How Natural Disasters Make Entire Counties Poorer

Reader Contribution by Kayla Matthews
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It’s no secret that areas affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes deal with damages that can total billions of dollars. However, recent long-term research indicates that natural disasters have a much greater impact than the initial financial ones caused by the damage.

As a team of scientists discovered when they looked at a database of information from 1920 to 2010, natural disasters adversely affect the wealth of entire counties.

The Risk Level Varies by Geographic Location

Because the United States is so large compared to some other countries, certain parts of it are more prone to experiencing natural disasters. For example, low-lying and coastal areas are at a greater risk than places at higher elevations.Also, some disasters strike regions more often than others. Hurricanes batter coastal areas, and the Midwest has frequent tornadoes. Regions such as New England endure harsh winter storms. In comparison, the West has fewer disasters, but California is an exception because it often experiences drought periods, earthquakes and wildfires.

Natural Disasters Increase Migration and Poverty

The way some parts of the country are less likely to get hit with certain kinds of natural disasters is linked to increased migration levels. Research showed that after a county had dealt with two natural disasters, those events triggered wealthier people to move out of the vicinity and go to places that were calmer regarding natural disasters.

Migration increased by one percentage point, or approximately 600 people per county, following those two disastrous occasions. Furthermore, when a disaster killed 100 individuals or more, it made migration go up twice as much. The research team also pinpointed a more disturbing trend related to poverty. Their data showed that in areas that went through extremely severe disasters, the amount of poverty went up by one percent.

They suggest that either means the people who can afford to do so are moving out, or people who are already poor are moving in, potentially because a recently devastated area would be a less attractive place to live and may have cheaper real estate as a result.

People Need Additional Resources to Recover

Hurricane Matthew, a disaster that rocked several states in October 2016, had wind speeds up to 160 mph and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Many homeowners and businesses lost power and had to rely on emergency generators during the immediate recovery period. Those resources are essential, but in very poor areas, local officials may not have the funds required to deal with large-scale power outages or other massive needs.

Undocumented immigrants can be especially susceptible to the poverty-related effects of natural disasters. They are eligible for FEMA aid despite their lack of citizenship or papers, but that short-term assistance frequently isn’t enough for them to fully recover because they lack insurance and fear deportation while trying to put their lives back on track.

There is also a phenomenon where undocumented immigrants move to areas damaged by natural disasters. This could explain the statistic above that indicates poverty goes up after natural disasters because poor people move into given counties. 

Following Hurricane Katrina, many undocumented immigrants went to areas most affected by the disaster and helped with the rebuilding efforts. Lured by promises of lucrative wages, they thought those jobs would help them achieve more financial stability. However, years after they started working, many were still waiting for payment.

A Problem Perpetuated by Climate

There are also concerns because scientists say the worsening effects of climate change will make the likelihood of natural disasters go up. A report from the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery states that each year, natural disasters cause a $520 billion loss in consumption and make 26 million people impoverished.

Additionally, the analysis confirmed that natural disasters disproportionally affect poor people and make it harder for them to bounce back after crises. A World Bank Group representative warned that issues related to climate change-caused natural disasters could even reverse the progress made to help people in poverty.

Fortunately, there has been a push to establish programs that protect these vulnerable members of society. In many cases, they lose greater percentages of wealth than richer people and can’t rely on familial support. If we fail to address the connection between poverty and natural disasters, it could cause problems not just for counties, but entire countries beyond the United States. That’s particularly true about climate change-related catastrophes.

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