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There’s No Such Thing as a Purely Natural Disaster Anymore

Trump’s policies seem scientifically engineered to put as many people in harm’s way as possible.
Joe Raedle/Richard Arduengo/Getty Images

During one of the most intense weather seasons on record, the Trump administration has done the opposite of everything you'd expect a government that values your life to do—namely, sought to weaken the nation's tornado and hurricane forecasting ability, pre-disaster planning, flood and chemical safety regulations, and disaster relief response, all but guaranteeing that future disasters will be more devastating, especially for the poor and communities of color.


It is a myth that disasters are nature's great equalizers. "Hurricanes and earthquakes do not discriminate, but people do," says Lori Peek, professor and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "Communities are patterned in particular kinds of ways, where the poorest and most marginalized people are also the most likely to live in the most hazardous places."

The research on this subject has a clear message: Acute emergencies, like a hurricane or tornado, often collide with chronic emergencies, like poverty and the effects of racism. "A disaster is created by the intersection of a hazard with the people and place exposed to the hazard," says Elizabeth Fussell, associate professor of population studies at Brown University. "While two homes may be equally exposed to a hazard, like a hurricane or earthquake, their ability to withstand the impact may differ depending on the quality of the home."

One recent study shows how disaster plunges people deeper into poverty, trapping some in hazardous places, which exposes them to additional disasters that they cannot afford to escape. Another study shows that Philadelphia and Washington, DC—two predominantly black coastal cities—are at a higher risk of flooding than we previously thought. This is a potentially deadly situation given that people of color are less likely to have a three-day supply of medications after a disaster due to unequal access to pharmacies and insurance.


Now, the most hazardous places are likely to become even more so, thanks, in part, to Trump's laser-focused desire to wipe the face of the earth clean of any regulation (so far he has undermined at least 860). One of the more recent and stunning reversals happened merely ten days after Hurricane Harvey, when Trump killed one of Obama's executive orders that made sure we account for climate change when rebuilding homes.

Even fellow Republicans call the move "irresponsible," since it will waste money on rebuilding homes that are doomed to flood again, threaten people with drowning, and contradicts the very standard Trump has for one of his own golf courses, which has a seawall to protect it from climate change.

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But what makes Trump's policies seem scientifically engineered to put as many people in harm's way as possible is that he has both removed the flooding regulation and delayed important chemical safety regulations, which includes pretty uncontroversial steps to not get people killed like sharing hazard information.

During Hurricane Harvey, flooding led to a fire and allegedly explosions at Arkema Inc., a chemical plant, which according to a lawsuit covered a 1.5 mile perimeter with "toxic fumes."

Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, worries that the next disaster could be even worse. "Trump's rollback of chemical safety regulations puts lives of first responders and the broader community at-risk of injury, illness, and death," Nelson says. "The Arkema explosion during Hurricane Harvey makes clear how important it is to take immediate action to improve safety at these plants. Thousands of residents live alongside or near over 3,000 chemical storage tanks and 100 plus facilities in the Houston area."


It will be harder for one of these residents to rebuild if their home is destroyed, at least if Trump's budget dreams come true and he is able to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program—the program recently responsible for making sure $7.4 billion in relief money went where it is most needed.

That move seems to be part of a larger Trumpian philosophy about homes: that poor people shouldn't have them. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition details, Trump's budget promises to cut the Housing and Urban Development budget by 15 percent, which may force 250,000 low income people off housing vouchers and onto the brink of homelessness.

This is how social ills combine to destroy lives: Deep budget cuts to housing plus the increasing lack of quality affordable housing exposes people to greater harm in the case of a natural disaster.

"Texas and Florida had some of the most extreme shortages of homes affordable and available to the lowest income people even before the storm," says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "In Texas, for every 100 extremely low income households there are just 29 homes affordable and available to them. When natural disasters strike, they have little to no safety net."

And the survivors do not simply need to deal with the devastating direct effect of the hurricane or earthquake, but also what Fussell calls "the secondary impacts."

"In Puerto Rico, we are seeing the toll of the lack of electricity, communication, and transportation on the population with the death toll rising each day as the elderly and sick succumb to the heat, infections from contaminated water, or stress," Fussell says. "The poor are generally less able to access the resources that they need to protect themselves from these secondary impacts." And acts of god are hardly to blame for that.

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