For Thousands Left Homeless by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, Urgent Need to Prevent Long-Term Displacement

Residents of Florida and elsewhere in the southeast United States are only beginning to take stock of the enormous damage wrought by Hurricane Irma. With many of the evacuees unable to return due to power outages, road closures, and airport delays, it’s likely to take some time before the total number of people who lost their homes in the storm becomes clear. But if the Caribbean island of Barbuda, where ninety five percent of structures were laid to waste by the super storm, is any indication of Irma’s catastrophic impact, the damage to homes, infrastructure, and businesses in the U.S. is likely to be astronomical. Meanwhile, in Houston, tens of thousands of people remain in shelters unable to return to their flooded homes two weeks since Hurricane Harvey dumped historic amounts of rainfall. The succession of these record-breaking disasters leaves one with the sensation of treading water in the midst of a violent ocean storm: having been struck by the first strong wave, and just as you come up gasping for air, a more violent one hits.

“The succession of these record-breaking disasters leaves one with the sensation of treading water in the midst of a violent ocean storm..”

Our scientific understanding of climate change is fast evolving and evidence is mounting linking higher temperatures to increases in precipitation and more intense hurricanes. In the United States, important lessons from Hurricane Katrina are at the forefront of government officials’ minds, and it is encouraging to see that recovery efforts will focus on unregulated building and other factors that are making places like Houston all the more vulnerable.

“Protecting vulnerable communities will require new policies and strategies to mitigate and address forced displacement and homelessness that are expected to increase in the coming decades as a result of more extreme weather…”

Nonetheless, governments will need to do a whole lot better to address the reality that we are now living (and for many of the world’s poorest countries, surviving) outside of “normal”, historic ranges of temperatures and weather. Protecting vulnerable communities will require new policies and strategies to mitigate and address forced displacement and homelessness that are expected to increase in the coming decades as a result of more extreme weather, increased coastal flooding and storm surge, and sea level rise.Since launching its Climate Displacement Program in 2009, Refugees International has reported on some of the worst weather-related disasters in recent history including Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti in late 2016 leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and Typhoon Haiyan, which displaced more than four million people in the Philippines in 2013. We have compiled important lessons for preventing and minimizing population displacement in the aftermath of these disasters.

As the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas face the long road to recovery, there is a window of opportunity to mitigate displacement and build resilience to future events. These two priorities should inform how the United States is responding at home and via the disaster relief assistance it will undoubtedly be called on to provide to our neighbors abroad. Following are some important lessons that must inform the response if we are going to keep pace with the increasing impacts of climate change impacts on population displacement:

  • It is the poor who are most likely to be displaced for long periods of time in the wake of disasters. Not only do they often live in less secure forms of housing in hazard-prone areas, but they also lack the financial resources necessary to help them to recover and rebuild their homes and their lives. In the face of Hurricane Irma’s 150+ mile-per-hour winds and six- to ten-foot storm surges, a trailer home in the Florida Keys or an informal shelter made of nothing more than wood and corrugated metal along Haiti’s northern coast didn’t stand a chance. In the days, weeks, and months following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it will invariably be the poor who are left in shelters because they lack the resources to return and rebuild their homes. Without work, they are likely to quickly exhaust whatever limited resources they may have. Many will have to stay in shelters in order to access food, water, clothing, healthcare, and a safe, dry place to sleep. Many of the evacuees who remain in schools, stadiums, and other public buildings used as shelters will soon be pushed to move out in order to allow these public spaces to reopen. However, without sufficient long-term support, many will fall through the cracks, moving from place to place and with no permanent solution to their displacement. They will undoubtedly end up poorer, and some will end up homeless.
  • Government recovery efforts must therefore prioritize assistance for low income households, including, among other things, providing access to sustainable, affordable, and safe housing solutions. After Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moved displaced families into temporary mobile homes where many remained for years, exposing them to harmful chemicals that had been used to manufacture these cheap forms of housing. Rather than focus solely on homeowners, housing recovery must focus on assistance to low-income renters who, unable to afford the jacked-up prices at hotels or for local rental units, often end up being displaced for long periods of time.
  • Recovery efforts must also prioritize other groups that face disproportionate risks and vulnerabilities in disaster situations. While this may seem obvious, experience shows that governments often fail to protect the most vulnerable in disaster situations. This includes not only children, the elderly, and the sick or disabled but also minorities and disenfranchised groups who often are not only among the poor but also lack access to information and political influence. It is truly alarming that in Texas, undocumented migrants who lost everything in Hurricane Harvey are not taking advantage of public assistance either because they do not qualify or are afraid to do so for fear of being identified and deported.
  • The primary goal of reconstruction efforts must be to build resilience to future hazards based on the latest scientific understanding of flood- and climate change-related risks. Unfortunately, the policies of the current administration have been exactly the opposite. Only a few weeks before Hurricane Harvey hit, President Trump rolled back an Executive Order requiring federally-funded construction to be built to standards sufficient to withstand future flood events and other hazards based on climate change modeling.
  • As they develop recovery plans, government officials and regulators will also need to decide whether to prohibit people living on the front lines of climate change from rebuilding. Doing so will be a hard political pill to swallow given the fact that, at present, there are no federal or state laws prescribing when, where, or how to relocate communities facing climate displacement risk, let alone providing dedicated funding to assist them to do so. And while post-disaster relocation can be an effective strategy for reducing the risk of future displacement, if not properly implemented in a way that protects the rights of the poor and other disenfranchised groups, it can leave people homeless, jobless, and poorer. Yet at the same time, the longer the federal and state and local governments wait to adopt policies to better protect people living in at-risk areas in place, the more costly it will be to minimize wide-scale displacement from climate change effects in the future.
  • Finally, in order to effectively build resilience, affected communities will need to be included in the decision-making process. Without the participation of local community members in recovery and rebuilding efforts, government decision-makers are more often swayed by commercial and development interests that fail to consider the long-term well-being of a community. In addition to being the first responders to disasters, local communities are also often in the best position to make recovery decisions that better situate them to confront future hazard risks.

Given the billions of dollars in damage Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma will likely incur, the unwillingness of the Trump administration to acknowledge or address the ultimate driver of more extreme weather – climate change – defies all logic. As the White House, federal government, Congress (which holds the purse strings), state, and local governments and communities begin to face the long road to recovery, there is an urgent need for a more thoughtful, strategic, ambitious, and well-informed approach not only to disaster preparedness and response but also for ambitious action to abate climate change.

It’s the only hope we have for surviving the next wave.