Hurricanes aren’t just natural disasters, they also fuel inequality


When President Joe Biden visited storm-ravaged neighborhoods in Louisiana in September, he described the damage from Hurricane Ida as a national problem. He asserted that “its destruction is everywhere”, and even more, that “it is a matter of life and death, and we are all in the same boat”. As heartwarming as it may be to hear the president take storm relief seriously, Biden is wrong.

Natural disasters mock the unity of the American people. And they hurt disadvantaged communities the most.

The year 2005 has shown us a glimpse of how storms can trigger massive social and economic disruption. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August, causing the loss of nearly 2,000 lives and damage estimated at $ 125 billion. Cities like New Orleans were flooded with images of poor residents, mostly black, navigating the flooded streets.

The floodwaters had passed through the frail dikes of New Orleans and flooded the Lower Ninth Ward, an extremely poor and dark region. Emergency food and medical aid took five days to arrive. A group of military contractors and the National Guard later organized the complete evacuation of the city. Since then, Katrina has become a widely recognized symbol of neglect of poor and black communities, in addition to a blatant case of environmental injustice.

Several studies in the aftermath of Katrina have exposed the relationship between the hurricane and class or racial divisions. Research confirms that storm damage was concentrated in low-income areas. In fact, there is substantial evidence that low-income people – especially in communities of color – had been disproportionately vulnerable to unemployment and descending housing availability in the years following the storm.

These uneven levels of devastation are not unique to Katrina. An article from 2018 pointed out that wealth inequality increases with the frequency and intensity of natural hazards, especially depending on race, education and home ownership.

For example, during a period of significant natural hazards between 1999 and 2013, white Americans living in counties with $ 10 billion in property damage from storms earned an average net worth of $ 126,000 per county. Black Americans in the same areas lost $ 27,000 per county. Similar trends can be seen when comparing Americans with a university education to those without a college education, as well as Americans who own homes and Americans who do not.

It turns out that natural hazards are really effective in impoverishing the poor and making the rich richer.

As hurricanes drive some people out of their homes and trap them in poverty, risky investors are following the storm’s path in order to buy a property it will make them even richer. Less obvious ways to make money with storms understand sell flood-damaged cars without disclosing the damage (yes, that’s legal), lend payday loans to desperate, financially insecure people, or sell protective materials and simultaneously fund climate denial lobbies. These tactics deliberately take advantage of vulnerable populations for profit. They are, by definition, predators.

What is even more concerning is that federal aid does not help reduce inequalities in the wake of a storm. Over the past two decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided billions of dollars to counties and people coping with storm damage. Still most The more FEMA assistance a county receives, the more glaring wealth disparities become among its residents, possibly due to misallocation of funds. At the same time, private sources of community reinvestment are concentrated in predominantly white middle class communities.

This means that, like many others in the past, the current hurricane season has created more than a natural disaster. It has also fueled social, economic and cultural calamity.

FEMA has already filed over half a million applications from Ida. It is the second most intense hurricane to hit the state of Louisiana to date, just behind Katrina. Additionally, Ida triggered a tornado outbreak and flash flooding in the northeast, making it one of the costliest tropical cyclones in U.S. history.

Could the situation get worse?

In fact, it probably will.

Hurricanes form in the Atlantic Ocean every year from June to November. National centers for climate prediction expect 2021 to be an exceptionally active season for tropical cyclones. In the years to come, hurricanes are only likely to get stronger and more frequent as global temperatures continue to rise.

This is the opportunity to do better: Apply the lessons learned from Katrina, engage in the fight against environmental injustices and pay more attention to the country’s wealth trajectories.

If we’ve learned anything from previous natural disasters, it’s that we can’t abandon those who need help most after a storm. Katrina illustrated how relying exclusively on the private sector and the military for disaster relief can lead to exploitation and violence. Instead, we need to prevent large-scale physical damage by strengthening infrastructure in risk areas. In addition, lawmakers should put a stop to predatory private businesses and individuals who profit from natural hazards – from enforcing anti-pricing laws to banning the sale of damaged goods without disclosure. In the event of a natural hazard, FEMA must provide emergency assistance quickly and fairly.

It is imperative that policymakers initiate targeted and comprehensive reforms that provide assistance beyond short-term economic recovery. These could include targeted re-employment programs, unemployment benefits, relocation assistance, rent subsidies, scholarships, or infrastructure support – the possibilities for overall recovery from a natural disaster are endless.

Making people feel united after a devastating hurricane is cute. Now is the time for the Biden administration to really tackle the consequences of Ida.

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