The ferocious “frankenstorm” that ripped through Long Island and the surrounding tri-state area five years ago was historic in the waves it stirred, also in its subsequent devastation. By the storm’s end, Nassau and Suffolk County were reeling, with a combined 95,000 damaged and/or flooded structures, 510,526,92 cubic yards of tree debris and 53 death in New York State alone, a great share of the 117 Americans who died (Bleyer, 2013). Our analysis of Sandy’s impacts reveals an alarming pattern common to many other natural disasters: the extent and duration of damage were worse among places and people whose socioeconomic class, race or ethnicity, and status made them the most vulnerable. The correlations revealed by our maps also show up in our case studies of affected towns: impoverished or lower middle-class towns, cities, and neighborhoods, often with higher concentrations of minorities, encountered more flooding and more damage and faced harder struggles to repair and rebuild.
Does this imply that mother nature is discriminatory? No it does not. What it does illustrate is that in addition to the many other extra burdens faced by those with lower incomes and the wrong heritage or skin color, they also are at greater risks from storms and other disasters that nature throws our way. Our case studies illuminate ways this vulnerability operates. Long Beach, Coney Island, Far Rockaway, and Mastic Beach all shared a common thread of having a large share of low income and minority households. Bayville, while better off, was only a modestly affluent outpost compared to the rich north shore communities surrounding it. Three of our case study towns had also become sites of government built or subsidized (i.e., “public”) housing, through programs whose funding in recent decades has been severely reduced. Lack of public as well as private funds for shoring up and maintaining structures left these towns more susceptible to damage when the storm hit. Afterwards, a dearth of resources and influence also impeded repairs and rebuilding, along with the initiation of protective actions against future storms. Collectively, our maps and case studies establish how, outside of questions about global warming, Hurricane turned Superstorm Sandy was not just a natural disaster but a man-made one, with people’s decision-making and our society’s rigidly ingrained inequities socio-economic inequities stacking the deck, to ensure that the poorest and least powerful were exposed to the greatest and most impactful dangers.
From Sandy to the record-breaking season of 2017, powerful and disastrous hurricanes are becoming the new American normal. Already hurricanes cost more damage to the United States than any other natural disaster. The most recent storms such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria, while less deadly than Sandy or Katrina, show a pattern of unprecedented strength, rainfall, and cumulative devastation. In 2017 alone, there have been 15 natural disaster and weather related events that have caused more than one billion dollars. From 1980 to 2016, the annual average for such events was 5.5 per year and in the last five years alone, that average has jumped to 10.6 weather events costing more than one billion dollars. (NOAA, 2017) To ensure a ceiling to how bad they will get, we need to do our share to curb the use of fossil fuels, whose greenhouse and warming effects are becoming so evident. It is also critical that our society reexamine and take action to remedy those discrepancies between social classes that currently ensure how, when hurricanes hit, some segments of our society suffer far more than others.
Now more than ever, we need a nation-wide conversation and plan of action for how all economic and social institutions within the United States can be best prepared for future hurricanes of great scope and strength. Initiatives are necessary to alleviate widespread inequalities in housing and infrastructure, from citizens, civic and private organizations, and government alike. Otherwise, those within our towns and cities who are the most vulnerable to so many other social ills will continue to be hit the hardest by these storms, ever-more disastrous mixes of the natural with the human-made.