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Hurricane Season Traps People on the Wrong Side of the Income Gap

Inevitably, those in the path of a major storm are the ones who can’t afford to evacuate.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A couple in Bonita Springs, Florida, exit their home on September 11, 2017, after Hurricane Irma passed through the area.

I was in college when I lived through my first hurricane. I don’t even remember the name of the storm. What I do remember is that those who could afford to leave campus flew home to California, New York, and Texas—away from the hurricane that was threatening South Florida. 

Those of us who stayed, the leftovers, walked around the nearly empty campus with a sense of nervous dread. The local students went home to their families to wait out the storm. Those who stayed were mostly international students; we had no nearby family or enough money to evacuate. So we packed up our dorm rooms and moved into the dining hall. 

We were allowed to bring one small bag with toiletries and a change of clothes, along with pillows and blankets, and we were each given a small mat to sleep on. The girls slept on one side of the dining hall and the boys on the other. We played cards, watched movies, and waited. I called my family in Canada on a friend’s flip phone to let them know I was OK. And then the power went out. 

We lived in the dining hall for three days. We ate single-serve boxes of cereal and drank juice boxes—whatever nonperishables the dining hall had. When the worst was over, we moved back into the dorms. Parts of the campus had flooded, and windows had been broken by the force of the hurricane winds. Things eventually got back to normal, and all of the evacuees returned within a week or so. What sticks out in my mind is what those who were able to leave as danger approached all had in common: money. 

The 2020 hurricane season officially started June 1, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is predicting a 60 percent chance of an “above-normal” (a.k.a. worse than usual) hurricane season. We know in Florida that hurricane predictions aren’t flawless. We got from 2005 to 2016 without a major hurricane making landfall; at the start of each season, there were predictions of multiple storms, and while we had a few tropical depressions and a few scares, year after year, we were spared. 

But even a mildly active hurricane season this year could be disastrous. Florida is still dealing with exploding Covid-19 cases and an unemployment system that has been so slow and inconsistent in providing aid that it is facing a class-action lawsuit. Those catastrophes have disproportionately fallen on low-income people. In response to Covid, the federal government has provided a slightly enhanced social safety net: a onetime $1,200 stimulus check and an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits. But especially with those unemployment expansions set to expire at the end of July, Floridians already struggling to pay their bills may be devastated by any hurricanes or floods that hit the state.   

In 2018, it cost the average family around $1,000 to evacuate for Hurricane Irma, a number that is out of reach for many Floridians right now. And in a worst-case scenario, not being able to leave could be fatal. In 2005, over 1,800 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with drowning reported as the likely cause of death. Many were essentially trapped because they couldn’t afford to leave: The poverty rate in New Orleans was nearly 30 percent, and 112,000 of the 500,000 in New Orleans didn’t have access to a car.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle, killing at least 30 people. In Panama City, where about one out of every five residents lives below the poverty line, those who felt the hurricane the hardest were those with the least money. “Hurricanes are particularly punishing because of the exorbitant costs associated with adequate preparation,” reported HuffPost. “For low-income people who endured damage to their homes and personal property in Florida, it could take years for them to recoup the losses.” 

Even when your home is not destroyed, staying in a hurricane-ravaged town is a hardship. In 2004, one of Florida’s worst hurricane seasons, there were four back-to-back hurricanes between August 13 and September 26: Charley, Ivan, Frances, and Jeanne. The last two hit South Florida directly, leaving us without power for weeks. Schools were canceled for a month, and without power, grocery stores and gas stations were closed for days. A few convenience stores opened their doors on a cash-only basis, and I stood in line for hours to buy the last plastic-wrapped muffin on the shelf. 

My friends and I were in our twenties, and we had just signed leases to our first apartments. Our furniture was handed down, and we had just started making payments on our student loans and second-hand cars. None of us had the reserves to cover an evacuation: Like many Floridians, leaving wasn’t an option for us. Leaving meant having a job flexible enough to give time off and either driving the eight-plus hours to the nearest state to book a hotel or buying airline tickets before prices tripled or quadrupled. Those who can afford to leave often take off a week before the hurricane hits, sheltering with family out of state, watching from afar. 

I never evacuated until 2017’s Hurricane Maria. In South Florida, we watched the storm wreak havoc on Dominica, St. Croix, and finally Puerto Rico. Maria was a beast, a Category 5 that wasn’t slowing down as she headed straight for South Florida. While we had been hit by some pretty bad hurricanes since moving to Florida, I had never lived through a Category 5; I had only heard stories about the last one, 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed over 25,000 homes and damaged another 100,000. It caused $26 billion of damage and killed 65 people. 

I was working as a teacher, and in response to Maria, my school announced it was closed until further notice; my husband’s job also announced it would be closing its offices. We had a big enough window to plan our evacuation, and we could finally afford to leave. We put up our hurricane shutters, gassed up, and drove out of the state to wait out the storm, a trip that cost us nearly $1,500. In the end, Maria ended up only grazing the west coast of the state, but the evacuation gave us peace of mind—if it had made landfall, it could have caused mass misery and many deaths. But we would have been safe no matter what happened to South Florida. We had the luxury of evacuating.