Fires and Storms Push Demand for Emergency Shelter to a New High
WASHINGTON — A year already filled with historic wildfires and hurricanes can now claim another dubious distinction: Americans have spent far more time in emergency housing than in any year during the past decade, smashing 2017’s full-year record with three months left to go.
“This is an exceptional year,” said Trevor Riggen, senior vice president for disaster services for the American Red Cross, which houses most disaster victims who need assistance. “And we’re not even close to done,” he said, considering that the traditional wildfire season in the West is just getting started, and hurricanes remain a threat through November.
The Red Cross has provided 807,454 nights of shelter to disaster victims nationwide through Sept. 25, according to data provided by the organization. That far surpasses 2017’s end-of-year total of 658,000, and is more than four times the annual average between 2011 (the earliest year for which comparable data is available) and 2019.
The surge reflects the growing toll of climate change, as the country has staggered from disaster to disaster.
In the Atlantic, this year’s hurricane season has already broken records by producing more named storms, more quickly, than in any previous year, capped with the highly unusual one-two punch of Hurricanes Marco and Laura both striking the Gulf Coast in late August.
On the other side of the country, the West Coast has suffered through some of its worst wildfires on record. Blazes that began in mid-August have burned almost 4 million acres in California, killing 30 people and destroying more than 7,500 structures as of midday Thursday. In Oregon, huge fires raced through the western part of the state, where forests historically have been too wet to burn.
Climate change has made large-scale disasters like these more common, scientists say. Warmer ocean waters provide more energy for hurricanes, while higher temperatures and longer droughts make forests more combustible.
At first, emergency managers worried that this year’s coronavirus pandemic would discourage people from evacuating their homes even when told to leave. But the numbers reveal a different problem: In response to the cascading disasters, demand for emergency shelter has exploded.
At the same time, the Red Cross has been forced to shelter more disaster victims in hotels and motels rather than traditional spaces like school gymnasiums, where clusters of strangers in close quarters could create hot spots for spreading Covid-19.
Part of the growth in demand quite likely reflects the economic fallout from the pandemic, Mr. Riggen said: As people lose their jobs, more families than usual may struggle to pay for emergency accommodation on their own, forcing them to turn to the Red Cross for help.
But the bulk of the growth is from the scale of the disasters themselves, he said, particularly with many of them striking the same areas numerous times.
The largest number of overnight stays this year, 358,545, have been in Louisiana. While that state has been struck by several hurricanes and tropical storms this year, the greatest damage was from Hurricane Laura, which hit the southwest part of the state on Aug. 27 as a Category 4 storm with wind speeds of 150 miles per hour — the first time since 1856 that the state has experienced a storm of that strength.
That led to the largest evacuation effort for a hurricane since Hurricane Gustav in 2008, according to Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Most of Cameron Parish, where Laura made landfall, is still under a mandatory evacuation order, Mr. Steele said. More than a month after the hurricane, almost 9,000 victims of Laura remain in hotels in Louisiana, and more than 4,000 are in hotels in Texas. And those figures reflect only those people who needed help leaving or finding shelter.
Being away from their homes for extended periods means children remain out of school and people away from their jobs, Mr. Steele pointed out. At the same time, the region is struggling to get back to normal: More than two-thirds of households in Cameron Parish were still without power as of Wednesday, according to data from the Louisiana Public Service Commission.
“You don’t want too many people returning home until the emergency services and medical facilities and those kinds of things can catch up,” Mr. Steele said. “You kind of have to balance those things.”
The need for shelter also grew in Texas, which was hit by Hurricane Hanna in July, and then Tropical Storm Marco and Hurricane Laura a month later. The Red Cross has provided 213,282 overnight stays in Texas so far this year, including to Louisiana residents who had to leave because of Laura.
Most of the other nights of shelter provided by the Red Cross were in California and Oregon, which accounted for 144,968 and 45,362 overnight stays. Those two states have experienced some of the worst wildfires in their history in the past six weeks.
The evacuations in California reached a high point in late August, when some 140,000 people were evacuated from their homes, according to Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. As of Thursday, that figure was more than 96,000.
In Oregon, the number of people under some level of evacuation warning peaked at about 500,000, according to the state’s Wildfire Joint Information Center. “We have no hesitation stating Oregon has not seen a disaster of this magnitude until now,” Andrew Phelps, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement.
The Red Cross numbers don’t capture everyone forced to leave their homes because of disasters. Many people stay with family or friends, or pay for a hotel room out of pocket or through their insurance. But because federal and state officials don’t track annual evacuation figures, Red Cross shelter data offers a way to gauge the acceleration of climate-driven displacement.
The psychological consequences of being forced from one’s home by disaster can be devastating and long-lasting, according to Jane Webber, an assistant professor in the counselor education department at Kean University in New Jersey, and author of a book on mental health counseling for disaster survivors. “We always think we’re going to be safe in our home,” Dr. Webber said. So when a disaster forces somebody to flee their home, “you lose your stability and your safety.”
For some people, the anxiety and fear caused by a disaster can lead to physical trauma, Dr. Webber added, making them more susceptible to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other afflictions. “Our body remembers the trauma and the disaster, almost more than our mind does,” she said.
That trauma can be particularly hard on vulnerable communities, including low-income families and minorities, according to Dr. Hector Colon-Rivera, president of the American Psychiatric Association’s Hispanic Caucus and medical director of a nonprofit organization for Hispanic communities.
Hispanics and African-Americans tend to be at greater risk from disasters in the first place, Dr. Colon-Rivera said, because they’re more likely to live in areas with poor flood control, zoning or other protections against natural hazards.
And because minorities are more likely to work in jobs that require them to show up in person, they’re more likely to lose their income if a disaster forces them to seek shelter away from their neighborhood. That, in turn, puts families at risk of going hungry, which makes the emotional and physical health effects even worse.
“It’s a domino effect,” Dr. Colon-Rivera said. “It’s a mess.”
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