Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see A Strong Hurricane Season Forecast in Context — So What?
As summer sets in, we face the prospect of a particularly severe hurricane season.
These disasters always bring death and destruction in their wake, particularly for the most marginalized members of society.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria caused about 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico. In 2018, wildfires caused 100 fatalities and wiped out the entire town of Paradise, California. And last year, floods devastated millions of acres of farmland across the Midwest.
Terrible as these disasters were, this year could be a whole lot worse. We’re getting our first glimpse of what could happen from events halfway across the world.
The initial count of fatalities from Cyclone Amphan in South Asia is about 100, a tragic toll that proactive evacuations prevented from being far worse. But the loss of homes and livelihoods in the ecologically fragile Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, is devastating.
This cyclone is a warning of things to come for another reason, too: It happened during the global coronavirus crisis. This worsens the effect in two critical ways.
First, when people are evacuated from disaster zones, they are typically housed in emergency shelters — sometimes indefinitely, if their homes are destroyed. According to Bangladeshi climate justice expert Saleemul Huq, “It is almost impossible to maintain social distancing measures” in these emergency shelters, which could spread the virus exponentially.
This danger obviously applies to hurricane and wildfire responses in the United States. Any temporary shelters are likely to be overcrowded, as experienced from past disasters shows. Cooling centers for economically vulnerable residents in cities suffering heat waves could present the same challenge.
The second danger? The economic devastation these disasters cause will occur at a time of increased vulnerability. While there’s never a good time to lose one’s home or livelihood to a superstorm, this is the worst possible time.
We’re seeing that in India and Bangladesh, where the effect of the coronavirus lockdown has hit the poorest people very hard. In the United States, the official unemployment rate (which is likely an undercount) is at 14.7 percent.
What can we do about these overlapping crises?
In the immediate term, we need more physical space to use as emergency shelters or cooling centers, so people can be sheltered without risking infection.
The hotel industry reports a room vacancy rate of almost 70 percent as of May 20. Add to the list vacant apartment units and unused public and commercial buildings. There’s no reason governments can’t use all of this vacant space to shelter people while maintaining social distancing.
We also need a nationwide moratorium on electricity shutoffs and a mandate to reconnect those who’ve already had essential utilities disconnected, as more than 800 organizations have called for. This won’t eliminate the need for cooling centers, but will significantly reduce the need.
In the longer term, we must build a robust public health network (as other countries such as New Zealand have) to address pandemics effectively.
Finally, it’s essential to address climate change.
This includes cutting our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly to prevent hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves from becoming more severe than they already are, while ensuring a just transition for all communities and workers. It also includes adapting our social systems and infrastructure to be more able to withstand disasters, following the lead of the most affected communities.
We have the resources to meet each of these challenges with humanity and justice — we just need the political will.