

Researchers don’t want policy makers to see their maps as simply a guide for where to build bigger storm walls. Instead, they hope national, state and local leaders will see their findings as a call to make comprehensive and sustainable improvements.

“Risks reduction and coastal adaptation efforts should not focus exclusively on developing coastal defenses,” Calil said. “They must also consider better policies related to urban development, zoning, agriculture and land conservation practices, as well as on improving socioeconomic conditions.”

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