Over the past few weeks, multiple natural disasters have struck and displaced tens of thousands in coastal cities and inland communities in the States and the Caribbean. Five years after a deadly Category 5 hurricane hit the region, causing a major humanitarian crisis that the island is still recovering from, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, causing catastrophic flooding, triggering hundreds of landslides, and knocking out the electrical grid (NPR). Hurricane Ian tore through Cuba and Southwest Florida days later, leaving residents without power, shelter, and homes to return to as the storm decimated infrastructure and entire communities (Reuters). The human toll and loss continue to grow, with recovery and rescue efforts bringing a clearer picture of the devastation and the challenges of evacuating climate disasters.
The decision to evacuate during a natural disaster is more complex than picking up and going. The reality is that multiple barriers can hinder a person’s ability to leave, including poverty, language and literacy proficiency, and limited mobility (Prehospital and Disaster Medicine). And marginalized communities already feeling the burnt of disinvestment and failing infrastructure are presented with additional stressors as climate-related disasters become more common. While natural disasters are indiscriminate in who they affect, the burden falls hardest on those considered poor and highly vulnerable, for whom bunkering down seems like the only option.
Use this mapping tool to see the climate-related disasters in the U.S. and learn how you can help local and national efforts.
In the aftermath of the 2018 California wildfires, officials revealed that most of the fatalities were people 65 years and older, which was the case for previous wildfires in the state (L.A. Times). Disaster preparedness, evacuation measures, and shelter accommodations neglect and overlook older and disabled people, exposing them to greater “harm and potentially life-threatening conditions” (American Progress). Health problems or disabilities may limit one’s mobility, from the capacity to evacuate without assistance to being able to sustain oneself without necessary medical equipment. As a result, disabled people are two to four times more likely to die or sustain a critical injury during a disaster. After Hurricane Maria, most of those who died in Puerto Rico were older and disabled people and those living in poverty. About one-third of the Hurricane Maria-related deaths result from delays in receiving critical medical services or the inability to obtain care.
Both in the U.S. and globally, poverty contributes to determining how people perceive, prepare, and respond to natural disasters and evacuation orders. Evacuations and safety are not cost-free, and often people stay because they cannot afford to leave. Evacuating can cost between $300 to $2,000 when you factor in the cost of transportation or fuel, food, hotel, the size of your household, and the number of evacuation days (Southerly Mag, NPR, New York Times). And 40% of U.S. adults can’t cover a $400 emergency expense (Federal Reserve). During emergencies and natural disasters, price-gouging gas, water, and even airfare can be an additional obstacle for those deciding their next moves (Yahoo, USA Today). Additionally, the threat of being fired can keep people with low-wage jobs from evacuating; this was the case at a Kentucky candle factory, where factory workers were allegedly threatened with termination if they left work during a tornado warning (WBRD). Nine employees died as a result.
“A lot of the research [in New Orleans] showed that certainly there were just some very basic barriers to access,” Alessandra Jerolleman, a research associate at Jacksonville State University’s Center for Disaster and Community Resilience, said regarding the number of non-evacuees who died during Hurricane Katrina (Southernly Mag). “Not everybody had cars. It was the end of the month; not everybody had gas money. Many folks who worked hourly type jobs were concerned about not being able to get back in time to keep those jobs.”
While the ultimate cost can be your life, low-income households often have to weigh the guaranteed financial burden of evacuating against the unpredictability of a storm.
A shift in the wind can change the trajectory of storms and wildfires, leading to a weather event predicted to affect one region devastating an unprepared area. Evacuation orders were issued for Tampa Bay, Florida, and the surrounding county two days before Hurricane Ian hit. Weather predictions projected that the Category 4 storm would directly hit the region, only for it to shift course and hit Southwest Florida residents, who only had a day to react to last-minute evacuation orders (Tampa Bay, Tallahassee). Typically, the notification time for storm evacuation is a minimum of 24–36 hours prior (Front Public Health). Even those who want to evacuate might find themselves unable to, given the time constraints and circumstances.
We must take action to support rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the recent weather events in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Florida. But as global climate disasters increasingly become unavoidable, it’s crucial to go beyond recovery and confront the factors that force people to weather these disasters in the first place.
• Evacuating climate disasters are costly and hinder low-income households from leaving.
• Older and disabled people are highly vulnerable during weather events as accommodations and preparedness plans overlook them.
• Climate-related disasters affect marginalized communities already suffering from poverty and disinvestment.