Rising hurricane severity could exacerbate inequalities

  • Warming waters mean hurricanes could become increasingly severe
  • The EPA has documented climate change's racial, age, and income disparities
  • Those could become more apparent as hurricanes grow more destructive

Khalif Kinnie throws debris on a pile from a heavily damaged home he was hired to gut, in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta, in Lake Charles, La., Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(NewsNation) — As climate change drives hurricanes to become more severe, leaders may be forced to address social inequities as they determine whom to protect and why. 

The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, running from June 1 to Nov. 20, is expected to produce between one and four Category 3-or-above hurricanes. Meanwhile, federal government spending on hurricane disaster relief has swelled in recent years, equaling about 60% of the value of hurricane damages, the White House announced in September 2022.

Calculating the damage left by a hurricane isn’t an exact science, however, and as leaders work to ease the financial impact of hurricane recovery, poorer communities could bear the brunt of the destruction, Columbia University climate professor John Mutter said.

“What’s facing us, I think, (are) very hard decisions about what we try to save and what we don’t try to save,” Mutter said.

Climate change and warming waters are a piece of that equation. Although it doesn’t necessarily equate to more hurricanes, it does increase the chances that they grow more severe.

Of the 310 billion-dollar weather disasters recorded between 1980 and 2021, hurricanes were responsible for the most damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Collectively, they cost more than $1.1 trillion, or an average of about $20.5 billion per event. The human toll was considerable, too. Hurricanes that hit during that same time period resulted in 6,697 deaths.

As more weather events are declared disasters and the value of property climbs, it makes sense that the cost of hurricane recovery would keep in step.

Following that logic, however, future mitigation efforts could favor areas deemed more valuable as storms become more destructive.

“Sea-level rise is going to affect something like 1,000 islands,” Mutter said. “Island economies are very hard. … So what is the criterion for saving an island? Does it have to be populated? Maybe it should have wonderful biodiversity. We’re going to need to think about these things — soon.”

A 2022 Associated Press investigation found that five years after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the government had completed just 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects. Seven of the island’s 78 municipalities said at the time that not a single project had begun.

“The engineering answers to fortifying coastlines are fairly straightforward … it’s not rocket science,” Mutter said. “I think the better question is where we’re going to do it. And who’s going to do it? And who’s going to decide?”

It’s unlikely the impact of climate change will be distributed equally, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Low-income individuals, among other socially vulnerable groups, will be exposed to the highest impacts of climate change, according to a 2021 EPA report. The study defined low income as “individuals living in households with income that is at or below 200% of the poverty level.” 

Traffic delays from high-tide flooding, for example, are projected to disproportionately affect those with low income, minorities, and those without a high school diploma. Over time, those delays can negatively impact income, employment security, and health status.

Hurricane recovery in particular can take decades.

A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation/NPR survey found that Black residents continued to lag far behind their white peers — both in their views of how much progress has been made and in the rates at which they report continuing struggles — 10 years after Hurricane Katrina.

“Katrina made us look underdeveloped, in terms of its fatality count. … I think it created a lot of awareness,” Mutter said. “But I’m not sure that the policy instruments are there to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”


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