How Economic Inequality Makes Hurricanes More Deadly

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The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

While the Eastern seaboard braces for Hurricane Sandy, 65 people have already been killed by the storm in the Caribbean. The tragic death toll and accompanying widespread property damage are caused in part by poor infrastructure and poverty — problems that aren’t limited to the Caribbean. Indeed, America’s inequality problem is a key reason why natural disasters wreak such havoc inside the United States.

That our stratified society makes storms more deadly is nearly universally believed by disaster experts. According to a paper by three experts at the University of South Carolina (Cutter et al.), “[t]here is a general consensus within the social science community” that some key causes of vulnerability to storms include “lack of access to resources (including information, knowledge, and technology); limited access to political power and representation; social capital, including social networks and connections; beliefs and customs; building stock and age; frail and physically limited individuals; and type and density of infrastructure and lifelines.” Inequality was, the researchers found, the single most important predictor of vulnerability to storm damage — variation in the wealth of individual counties alone explained 12.4 percent of the differences in the impact of natural disasters between counties.

The reasons for this are fairly clear — poorer communities have less resources to evacuate and prepare for storms, and also live in housing that’s less likely to be build to withstand nature’s wrath. As Kathleen Tierney at the University of Colorado puts it:

[Dimensions] of social class, including education and income, affect the ability to engage in self-protective activities across all phases of the hazard cycle. Educational achievements and literacy competence influence access to information on disaster risks and risk-reduction measures…The lack of affordable housing in U.S. metropolitan areas forces the poor to live in substandard housing that is often located in physically vulnerable areas and also to live in overcrowded housing conditions. Manufactured housing may be the only viable housing option for people with limited resources, but mobile homes can become death traps during hurricanes and tornadoesdisaster evacuation scenarios are also based on other assumptions, such as the idea that in addition to having their own transportation, households also have the financial resources to leave endangered communities when ordered to do so. This is definitely not true for the poor.

Other sorts of related inequalities also make the impact of storms worse. Cutter et al. found that black, Hispanic, and Asian communities in the United States were also more at risk from storms, as were communities dependent on one industry (like mining or fishing), ones with high percentages of residents living in mobile homes, and ones with high population density.

The most vulnerable place in the country, in their analysis? Manhattan Borough.