The New Normal: Poverty Driven by Extreme Weather
When Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina this fall, the storm’s impact followed a familiar script. Just as a year ago Hurricane Harvey strengthened over a warmed Gulf of Mexico before dumping record amounts of rain on southeast Texas, Florence swelled before making landfall and poured upwards of 9 trillion gallons of water on North Carolina. News reports carried images of flooded communities and neighbors rescuing neighbors in boats. But what was perhaps most shocking was how familiar it all seemed, like a breaking news rerun of the scenes that had transpired in Texas only a year before. Then, a few weeks later, Hurricane Michael—yet another storm of record-breaking strength—hit the Florida Panhandle, devastating towns like Panama City and Mexico Beach.
Climate science suggests that storms that used to be once-in-a-century occurrences will continue to occur more frequently in coming years. And while these catastrophic events receive round-the-clock news coverage as they are unfolding, what is often missed in the coverage is an evaluation of the long-term effects of the increased frequency and ferocity of natural disasters driven by climate change – and a closer look at the communities that bear the brunt of the damage.
Storms, wildfires, and other natural disasters strike indiscriminately; the owners of million-dollar beachfront homes and renters in public housing both bear the burden of displacement, loss, ruin, and rebuilding. But the ability to recover from the events exacerbates existing socio-economic inequities. The reality is, despite the outpouring of support and goodwill, the deployment of federal assistance and philanthropic resources, and the familiar narrative of banding together and rebuilding that follows in the wake of natural disasters, the poorest communities often never recover. And the long-term effect of increased frequency of disasters may have an insidious effect on deepening poverty.
The World Bank estimates that, globally, natural disasters push 26 million people into poverty each year. Susan Cutter, Director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, says the reason for this is that natural disasters expose and exaggerate existing socio-economic vulnerabilities.
“There are preexisting conditions that relate to populations within communities that directly influence their ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from events,” says Cutter. “These are in the community all the time – they are always there. It doesn’t matter if it is a flood, or an earthquake, or a hurricane. These preexisting conditions that make them vulnerable are present.”
Poverty is just one of the preexisting vulnerabilities that affects individuals’ ability to bounce back from the ordeal of a natural disaster. Cutter’s research has shown that other factors, such as ethnicity, level of education, and gender also impact recovery.
“Race and ethnicity, which relates to language and cultural barriers, can affect access to information and sources of federal assistance,” she says. “There is a lot of distrust in [certain] racial groups towards the federal government and so they are not willing to come forward to get disaster assistance.”
Those with less resources are sometimes unable to evacuate ahead of a disaster, and they do not have the up-front cash to begin to rebuild. They may also lack adequate insurance, and available aid may not be sufficient to restore what they have lost. Factors of education, language, and ethnicity, Cutter says, can also pose obstacles for obtaining available aid. Vulnerabilities also point to systemic ways natural disasters disproportionately affect individuals already facing socio-economic challenges. Affordable housing may be constructed in more flood-prone areas or along the fringe of communities that are exposed to wildfires. Cutter’s research has found that the more renters there are in a community, the slower the recovery.
New research on Hurricane Harvey recovery bears out many of these trends. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation found that 4-in-10 residents affected by last year’s storm are still not receiving the resources they need to recover. According to the survey, the need also appears to segment by race, geography, and income. The groups most likely to report that they aren’t getting enough help are either black, live in the Golden Triangle region of southeast Texas, or have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Dr. Shao-Chee Sim, vice president for applied research with the Episcopal Health Foundation, says that while Harvey impacted a massive geographical area with a wide swath of socio-economic conditions, the survey demonstrated that the response to the storm falls along socio-economic divides.
“Basically, this has been an equal opportunity storm in many regards; however, in the recovery experience we have seen such a disparity—not consistent across income, race and class,” Sim says. “In a way this is common sense. If you start with $5,000 in your bank account of course this is going to put you in a deeper hole verses $50,000 in your bank account.”
The survey results in Texas point to a more troubling reality about the slow nature of natural disaster recovery. Some communities don’t just lag behind more developed areas when it comes to rebuilding after a storm, fire, or earthquake. There are communities that never really return. This is what Susan Cutter observed in the research she conducted around communities along the Gulf Coast that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Storms may push out a major employer, decreasing the availability of work. Displaced residents may seek out new employment in their adopted communities and opt never to return. If a community doesn’t have strong social and community networks to begin with, displaced poorer residents often don’t feel a pull to return to storm damaged areas, Cutter says.
Sim, who lives in Houston, has experienced this disparity first hand.
“Our office was closed for one week, my family and I were under mandatory evacuation for five or six days or so and we came back a week after Harvey,” Sim says. “But I just came back this morning from a town hall event in Beaumont. “Based on the comments being made by community residents, there are still folks that are saying they have more issues. So the struggle continues.” Mary Vazquez, Vice President for Community Outreach with United Way of Greater Houston says it can three to five years to fully recover from a disaster of Harvey’s magnitude—and even longer for those who were also recovering from 2015 and 2016 floods in Houston before the hurricane hit.
“I would say first three to six months are more about immediate basic needs,” Vazquez says. “Then you get into a temporary holding pattern where you might be receiving some FEMA assistance, like temporary housing, while you know you are not on path to recovery yet. But as they start to roll off of that assistance, or those funds become depleted, that’s when families are faced with, ‘Okay now what.’ ”
Sometimes “now what” means taking out loans or dipping into 401K accounts, Vazquez says, which compounds the effect of the storm on lower income individuals and means that the effects of the disaster will be felt for years or even decades as they struggle to pay back what they have borrowed.
But what we still haven’t fully experienced is the cumulative effect of many successive storms or wildfires. In the long term, the inability of the federal government to continue underwriting flood insurance to cover the rebuild of high-risk locations. That may mean that some towns and communities that are affordable precisely because they are in areas prone to flooding or on the fringes of communities at risk of wildfire, might never come back after the next event. Then there is the troubling statistic in the Harvey survey, which found that a year after the hurricane half of the survey participants admitted that they have not taken any steps to prepare for future hurricanes. It underscores the potential cumulative effect of natural disasters on populations who, unable to prepare for the first event, will find it increasingly difficult to prepare for subsequent disasters—disasters that scientists believe will become all the more common.
“I think you are going end up seeing some of these small towns that are located in these high-risk areas are going to cease to exist,” Cutter says. “We are going to lose a kind of a way of life in some parts of the country. It is not going to be along the coast itself, but it is going to be inland. It is going to be those populations in the traditional cotton belt, tobacco belt in the south.”
This new research may also help improve efforts to respond to natural disasters. Both Cutter’s research and the Hurricane Harvey survey offer ways to rethink how to target recovery response resources. In both Texas and the Carolinas, public officials have utilized a Social Vulnerability Index developed, in part, through the work of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, to identify communities that may require more attention in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“If you can map social vulnerability and map FEMA verified loses,” Cutter says, you can develop a strategy to target recovery relief “in an apolitical way.”
It is an encouraging development in an otherwise bleak outlook, a recognition that resilience against the coming tide of increased natural disasters will require a response that takes into account the reality that those who are most vulnerable are poised to bear the brunt of the fallout of a changing climate.
Peter Simek is arts editor with D Magazine in Dallas, TX where he writes about a broad range of topics, from visual art and music to Dallas politics and urbanism.