Around 2 AM last Friday, a neighbor knocked on Megan and Matthew Saxton’s door. It was time to go.
The previous day, the Woolsey fire had begun charting a path of destruction along the Pacific coast of southern California. In Malibu and nearby affluent enclaves, the fire has so far devoured more than 98,000 acres and over 600 structures, killing at least three. Some residents, most infamously Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, were able to call in a private army of firefighters to save their properties. Many others were lucky to escape the state's latest bout of flames with their lives—the Camp fire, simultaneously raging in northern California’s Butte County, is the deadliest in state history with over 60 fatalities to date and well over 10,000 structures eviscerated.
The Saxtons, both 31, lived with their three sons at the Seminole Springs mobile home park in an unincorporated piece of LA county land off Mulholland Highway. They recalled buying their mobile home and a lot in the park for a combined $420,000 in 2016—not the cheapest spot in town, but a far cry from the neighboring Malibu mansions that go for millions.
There were no official evacuation orders when they were woken in the middle of the night, but the air was getting smoky and they decided better safe than sorry. After grabbing some photo albums and the kids, the Saxtons drove north to stay with Megan’s brother in Thousand Oaks, figuring they’d be home soon to inspect the damage.
They soon found out through the NextDoor app that more than half of the mobile home park had burned. A few days later, Matthew went to the park to see the damage for himself and their worst fears were confirmed: Their home was gone.
The Saxtons were lucky enough to have an insurance policy—it was required as part of their mortgage, they explained. But the policy won’t cover the full cost of rebuilding, they noted, and the soonest they expected to rebuild was a year from now. "We were a middle-class neighborhood in the middle of the canyon, an affordable gem in the middle of all these really expensive homes," Matthew said.
Natural disasters typically have the most devastating effects on those with the fewest resources. A 2016 UN report on the nexus of wealth inequality and climate change found that the two were locked in a vicious and increasingly terrifying cycle: "…the disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionate loss of income and assets (physical, financial, human and social) when these hazards actually hit them. Consequently, inequality worsens, and the cycle perpetuates with greater force."
“No matter what the kind of natural disaster, whether it’s flooding or wind damage or fire, the biggest burden of the longest duration falls on the already-poor,” David Lodge, director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, told me.
In addition to the immediate threats to life and limb that come with any severe natural disaster, there may be a temporary period of homelessness or unemployment that can send someone on the brink of poverty over the edge. Without adequate insurance, savings to rebuild, or a reliable social safety net in place, what Lodge has called “the human face of policy-induced suffering” is revealed.
And with the current trajectory of increasing weather disasters, that suffering is likely to grow. In addition to the spectacular events of the last few years—the current spate of fires in California, January’s wildfire-related mudslides in Montecito, the 2017 hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—at least 99.7 percent of all US counties have incurred significant property damage from natural hazards since 2000. Between the 1960s and the 2000s, the yearly average of financial loss attributable to disasters (per capita) in the US soared from about $25 to about $80, adjusting for inflation.
Junia Howell and James R. Elliott, sociologists who study social inequality, try to look away from the spectacle and find out what happens after the reporters leave Malibu, or Houston, or New Orleans. Their longitudinal study of how natural hazards impact wealth inequality in the US was motivated by the reality that “these events keep happening,” as Elliott explained to me. “This is not a California problem, this is not a Texas problem, this is not a Florida problem. It's an American problem.”
It’s obviously also a global problem. Still, understanding the specifics even within American states can help show the bigger picture. So how might this worsening of economic inequality play out in the Los Angeles and Ventura county regions where the Woolsey fire continued to rage Friday?
Lodge suggested thinking of the archetypal Malibu mansion as a small business that employed a staff of service workers.
“While their homes are perhaps not harmed by the fire, their place of employment is destroyed,” he pointed out. “The consequences for them may be almost as severe as if their own homes were destroyed if they’re living on the edge, as many service workers are already, even without a disaster.”
Elliott offered a broader view, pointing to the ways disaster damage to property can affect inequality over time. “If you're a low-income resident in Los Angeles, even if your property wasn't directly affected, there can be these indirect knock-on effects for lower-income and middle-income people either because of supply potential going down in housing, or disruptions in work just giving you general precarity," he said. For California residents, one of these indirect effects might prove to be astronomical utility bills, as Pacific Gas and Electric Company has struggled to stay afloat in the wake of unprecedented wildfire damage.
Of course, like the Saxtons, not everyone directly affected or displaced by the Woolsey fire is a Malibu millionaire. For those in the humbler neighborhoods affected, or for those who bought decades ago before the local real estate market became too hot for most to handle, rebuilding may not be an option. One measure of the fallout will be gauged by following how many of these residents end up having to put more geographical and social distance between themselves and their elite former neighbors.
Elliott predicted that number would be high. “The more costly the event, the more inequality in wealth is going to emerge over time,” he told me. “Given the amount of property damage there, that would be our expectation for Southern California.”
To some extent, good policies can mitigate effects of the disaster-inequality crises. Local government can carefully consider where people are allowed to build or rebuild, for example, keeping in mind whether it’s fair for taxpayers to subsidize homes and businesses in areas that are frequently flooded or burned, as Lodge suggested. Or they could earmark funds for affordable housing or rental assistance for those whose homes weren’t directly impacted by a disaster, but who have suffered economically from the fallout, as Elliott offered.
Or we could yield to the increasingly popular oligarch model of billionaire-owned newsrooms and individuals with more wealth than the bottom half of the US, and directly ask some of the better-off Malibu residents to spread some wealth to less-visible casualties of the Woolsey fire.
For the Saxtons, the future seemed shaky. Their property now “looks like the landscape of the moon,” Matthew said, and they expected its value to plummet. They figured they’d need to rebuild and stay there for four or five years just to break even on their original investment, and that they'd have to find a way to cover the difference between the cost of their new mobile home and what their insurance would pay them. Matthew worked at an office in Malibu, and when we spoke earlier this week, he was waiting to find out once the evacuation orders were lifted whether the building* remained.
Against a broader backdrop of accelerating political chaos and routine mass shootings—including one that left 13 dead in Thousand Oaks, where the Saxtons took refuge, just hours before the Woolsey fire forced residents to evacuate—an increasingly dystopian reality loomed. Though the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department said there has been no looting in Malibu, singer Pink's husband Carey Hart posted a photo to Instagram on Tuesday of a group of gun-toting, masked men bearing a sign that read “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT ON SITE!” Another Instagram feed with the handle @prayformalibu posted a photo of a similar sign: “Welcome 2 Point Dume Looters get bullets Fireman get hugs.”
At a moment when asking what really stands between Americans and civil war is not entirely unreasonable, addressing “wealth inequality is an issue not only of fairness,” as Lodge noted, but also critical to maintaining social stability.
*Correction 11/16/2018: A previous version of this story suggested Matthew Saxton was concerned about his job, when in fact he was worried solely about the office building in which he worked. We regret the error.
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