Published — April 25, 2019

Natural disasters are getting worse. People with the least power are most at risk.

Hurricane Michael damaged not just buildings in Calhoun County, Florida, but also trees key to the area economy. The federal government estimated in October that there were nearly $1.3 billion in immediate and direct timber damages in the state’s panhandle, which includes Calhoun. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Terry)

This story was published in partnership with The Weather Channel.


“Oh my God,” Kristy Terry repeated from the passenger seat of her husband’s white pickup truck as he swerved around Hurricane Michael’s remnants in October. Roofs had crumpled like tissue paper. Insulation from ruined buildings covered the ground like snow. And then there were the trees.

As much as anything, the downed and broken trees signal how long recovery will take for Calhoun County, Florida, a rural area where Terry lives about an hour from the state’s Gulf of Mexico coastline. Before the storm, the timber industry was a top employer. People also planted their own properties with pine trees — which must grow for 20 years or more before they can be sold — to save for retirement or college. In a county where the typical household income is nearly 40 percent below the U.S. median, those losses represent a devastating blow. 

“We don’t know what we will be after this,” said Terry, executive director of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. “We do anticipate people will leave. They won’t have a choice.”

Natural disasters are often seen as equal-opportunity events. They strike the rich and poor, black and white, old and young. But people who start out with fewer resources and power, federal researchers say, are less likely to recover financially afterward — and more likely to die. Some people with low incomes live in more hazardous areas, places made affordable by repeated flooding or other weather events, academics from Princeton University and three other institutions studying 90 years of disasters found. And after disasters, a 2018 analysis concluded, federal relief appears to be widening disparities rather than helping communities return to the status quo.

As climate change worsens, it’s fueling more frequent and extreme natural disasters that will only add to the problem. That includes storms like Hurricane Michael, one of the costliest in the world in 2018, which caught places like Calhoun off guard because they rarely have been hit this severely before. Now, academics, advocates and attorneys worry that as the consequences of these disasters grow, vulnerable Americans who are already suffering will get pushed even further behind. 

“I don’t really think we’ve learned our lesson,” said Debra Wray Furrh, advocacy director for Lone Star Legal Aid in Texas. “We keep seeing the same results over and over and over.”

Who’s vulnerable?

A ragged American flag hangs from a damaged tree in Calhoun County, Florida, after Hurricane Michael hit in October. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Terry)

Natural disasters hit large swaths of America every year. Only four U.S. counties escaped significant damage from these hazards between 1999 and 2013, according to a recent study. In 2017 alone, hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather affected nearly 8 percent of the U.S. population — 25 million people. And they don’t all have an equal ability to respond.

People who are poor, racial or ethnic minorities, young or old, or who live in certain types of housing, like mobile homes, are generally less resilient when disasters strike, according to a report by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But that can vary a lot.

“What makes one person vulnerable might not make another person vulnerable,” said Christopher Emrich, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida.

So academics and federal officials, hoping to improve disaster response, have been developing tools known as vulnerability models that use 15 or more factors to get a fuller picture. Take income and housing. People with less money are more likely to live in badly constructed, older or mobile homes, increasing their risk of damage from natural disasters, studies show.

What makes people vulnerable before disasters may also leave them less able to get assistance after. Some don’t know about available support. Others lack the time or ability to navigate the challenging process of seeking aid, experts said.

Gregory Friendshuh, 77, ran into problems getting reimbursed after the Camp Fire in California, among last year’s most costly disasters worldwide. His mobile home in Paradise burned up — and so did the papers proving he owned it, which he and his wife had to leave behind in their frantic escape. That meant he couldn’t prove that where he lived existed. He said that he received federal aid, but not for the trailer.

“Who cares about a damn pink slip,” he told the Center for Public Integrity in February, referring to the incinerated title. “I lost my home.”

The fire came at an especially difficult time for him. Just a day and a half before, he had been discharged from the hospital after open-heart surgery. Smoke from the fire sent him right back. Weeks after recounting his experience, Friendshuh died.

U.S. Army Sgt. Rodrigo Estrada of the California Army National Guard searches and clears debris in Paradise, Calif., following the Camp Fire. The wildfire was one of the world’s costliest natural disasters in 2018. (Crystal Housman / U.S. Air National Guard)

Even when vulnerable people get disaster aid, it isn’t always equitable. After a 2008 Iowa flood, academics from the University of Iowa investigating purchases of damaged housing by local governments found areas with high elderly and Hispanic populations were less likely than applicants in other communities to receive pre-disaster market value for their homes. They also weren’t as likely to receive timely payments for those properties.

Individual injustices can have a major impact over time. A 2018 study looking at 15 years of U.S. disasters, written by sociologists from the University of Pittsburgh and Rice University in Texas, worked to understand those effects by examining property damage and wealth accumulation for roughly 3,400 American households. They found that whites tend to see an increase in wealth “the more natural hazard damages accrue in a county.” Blacks, by contrast, lose ground.

“How federal assistance is currently administered seems to be exacerbating rather than ameliorating wealth inequalities that unfold after costly natural hazards,” the researchers concluded.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates national disaster response and recovery, didn’t directly respond to the study’s findings. But spokeswoman Jessica Nalepa said in a statement that the agency doesn’t base its assistance decisions on demographic factors such as race or economic status.

“FEMA case workers do their absolute best to work with families after a disaster when many decisions are being made about recovery,” Nalepa said. “To imply that FEMA does not or would not grant assistance to any survivor in need is grossly inaccurate, misleading and disturbing.”

Terry, who is also a board member for a nonprofit disaster relief organization, the North Florida Inland Long-Term Recovery Group, praised the federal government’s response to Hurricane Michael. But she too has seen some residents struggle to get aid. They’ve had to “appeal, appeal, appeal,”she said. Often that means trying to find even more records proving ownership. Records that might have been lost in the storm. Records they may not have kept to begin with.

“Some people get tired of appealing, honestly,” Terry said.

Pieces of a damaged house in Calhoun County, Florida, lie across a yard shortly after Hurricane Michael hit the area in October. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Terry)

‘Like nothing we had seen’

In an effort to do better, some government agencies are harnessing social vulnerability tools, like the University of South Carolina’s Social Vulnerability Index, as they plan and respond to disasters. South Carolina, for example, paired the index with federal damage data after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 to help distribute funds to those who needed it most.

Worsening disasters, meanwhile, are forcing groups who work with vulnerable individuals to think bigger. Julie Aguilar Rogado, deputy director for Legal Services of Northern California, said her office’s caseload rose roughly 200 percent following the Camp Fire, and they didn’t have enough people to address the need. Now they’re considering how to quickly mobilize all California legal aid offices for future disasters.

“The scale of the Camp Fire was like nothing we had seen in our service area before,” Rogado said.

Still, advocates and academics worry not enough is being done. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, for example, have called for the government to fund studies and develop interventions to address disparate impacts on poor people caused by flooding hazards. And in April, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson urged a federal agency to investigate whether disaster relief is making inequality worse.

Some say the best solution is prevention. Change where people can live so they reside in less vulnerable areas. Reduce poverty levels so people have the resources to prepare. Limit greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change.

That approach, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, ensures “we’ve done everything possible to prevent these conditions in the first place.”

For More Information:

Do you believe you have been treated unfairly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency? FEMA asks you to call 800-621-3362 or 800-462-7585 (TTY/TDD).

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