The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Trapped in harm’s way

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As Hurricane Matthew bears down on the southeastern coast of the US, it poses the greatest threat to the most vulnerable: residents hobbled by age, disability, poverty, or lack of community. Many may end up unable to evacuate, and eventually to rebuild and recover. (Photo: Audra Melton / Oxfam America)

After wreaking havoc in Haiti and the Bahamas, Hurricane Matthew is picking up steam and bearing down on the southeastern coast of the US. When it hits land, the wind and water will devastate the human landscape. But some populations will suffer much greater damage than others.

When a natural disaster blasts through a landscape indiscriminately, the punches fall much harder on vulnerable populations. As evacuation orders go out for more than two million people in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina who are facing the arrival of Hurricane Matthew, we hope authorities and community leaders will keep this in mind: some people are particularly disadvantaged in coping with disaster. They face very real obstacles to preparing for and recovering from the blows to their homes and communities. They may, in fact, be unable to evacuate at all; they may be compelled to ride out the storm, and then, find it nearly impossible to find the resources to recover and bounce back.

Oxfam worked with the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute (HVRI) at the University of South Carolina to develop materials about the impacts of hazards on vulnerable populations in the Southeastern US, and in Mississippi and Louisiana specifically. The resulting interactive maps and reports about social vulnerability and climate change show which areas are most at risk.

For example, the rural counties on the coastal plain in South Carolina are among the most socially vulnerable in the state.  When hurricane-force winds slam into that landscape, these populations, hobbled by a potent combination of race, gender, poverty, and rural distribution, feel the blows much harder than other, more advantaged, populations.

As the climate changes and the risks become greater and more frequent, policymakers and emergency personnel should be paying special attention to the impacts on vulnerable populations, who are most exposed and most likely to suffer.

The US Southeast is vulnerable in both geography and population

The extensive and complex coastline in the region, especially along the Gulf Coast, leaves these areas open to flooding, hurricane winds, and sea-level rise. At the same time, the population has settled in ways that make it particularly vulnerable. The region has a disproportionate percentage of counties that experience persistent poverty (defined as a county in which at least 20 percent of the population experiences poverty for three decades or more).

The Gulf Coast and the US Southeast are home to some of the most exposed landscape and vulnerable populations in the US. (Photo: Valerie Downes / Oxfam America)

What are the climate hazards?

HVRI covers four climate hazards: flooding, hurricane force winds, sea-level rise, and drought. All four threaten communities in different ways—from catastrophic events that wipe out buildings and infrastructure, to gradual changes in conditions that threaten agriculture, industry, and livelihoods.

What makes a population vulnerable?

Economic standing is the number one factor in determining a community’s vulnerability to disaster. Most poor people are unable to acquire the goods and services necessary to prepare adequately for an impending disaster (e.g., generators and gasoline, canned food, alternative lighting, sufficient medication). They may lack transportation to evacuate before a disaster, and they may have difficulty rebuilding afterwards. They are frequently underinsured, and many lack coverage altogether.

Age extremes (elderly or young) mean people are less mobile, more dependent on care, and less able to get out of harm’s way. The elderly, whether in group or private homes, face special challenges; they often need medication (which may require refrigeration), assistance in evacuating or with simple survival tasks, food delivery and preparation, and more. They tend to suffer more health-related consequences during a disaster, and they are slower to recover physically from their injuries.

Children provide challenges both to families and to emergency responders. They may need physical items such as diapers and baby formula, as well as support services. It’s estimated that fewer than half of emergency medical programs are adequately prepared to deal with the special needs of children. In addition, following a life-changing event, mental and emotional support is essential for children.

Rural and urban communities each face special challenges. Rural populations are often disadvantaged by poverty, race, age, and gender. In rural areas, the distances between homes and public buildings may make it harder to evacuate, and more difficult for emergency personnel to reach people. Densely populated urban communities contain extremes of wealth and poverty, which may mask some social vulnerability factors.

Special needs populations are less able to cope with physical and social challenges. Disabled persons, including those with either partial or full physical or cognitive handicaps, may be non-ambulatory, less able than others to receive communications or to reciprocate, and may be sight- or hearing-impaired. Those with disabilities are often in the care of someone who is unable without further assistance to manage in a disaster. While nursing homes and retirement communities may have emergency plans, many persons of reduced ability live alone or in high-rises.

Certain occupations are at greater risk. People engaged in low-paying jobs with few or no benefits are likely to find recovery difficult (as will the unemployed). Those employed in economic sectors that suffer major damage (e.g., the fishing industry impaired by a hurricane) may end up enduring long periods without income. Furthermore, people who work in service sector jobs, often paid on an hourly basis, will be reluctant (or unable) to evacuate their posts, and will find themselves directly in harm’s way.

Quality of housing can determine protection from harm. Housing and building types particularly vulnerable to disasters vary from mobile homes in rural environments to substandard or multifamily housing in densely populated urban areas. The most dominant variables in determining vulnerability in housing are mobile homes, renters (especially in multi-unit buildings), and urban residents in general.

Racial and ethnic disparities can contribute to social vulnerability through lack of access to resources, cultural differences, and the social, economic, and political marginalization that is often associated with racial disparities. Minority communities are often excluded from disaster planning and preparation functions, with the result that activities lack an understanding of minority culture and life circumstances (e.g., housing, transportation, communication networks).

When Matthew blasted through Haiti, it left a terrible trail of devastation – made worse by the fragile nature of housing and infrastructure in a poverty-stricken country. Building resilience in communities means they’re better able to prepare for and recover from what are becoming ever more frequent disasters.

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