This post was co-authored by Astrid Caldas
Here we are, at the end of another year. Danger season, the period of time between May and September when climate-related disasters peak is long gone. Hurricane season just ended on November 30. But as much as we’d like to think those are in the past now, that is not true—for those impacted, the work of recovery has hardly begun and will not be finished for years to come, if at all. Many communities are still fighting for federal aid and resources while dealing with the challenge of trying to live and work in a completely dysfunctional environment.
The 2022 danger season brought disruption and death in the form of extreme heat, floods and fire weather, not to mention hurricanes. In addition to the direct impacts of these events, indirect impacts affecting health and well-being often compound with other risks. For example, farmworkers face increased health risks when pesticide exposure is amplified by extreme heat and wildfire smoke inhalation.
By late August, nearly all counties in the lower 48 states (85 percent of them) had experienced at least one heat alert since the start of Danger Season; nearly half of all counties in the continental US (49.1 percent) had been under at least one flood alert; and 511 counties (16.5 percent) in the lower 48 states had been under at least one fire weather alert.
To make matters worse, some of these alerts can (and did!) occur simultaneously or back-to-back, catching communities either unprepared or unable to cope with cascading and compounded impacts.
Hurricanes in 2022
And then there are the hurricanes. Just like in 2021, a lot of us may be thinking “it was not too bad.” After all, we hardly had storms or hurricanes in the news for the past 3 months. However, 2021 saw the third most active hurricane season since record keeping began in 1851.
For 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a season with above normal activity on its August 4 updated forecast, calling for 14-20 named storms.
The lucky part: we remained on the low end of the range, with 14 named storms. The not-so-lucky part: of the 8 hurricanes that formed (smack in the middle of the forecast range), two were major hurricanes. And, as we know, it only takes one to bring extreme devastation—and both of these did.
Hurricanes Fiona and Ian brought destruction and death: the former to Puerto Rico, which still has not recovered from Hurricane María in 2017, and the latter to Florida, destroying the Fort Myers area.
Note that Fiona made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane and still did a lot of damage—it all boils down to levels of community preparedness on land.
As we said previously, “Fiona caught Puerto Rico’s government utterly unprepared, leaving the population unprotected. But it was not for lack of warnings from scientists, Puerto Rican communities—and their advocates—in the island and the diáspora.”
Issues related to the power grid (turned inoperable after María) and the government handling of its “recovery” led to confusion, chaos, and more suffering for Puerto Ricans. And the lack of recovery and preparedness made the impact of Fiona—a Category 1 storm—so much more devastating.
Hurricane Ian, for its part, made landfall as a high-end Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, decimated western Florida communities, causing the second-largest insured loss after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and was the costliest disaster of 2022.
Ian tied the record for the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to strike the United States. The city of Fort Myers was hit by a record 7.26-foot storm surge and, in addition to the devastation, was left with a variety of health-related problems from mosquitos to respiratory illness.
Neglecting communities of color makes recovery, resilience nearly impossible
The impacts do not affect everyone equally. Low-income communities and communities of color, which many times lack resources to adequately prepare, are usually hit the hardest by Danger Season weather events, as discussed here.
In addition to disparities that put them at higher risk such as lack of access to health care or adequate services, it has been shown that, when it comes to recovery, those same communities face formidable barriers to access recovery resources: disaster relief and recovery measures have lagged for Black, Latinx, and low-income people.
For example, the devastation from Hurricane Ian was not felt equitably. You probably heard a lot about wealthy communities like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island—dramatic pictures of the latter showed how Ian ripped off the causeway that connects it to the mainland. But we heard much less about Black communities such as Dunbar (a Fort Myers neighborhood), where people “faced the crisis mostly on their own.”
Dunbar residents, mostly Black and living with low incomes, say that their community is among the last to have essential services restored after a disaster. And communities of color don’t fare any better in federal post-disaster aid, as they already receive less disaster relief and recovery funds than white communities.
We need better, more comprehensive and equitable policies
Dunbar is an example of a community that faces multiple social and environmental burdens due to historical and contemporary neglect for their wellbeing.
In addition to the inequitable impacts of hurricanes, Dunbar residents also have to deal with toxic pollution in their communities that remains unaddressed by environmental regulators. These conditions are but examples of the multiple social, economic, and environmental impacts that overburdened communities face and make it hard for communities to develop resilience to climate and other social and environmental impacts.
That is why solutions to the climate crisis need to prioritize both the federal-level investments that will provide climate-resistant infrastructure and local investments to strengthen communities’ capacities to become resilient.
While communities can be resourceful and innovative in responding to and helping each other during climate disasters, this is largely a response borne out of necessity given longstanding neglect.
Indeed, “solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” (only the people save the people), as the old saying goes in Latin America, evidenced in Puerto Rico as the insufficient government response after María and Fiona made clear that Puerto Ricans were largely on their own to recover from compounding disasters. While community solidarity and mutual aid networks are beautiful and beneficial, they are insufficient to prevent future climate damages and suffering. The reason being: governments make decisions and policies for large-scale practices that affect vulnerable communities without meaningful inclusion or decision-making power by those who live in the community.
When it comes to federal resources to improve disaster preparedness, there are many improvements that are still needed.
For example, we need a national resilience strategy such as proposed by the National Adaptation and Resilience Strategy bill to get us, as my colleague Shana Udvardy recently said, on “a clear, coherent, and coordinated approach to building the climate resilience communities need.”
In addition, FEMA needs to prioritize equitable distribution of disaster recovery funds, which have contributed to increasing wealth inequalities for people of color after disasters. We need to make sure that the Justice40 initiative is properly incorporated into every federal program and investment. And of course, we need to continue to advocate for a swift transition to renewable energy and independence from fossil fuels to reduce heat-trapping emissions and stop making things worse.