USA: What the Camp Fire revealed
By Annie Lowrey
Although disasters like the Camp Fire seem to strike indiscriminately, in the aggregate that is not quite the case. Cheaper homes built without strong foundations or storm windows tend to be less safe during tornadoes and hurricanes. Floods hit low-lying neighborhoods the hardest, and low-lying neighborhoods are often low-income neighborhoods. In California, the extremely high cost of housing has encouraged building in and migration to certain fire-prone areas. This is to say: The country’s built landscape means that lower-income families are often the most vulnerable to disasters.
When a disaster strikes, the evacuation often stratifies on class lines, too. People with very low incomes, the disabled, and the elderly are less likely to have technologies that might alert them of a fire speeding their way or a hurricane about to bear down. In part for this reason, the average age of those who died in the Camp Fire was estimated at 71.
Leaving itself sometimes imposes a significant cost—gas, missed work, hotel rooms—that the wealthier can bear but the poor might not be able to. Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, when many lower-income families were waiting on first-of-the-month checks to pay their bills. Many could not afford to get out. In later surveys, respondents explained that, “The hurricane came at the wrong time, we were waiting for our payday” and that “money was hard to come by.”
Yet the recovery is also when a disaster’s polarizing effect becomes acute: Private and public aid in many cases accrues to the haves more so than the have-nots. “Disasters are increasing the disparity in terms of people’s homes, their income, their access to services,” said Brad Kieserman, the vice president for operations and logistics at the American Red Cross, which remains on the ground after the Camp Fire. “Disasters, for most communities, exacerbate already existing issues, which is why we often see in shelters what what we sometimes refer to as ‘the least, the last, and the lost.’ The people who had the least, who were the last to get services, who were already at the end, who were lost beforehand, especially financially.”