Urban Wire More Than 3 Million Americans Were Displaced by a ‘Natural’ Disaster in the Past Year. How Can We Prepare for Our Climate Future?
Andrew Rumbach, Sara McTarnaghan
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Disasters have been a constant presence in the news this year, including devastating floods in Vermont and historically deadly wildfires in Hawaii. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there have been 66 major disaster declarations in 2023 so far, a record-setting pace that’s depleted our financial resources and stretched emergency management offices dangerously thin. Over the past five years, economic losses from disasters in the United States have averaged more than $150 billion annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By virtue of their unique circumstances and needs, we often talk about disasters in isolation. But how have these disasters collectively affected American households and families, and how does that inform our preparation for a warmer future?

The US Census Bureau’s recent Household Pulse Survey offers a rare, comprehensive look at the breadth and scale of disasters’ effects in the US. The Pulse Survey was launched in 2020 to collect and disseminate near–real time data on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergent issues. Beginning in December 2022, the survey added a “natural disaster” module, asking respondents about their recent experiences with extreme events like hurricanes, floods, and fires. By the final round of data collection in October 2023, the Census Bureau had administered these disaster-related questions to 12 separate samples, totaling 826,941 respondents—an unprecedented view of disasters’ nationwide effects.

The scope and costs of disaster-driven displacement

During the Pulse survey, between 1.2 and 1.7 percent of respondents reported having been displaced by a natural disaster in the past year, representing an average of 3.1 million people. This finding means about 1 in 70 adults in the country were estimated to have been displaced from their homes because of a disaster in the previous year alone. Not surprisingly, a large share of those displaced were because of hurricanes (about 45 percent) and floods (about 23 percent), but other disasters like fires (16 percent) and tornadoes (11 percent) were also prevalent.

Most respondents reported being out of their home for less than a month, but during the course of the survey, between 27 percent and 41 percent were displaced for longer, including a significant number for more than six months or who hadn’t returned home at all. Roughly one-third of disaster survivors responding to the survey—representing more than 1 million people—were displaced for a substantial period.

Roughly One-Third of Disaster Survivors Reported Being Displaced for More Than a Month

Survey period< 1 week (%)>1 week–month (%)1–6 months (%)> 6 months (%)Never returned home (%)
December 9 – December 19, 202239.723.810.98.517.0
January 4 – January 16, 202340.721.48.313.016.5
February 1 – 1341.917.
March 1 – 1344.023.910.24.617.3
March 29 –April 1044.123.514.87.410.2
April 26 – May 832.930.613.64.718.2
June 7 – 1938.529.012.08.512.0
June 28 – July 1042.824.76.56.419.5
July 26 – August 748.424.
August 23 – September 447.620.115.26.410.7
September 20 – October 244.924.67.812.110.6
October 18 – 3036.424.811.45.521.9

Source: US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, phases 3.7–3.10.
Notes: The percentages reflect the number of responses divided by the total number of responses. Survey respondents who did not report their length of displacement were removed from the population total before calculating the percentages.

More than three-quarters of respondents who were displaced because of a disaster reported some level of damage to their property and possessions, with between 39 percent to 53 percent suffering moderate or a lot of damage. This damage adds significant financial burden on top of the costs of being displaced. And more than one-third of displaced respondents over the course of the survey reported a significant food shortage in the first month after a disaster.

More Than One-Third of Respondents Experienced Food Shortages within a Month of Being Displaced by a Natural Disaster

Survey periodNot at all (%)A little (%)Some (%)A lot (%)
December 9 – December 19, 202237.125.917.219.8
January 4 – January 16, 202342.122.419.316.3
February 1 – 1331.224.118.626.1
March 1 – 1337.028.619.714.6
March 29 – April 1041.522.920.615.0
April 26 – May 842.817.424.115.7
June 7 – 1937.229.217.516.2
June 28 – July 1032.528.917.621.0
July 26 – August 737.028.216.418.4
August 23 – September 429.525.426.518.6
September 20 – October 238.917.026.517.7
October 18 – 3035.922.921.120.1

Source: US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, phases 3.7–3.10.
Notes: The percentages reflect the number of responses divided by the total number of responses. Survey respondents who did not respond to this question were removed from the population total before calculating the percentages.

Respondents who experienced displacement were also asked whether, in the month following the disaster, they had experienced offers that seemed like a scam. About half of the respondents, on average, said they had received some or a lot of scam-like offers, representing approximately 1.4 million people.

Putting disasters’ widespread impact into perspective

The Household Pulse data emphasize the range of needs that will need to be met if the US is going to achieve its climate resilience (PDF) goals. The Pulse Survey uniquely captures respondents’ experiences with all disasters, not just those that are federally declared and that receive associated recovery resources. In the absence of federal recovery assistance and for the many so-called low attention disasters that slip below the national radar, households are often left with few options, especially in states without stand-alone disaster recovery programs. The survey results also emphasize the diversity of recovery needs, from short-term assistance with displacement-related costs to longer-term recovery programs and protections against scam artists and illicit recovery schemes.

Across every metric of displacement and impact, the question of equity should be front and center. Given the widespread effects of disasters, are American households with lower incomes and fewer financial resources adequately prepared? Can our current patchwork of personal, governmental, and nonprofit resources hold up under the strain of ever-increasing disaster costs? Are our traditional social safety net programs up to the task?

These data demonstrate the remarkable degree to which American households are affected by disasters, often thought of as infrequent or rare events. Notably, these respondents only include households who were displaced, so they’re only partially representative of the total cumulative effects of extreme events. These costs are likely to rise in the future, with the increasing frequency and severity of hazards like hurricanes, wildfires, and heatwaves as a result of climate change. Policy solutions to aid those affected must come from many different corners of government, nonprofits, and civil society organizations

Research Areas Climate change, disasters, and community resilience
Tags Climate resilient housing Equitable disaster recovery Planning for climate change Climate justice Climate impacts and community resilience Equitable emergency management policy Climate adaptation and resilience Disaster recovery and mitigation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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