Hurricane damage harms the most vulnerable, reveals inequality and social divides

fgfdgfgdfgWhen President Donald Trump travelled to Puerto Rico in October 2017, shortly after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory, he downplayed the hurricane’s devastation. But his denials over the number of deaths only drew attention to the extent of the disaster — and the social inequalities that contributed to the catastrophe.

Most of the burden had fallen to the poorest and most vulnerable families. The Puerto Rican government estimated 400,000 houses — one-third of all occupied homes on the island — were damaged by the storm.

About 55 per cent of the island’s structures are built informally, without licensed contractors or permitting. Many poor communities are located in high-risk flood zones where land is affordable. In addition, areas of lowest socio-economic status experienced the highest rates of the estimated 2,975 excess hurricane-related deaths.

My own research into what influenced the impacts of Hurricane Maria shows that social factors, such as race, gender, income and education levels, played a larger role in determining residential damage than the physical impacts of the storm (strong winds, floods and landslides). This means that social and economic issues that arose long before the storm’s landfall were among the top predictors of damage — and can be addressed to limit the extent of future disasters.

Social trends in disasters

Nearly 16 years ago, Hurricane Katrina starkly exposed how disasters affect some groups unfairly. Images of African American New Orleans residents forced onto rooftops due to flooding, and suffering under inhuman conditions in the Louisiana Superdome, sparked a cultural debate about systemic racism and its role in public health and so-called natural disasters.

Katrina shed light on the uncomfortable realities that Black people already understood. Long-standing racism had clearly contributed to the storm’s damage.

We have learned from past disasters that the dominant social challenges include socio-economic status, race, gender and class, among more complex factors like health-care quality, the ability to prepare and having access to transportation.

Nevertheless, social challenges continue to influence physical risk in every catastrophic event. This includes wildfires, heat waves, floods, tsunamis and earthquakes. Even pandemics target vulnerable communities.

Vulnerable populations not only suffer intense damage, like property loss, they are also less likely to fully recover before the next disaster. In 2020, Puerto Rico experienced a series of major earthquakes, damaging some homes that still had blue tarps covering their roofs from Hurricane Maria. This feedback further amplifies inequality over time.

Missing the mark

In the chaos following a disaster, aid resources are often directed towards areas that experienced the most intense damage, but these often neglect the social context that contributed to the outcome.

In some cases, recovery policies systematically exclude vulnerable groups. Renters, multi-family households and racial and ethnic communities face barriers to aid following disasters.

For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency found most of the applications it received from people in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria were ineligible. This is largely because the applicants were unable to prove that they owned their homes. For some, the documents had been lost or destroyed by the storm itself. For others, family homes were passed down through generations without legal documentation because of expensive fees.Aerial photo of a seaside neighbourhood with several blue tarps on the roofs of buildings. Blue tarps cover the roofs of homes in a neighbourhood east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in June 2018, nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera)

Future warming trends may fuel stronger storms reaching new areas and may double hurricane-related losses every 10 years. This cycle needs to be disrupted. Governments and aid agencies need to consider race and class in their policies to ensure nondiscriminatory recovery.

Disrupting the pattern

While society cannot control natural events, economic and political decisions lay the foundation for the outcomes. These decisions can increase a community’s risk or promote resiliency and equity.

Investing in infrastructure, like levees, can lower disaster risk. However, if an extreme event exceeds the capacity of these structures, the resulting damage can in fact be much greater. In part, this is because built infrastructure encourages development in otherwise risky areas.

Smart policy decisions that bridge wealth gaps can indirectly lower disaster recovery costs. Communities should be directly involved in developing plans to improve resilience, as these policies are more likely to succeed.

Investments in affordable housing, libraries, green spaces and schools and the creation of job opportunities promotes social mobility. As a result, more families can afford home repairs, insurance, evacuation costs and may even be able to move to less hazardous areas.

When a powerful hurricane makes landfall near a populated coastal area, it’s the decisions made by people that ultimately determine what is damaged and who dies. Hurricanes Maria and Katrina were not entirely preventable, but neither were they unexpected. Acknowledging the socially rooted realities of these events offers an opportunity to correct our current course.

About The Author

Laura Szczyrba, PhD Student, Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering, Queen's University, Ontario

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

This Article Originally Appeared On The Conversation

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

LATEST VIDEOS

The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…

LATEST ARTICLES

bright light from under small building light terraced rice fields under starry sky
Hot nights mess up rice’s internal clock
by Matt Shipman-NC State
New research clarifies how hot nights are curbing crop yields for rice.
A polar bear on a large mound of ice and snow
Climate change threatens the Arctic’s Last Ice Area
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
Parts of an Arctic region called the Last Ice Area are already showing a decline in summer sea ice, researchers report.
corn cob and leaves on ground
To sequester carbon, leave crop leftovers to rot?
by Ida Eriksen-U. Copenhagen
Plant materials that lie to rot in soil makes good compost and play a key role in sequestering carbon, research finds.
image
Trees are dying of thirst in the Western drought – here’s what’s going on inside their veins
by Daniel Johnson, Assistant Professor of Tree Physiology and Forest Ecology, University of Georgia
Like humans, trees need water to survive on hot, dry days, and they can survive for only short times under extreme heat…
image
Climate explained: how the IPCC reaches scientific consensus on climate change
by Rebecca Harris, Senior Lecturer in Climatology, Director, Climate Futures Program, University of Tasmania
When we say there’s a scientific consensus that human-produced greenhouse gases are causing climate change, what does…
Climate heat is changing Earth’s water cycle
by Tim Radford
Humans have begun to alter Earth’s water cycle, and not in a good way: expect later monsoon rains and thirstier…
Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable
Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable
by Simon Cook, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Change, University of Dundee
Around 27 million cubic metres of rock and glacier ice collapsed from Ronti Peak in the northern Indian Himalayas on…
Nuclear legacy is a costly headache for the future
by Paul Brown
How do you safely store spent nuclear waste? No-one knows. It’ll be a costly headache for our descendants.

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.