Less than two years after the city of Lumberton, North Carolina, was flooded by Hurricane Matthew, a levee that protects the city from rising river water has been breached again by Florence. The community is at risk because of geography. But some residents there are also at risk because they’re poor.
A series of maps from Direct Relief, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian medical aid, shows the social vulnerability of each community in the path of the hurricane, based on an index from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On a map of socioeconomic risk, Robeson County, where Lumberton is located, is one of the areas shaded darkest for its low levels of income and wealth. Poverty there makes people particularly vulnerable.
“If you’re poor, you’re much more likely to see significant adverse effects that require support from outside agencies for a response to a disaster,” says Andrew Schroeder, the organization’s director of research and analysis. Someone may be less likely to have a car and be able to leave. If they rely on food stamps, the system may be disrupted and it may be harder to get food. They may not have the money for a hotel or be able to afford not working. They’re also a little more likely to have a chronic, long-term illness.
“If you’re poor and you’re chronically ill, what’s really going to tip you into crisis is that you can’t get access to medicines even for a short period of time,” says Schroeder. The organization also mapped out risk by disability and the age of residents, since older residents are also more likely to have illnesses, like diabetes, that require an ongoing supply of medicine, and have a harder time evacuating. Deaths from the immediate disaster–such as drownings–could be eclipsed by deaths from emergencies that occur while the community tries to recover.
Direct Relief also mapped out the vulnerability of communities based on types of housing and transportation used–including how many people own cars–and based on race and ethnicity, including how many people speak a language that may not be included when government organizations share information about the disaster. “All the things which make your community vulnerable before disaster make your community even more vulnerable during disaster,” Schroeder says.
The organization is using the maps to find the areas at highest risk so it can prioritize working with health centers there, and will continue to use them as the region goes through the longer-term process of rebuilding. “That broad focus on making sure that we don’t lose sight of the most vulnerable during disasters is really, really important,” he says.