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THE CALM AND CHAOS AFTER THE STORM: Picking Up And Leaving People Behind - The YEARS Project

THE CALM AND CHAOS AFTER THE STORM: Picking Up And Leaving People Behind

If you’ve ever witnessed a natural disaster, you may know what the days leading up look like. Windows that were once filled with light and colorful displays become boarded up. Typical busy streets are empty of tourists and locals. There is often a strong warm wind signaling the beginning of a storm. Store aisles are wiped clean of water, cans, batteries, flashlights, and often alcohol. 

As a Hurricane develops offshore, news channels begin to pick it up. The coverage of a Hurricane starts almost as a whisper, a looming threat of if it will hit land or not. As the coverage gets louder,the fear also intensifies. Often people will leave and visit family or book hotels a few hours away. Some will choose to stay and ride out a storm and yet there are some that don’t have a choice.

As winds pick up and exceed 75 mph, a storm is officially classified as a hurricane by NOAA.  When trees and powerlines blow over it leaves communities trapped without power. With the wind comes rainfall and storm surges and in coastal cities that often means intense flooding. In the wake of a storm towns are left with costly damages that are difficult to recover from. NOAA has estimated that there have been 60 hurricanes in the past three years whose damages have exceeded $1 billion with 18 storms in 2022 alone. By September 2023 the U.S. experienced twenty-three billion-dollar natural disasters. Following such intense storms many will turn toward the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for aid and disaster relief. 

The first act of federal aid was sanctioned by a congressional act in 1803 following a devastating fire in New Hampshire. FEMA as a disaster response initiative was established when President Carter issued an executive order in 1979. Since its creation, the agency has gone through many attempted reforms to better respond to natural disasters. The most important amendment came following the devastating disaster and lack of proper response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This established FEMA as a fully-formed organization within the Department of Homeland Security and better outlined their role in disaster response. The next reform was in 2012 following Hurricane Sandy and then in 2018 after a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic. Even with these reforms FEMA has failed to keep up with the increasing amount of hurricanes and other natural disasters plaguing our nation. 

In addition to improper disaster response from FEMA, the organization also appears to embody  many issues in its equity and distribution of resources. In an article published by npr, internal FEMA documents  exposed  how severe disparities truly were in disaster relief. According to these documents the poorest renters were 23% less likely to receive housing help than higher-income renters. FEMA was also twice as likely to deny housing assistance to lower-income families because the damage was considered ‘not costly enough.’.  Yet these families lacked the funds to cover what was considered  “insufficient” damages. Not only has FEMA showed a pattern of failing to meet the needs of lower-income households but it also has consistently failed to account for individuals with disabilities. People with disabilities are 2 to 4 times more likely to die during times of disaster, but FEMA has consistently been unable to account for the specific needs of disabled folks.

Additionally, applying for disaster relief through FEMA remains a difficult process. The ability to place a call or fill out an online form may not be easy for every family, especially following a disaster such as a hurricane. Still, disaster relief is not always as simple as filling out a form and even when all the proper steps are taken aid is not always provided. Outside of disparities directly caused by FEMA, survivors of a natural disaster may be subject to frequent scams at a time when they are most vulnerable. Scammers are surprisingly common and may disguise themselves as house inspectors or provide fake offers of federal aid. 

All of these complexities lead to obstacles and often an inability to recover from disasters. This further aggravates other issues such as wealth disparities and health complications for communities in years that follow a storm. This compounding of impacts is a phenomenon known as the ‘Matthew Effect.’ Cities will also often blatantly focus protection initiatives for the highest value properties first as seen in Hurricane Katrina. Susan Crawford illustrates these concepts as seen in Charleston where  a plethora of mansions and beachfront properties will have resources poured into them by the city. 

Not only is aid failing front line and under-resourced communities but the media outlets which cover them quickly move on. These communities are often glorified as victims  by major news outlets seeking salvation, if only for a short time. Even with this constant glorification, there is still a clear lack of media coverage on the events following weeks and months after a storm, as well as how differently communities experience the storm. More must be done to provide aid to communities affected by natural disasters and more must be done to make the public aware of the impacts these communities experience. News sources should be capable of highlighting disparities among communities while still showcasing the resilience and power communities hold.

FEMA has a lot of work to do before it can properly respond to natural disasters as they become more intense and more frequent due to climate change. The first step is acknowledging the gaps in their policies and acknowledging that there is much work to be done. Next time communities are faced with a natural disaster we must look at it from all angles. It’s not just about the hero or the victim but real people that stand to be affected long after we stop paying attention. For some it may just be a trip inland but for others a disaster could make or break the lives they’ve worked hard to create.