By Jeremy Deaton
Armed with howling winds and punishing rain, Hurricane Florence laid siege to Lumberton, North Carolina earlier this month. To a town where more than a third of residents live below the poverty line, the storm brought all manner of mayhem. It made quick work of a temporary dam, sending floodwaters rushing into the poorest neighborhoods, low-lying areas in the south and west of the city.
Eight miles away in Wilmington, North Carolina, the storm also left homes and businesses under water. But Wilmington is not like Lumberton. In Wilmington, the poorest communities sit further inland from the river. This fact is crucial to understanding the impact of Hurricane Florence in the two cities.
Calculating the human toll of a hurricane isn’t just a matter of gauging where it rained the hardest. One must also determine who has the means to recover from a storm and, more importantly, who doesn’t.
Researchers have long understood from case studies that some people are more vulnerable to natural disasters — the poor, the infirm and the elderly, for example — but it was difficult to account for these facts in disaster planning.
So, in 2003, University of South Carolina geographer Susan Cutter developed a method for encapsulating all these factors in a single number, the Social Vulnerability Index. The index uses census data on income, education, age and other factors to chart the relative vulnerability of different communities.
Disaster planners can compare maps of social vulnerability with maps of physical vulnerability — flood maps, for examples — to prepare an effective, tailored and just response to natural disasters. In Lumberton, North Carolina, for example, the most socially vulnerable communities also see the greatest risk of flooding. For that reason, they require the most rigorous protections.
Poverty is a central factor in social vulnerability, as people who are struggling financially might not have the means to prepare for a disaster, or to escape when one strikes.
“You have got to have transportation. You have got to have money to fill up your gas tank. You have got to know where you’re going and, when you get there, how you’re going to eat and sleep,” said Nakisa Glover, founder of Sol Nation, a North Carolina-based climate justice group. “If you don’t have the financial means leading up to a natural disaster to be prepared, it exacerbates the issue.”
Poverty isn’t the only factor, however. “Frequently vulnerable groups include people in poverty, but also the very old and the very young, racial and ethnic minorities, renters and the disabled, just to name a few,” said Eric Tate, a professor of geography at the University of Iowa, who studies environmental hazards. “The principle is that vulnerability is multidimensional. It’s not just the poor.”