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Estimated 2.5 million people displaced by tornadoes, wildfires and other disasters in 2023 tell a story of recovery in America and who is vulnerable

Tricia Wachtendorf, University of Delaware and James Kendra, University of Delaware, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

People often think of disasters as great equalizers. After all, a hurricane, tornado or wildfire doesn’t discriminate against those in its path. But the consequences for those impacted are not “one-size-fits-all.”

That’s evident in the U.S. Census Bureau’s newly released results from its national household surveys showing who was displaced by disasters in 2023.

Overall, the Census Bureau estimates that nearly 2.5 million Americans had to leave their homes because of disasters in 2023, whether for a short period or much longer. However, a closer look at demographics in the survey reveals much more about disaster risk in America and who is vulnerable.

It suggests, as researchers have also found, that people with the fewest resources, as well as those who have disabilities or have been marginalized, were more likely to be displaced from their homes by disasters than other people.

Decades of disaster research, including from our team at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, make at least two things crystal clear: First, people’s social circumstances – such as the resources available to them, how much they can rely on others for help, and challenges they face in their daily life – can lead them to experience disasters differently compared to others affected by the same event. And second, disasters exacerbate existing vulnerabilities.

This research also shows how disaster recovery is a social process. Recovery is not a “thing,” but rather it is linked to how we talk about recovery, make decisions about recovery and prioritize some activities over others.

 

Sixty years ago, the recovery period after the destructive 1964 Alaskan earthquake was driven by a range of economic and political interests, not simply technical factors or on need. That kind of influence continues in disaster recovery today. Even disaster buyout programs can be based on economic considerations that burden under-resourced communities.

This recovery process is made even more difficult because policymakers often underappreciate the immense difficulties residents face during recovery.

Following Hurricane Katrina, sociologist Alexis Merdjanoff found that property ownership status affected psychological distress and displacement, with displaced renters showing higher levels of emotional distress than homeowners. Lack of autonomy in decisions about how to repair or rebuild can play a role, further highlighting disparate experiences during disaster recovery.

The 2023 census data consistently showed that socially vulnerable groups reported being displaced from their homes at higher rates than other groups.

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