|A coastal Louisiana home destroyed by Hurricane Laura in 2020. Photo: Western Area Power/Will Schnyer, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
TipSheet: Keeping Up With Victims Displaced by Climate Disasters
By Joseph A. Davis
Some colleagues talk of environmental journalism as the “apocalypse beat.” Accurate or not, you can be pretty sure that more disasters are coming soon. Hurricanes, wildfires and droughts will soon be at a seasonal peak, and there will be plenty to write about.
One angle: Are disaster agencies up to the job — and are they really helping people? Not everybody really gets helped. Either way, in the end, these are stories about people.
For one model, it’s worth reading Christopher Flavelle’s recent story (may require subscription) in The New York Times about Lake Charles, La., which was devastated by two successive hurricanes two years ago, is still covered with blue tarps and has yet to really recover.
Many of the Lake Charles residents who lost their housing in hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 still have nowhere to live. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is kicking them out of their trailers. Many businesses have not recovered either, so there are fewer jobs. Some have died; some have moved. Many have had their lives ruined and are living in despair.
Why it matters
Climate change certainly can be blamed for a lot of the big disasters in recent decades. We are today living in a nation where the term “climate refugees” has more and more meaning. In just one example, many who left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina never came back.
There’s no real point in quibbling about whether a particular hurricane was caused by global warming. Scientists know that higher sea-surface temperatures cause more intense hurricanes. Temperatures are higher at this time of year in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. And climate change is indeed warming the oceans. The odds of avoiding more intense hurricanes in the future are poor.
The wildfire situation is similar. Drought, heat and winds — as well as people building structures in the urban-wildland interface — make wildfires worse. Right now, the western U.S. is in the middle of a historic megadrought. Climate change has a lot to do with it. The 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people, destroyed some 18,000 structures and pretty much wiped the town of Paradise, Calif., off the map.
Insurance is supposed to help, but very often it doesn’t.
For instance, FEMA runs the National Flood Insurance Program, which is supposed to back up private insurance with government guarantees as long as communities take measures to keep people from building in the floodplain. But over the years, it has often worked poorly.
After a disaster, people often want to
rebuild where they are — making them
vulnerable to a repeat of the same disaster.
It’s partly a political problem. After a disaster, people often want to rebuild where they are — making them vulnerable to a repeat of the same disaster. Congress has not been able to reform the disaster relief programs to avoid incentivizing more disasters.
A stark reminder of how poorly the insurance program was working came in the July 2022 floods in Kentucky. Many people, often poor, had their homes damaged in those floods. A story by Thomas Frank of E&E News uncovered the shocking fact that “almost nobody” in the stricken counties (just 2.3 percent) had flood insurance.
It’s easy enough to paint the inequity of disaster aid as an environmental justice problem. Look hard. Often the problem is fundamentally one of poverty.
- Have there been any major disasters in your area in recent years? How is the recovery going?
- What disasters are your community most likely to suffer? Of those that people don’t think likely, which ones are possible?
- Are there state and local public policy actions that could reduce your area’s vulnerability to disaster or increase its resiliency? Zoning measures? Building codes?
- What companies offer disaster insurance in your area? What will they cover? What does it cost? How many people have such insurance?
- Is there effective evacuation planning in your area? Are there bottlenecks or barriers that would make evacuation difficult?
- Who are the principal disaster-response agencies in your locality or state? Do you know their media contacts (if any)?
- Federal Emergency Management Agency: The main federal agency responsible for disaster response.
- Department of Housing and Urban Development: The federal agency that offers disaster aid focused on housing.
- Small Business Administration: A federal agency that aids disaster-struck businesses.
- Local agencies: Police, fire, ambulance and other public safety agencies are usually major players in immediate disaster response.
- State agencies: The configuration of disaster-response agencies varies from state to state. It’s good to make contact with those in your state ahead of time.
- American Red Cross: A major private-sector disaster response agency, with lots of state and local chapters.
[Editor’s Note: For more, check out our TipSheets on how disaster aid sometimes helps fund the next disaster, how when disaster strikes, building codes may make things worse and how Hurricane Harvey uncovered a flood insurance dilemma. Keep up to date on disaster-related headlines with EJToday. Plus, additional resources for your coverage can be found in our Topic on the Beat pages on disasters, hurricanes, wildfire and climate change. And don’t forget to explore our in-depth and still expanding Climate Change Resource Guide.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.