For decades—if not longer—people in the United States have found themselves on one side or another of a widening equity chasm. The vast majority of people are on the side of that chasm that is also crumbling beneath our feet, yet somehow the chasm remains invisible in the list of the nation’s priorities. But sometimes there are events that lay our vulnerability so bare, so crystal clear that they serve as clarion calls for change. COVID-19 is that event. Hurricane Laura, forecast to make landfall somewhere along the Texas/Louisiana coast this week as a Category 3 or higher hurricane, could be the next.
With COVID-19 having exacerbated existing poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment, and with the current administration’s abdication of responsibility for the well-being of people in this country, it is clear that people are going to need help in the wake of the storm. The maps I present here make the case that our long run of disinvestment in vulnerable communities must end here, and that much more needs to be done to help individuals and communities prepare for and recover from disasters. First, let’s take a look at the trajectory that led us here.
Before 2020, people were hurting
This brutal year of COVID, economic calamity, and climate extremes has strained the US population in unprecedented ways. But while many are relatively buffered from this harm by virtue of stable financial and health care resources, millions and millions have long been under tremendous strain and are being pushed this year to the breaking point.
Pockets of poverty and disenfranchisement across the country, linked to systemic and institutional racism, can be traced from the past into the present through slavery, genocide, the reliance on free labor from slaves or cheap labor from low-wage migrant workers, environmental injustice, Jim Crow and other forms of racial, residential, and economic segregation, to be brief.
These result not only in a lack of financial resources but also health disparities among the majority of persons of color who are trapped in intergenerational poverty like some perverse, never-ending Groundhog Day. These are factors that contribute to a person’s, family’s or community’s vulnerability or predisposition to be harmed when bad things happen. We entered this year with 38.1 million people in the US living in poverty, 11% of households coping with food insecurity, 27.9 million lacking health insurance, and more than half a million people experiencing homelessness.
To be clear, it isn’t race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class that influence historical and contemporary lopsided outcomes in these dimensions of human wellbeing; it’s historical and contemporary racism and racist practices directed against people of color that create and recreate disadvantages in strata of the population that render them powerless and marginalized.
Before the pandemic, people were already hurting: the majority in the United States were (and are) already unable to access at least $1,000 to deal with an emergency, are already struggling to maintain their health and access good health care, and millions of people of color are doing this while facing systemic racism and the disadvantages it produces and reproduces.
Then came COVID-19
In the US, COVID-19 has so far claimed nearly 180,000 lives and continues to spread across large parts of the country. Given the intertwined health and economic crises, unemployment has surged as have hunger and food insecurity and the number of people relying on food banks to feed themselves and their families. People living with low income and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous segments of the population are experiencing a disproportionate impact of coronavirus infections and deaths, as well as higher rates of unemployment due to the pandemic compared with Whites.
Then came hurricane season
So far this year, 13 named storms have formed and four have strengthened to hurricanes. While our coasts have so far been spared a severe strike, there are three months remaining in the hurricane season.
When a hurricane threatens a region, voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders are often put in place and people must decide for themselves whether to evacuate or shelter in place. Both approaches require resources — either to travel and pay for accommodation and food, or to stockpile the necessary food and equipment and assume responsibility for your own safety. Both are harder for families and individuals who are more vulnerable to begin with – especially when vulnerable communities are largely left to fend for themselves.
There are many factors that affect a family’s decision to flee an area that is about to be hit by a hurricane, including past experiences, perceptions of risk, socio-demographics, and barriers to evacuation.
My family, for example, lived through two or three hurricanes or tropical storms growing up in Puerto Rico–but were never forced to evacuate because our home was in a well-drained area that didn’t flood. We also had the resources to act on experiences from past hurricanes to be well-stocked (with candles, battery-powered radios, ice, food, fuel, board games, and gas stoves) to shelter in place during the storm and to deal with the power outages that occurred when the first hurricane winds downed power transmission lines in our neighborhood.
Others in coastal and low-lying areas in the island were not so lucky and had to evacuate or shelter in place sometimes without as many resources, sometimes with terrible consequences, including loss of property, injury and even loss of life. Such was the case in 1985 in my island. I was barely 10 years old then, but I distinctly remember the dread and pain after a slab of limestone detached from a hill, killing an estimated 100-300 people following intense rainfall from a tropical wave in the Mameyes ward, a rural, poorly-built neighborhood in the south of the island.
What does a person need to evacuate to safety? Well, first a place to go – typically a relative’s home, a shelter, or a hotel. You also need a way to get there, like a car or – if still running – public transportation. You need money for gas, food, lodging, and the necessities you couldn’t fit or did not have on hand. And in places where emergency management agencies don’t distribute information in other languages, you need to be able to read and understand English to stay informed of weather alerts, road closures, and other vital information that can be used to make the decisions that keep you and your family safe.
And this year, it is vital to keep safe from COVID-19 infection during evacuation by having the necessary supplies – face masks, hand sanitizer – and the ability to social distance.
As it turns out, many US coastal counties at risk of flooding from a Category 5 storm have large populations that lack many of these key resources. The maps below, based on federal agencies’ data, show that on average in many hurricane-prone coastal counties, 6 through 9 percent of households do not have a motor vehicle. Lack of English language proficiency is prevalent in parts of Louisiana, Texas, and south Florida. Many communities with the highest rates of deprivation of evacuation resources are also Latino (e.g. in south Florida and Texas) and African American (e.g., Louisiana and Mississippi), and are also experiencing high unemployment rates during the pandemic.
This year, COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis are compounding the challenges for those in the path of hurricanes. The timing of Hurricane Laura could not be worse, as it is also the end of the month and that means many people who live paycheck to paycheck are low on funds. Poverty is widespread, as many coastal counties have, on average, at least 15.6 percent of population that lives below the federal poverty threshold. Compounding poverty, the unemployment rate for May and June of 2020 in the highest two categories mapped reaches on average, 9.1 and 12.4 percent. This compares withf a national mean of 10.2 percent as of July 2020.
People need help
With Hurricane Laura threatening a wide swathe of the Gulf coast, people are having to make decisions right now about whether and how to evacuate. Those evacuation plans could be the difference between life and death for some. And the data show that for many people those choices will be heavily curtailed and influenced by long-standing racial and socioeconomic inequities.
Federal, state and local emergency management authorities are also mobilizing to help communities. Those efforts must be targeted to those most in need, those most likely to be left behind, those who have the fewest resources to escape on their own.
This morning members of our team heard from Hilton Kelley, a friend and partner in Port Arthur, Texas. A leader in his community, Kelley knew many fellow residents were planning to stay behind, and had chosen to stay behind too, to be on hand to help during the storm and in the aftermath. But with the rapid intensification of Hurricane Laura to a Category 4 hurricane and the new risk of catastrophic harm to Port Arthur, many of those who intended to ride out the storm are now forced to flee.
And here, in the wealthiest country in the world, it comes down to this once again. In the absence of sufficient federal and state guidance, materials, and direct support, individuals are forced to try forced to make the right choices as a dangerous situation turns deadly. It sounds terribly familiar. As we grapple with COVID and approach the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, may we as a nation not repeat the devastating mistakes of the past.
To those on the ground and in the path of the storm, we’re holding you in our thoughts today.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.