Column: Government fails when evacuations aren't inclusive

The United States is having a bad month in hurricanes. Between the recent destruction in Houston, the largest metropolitan area on the gulf coast, and Irma's path going through Miami, the second largest, just about everything that could go wrong is going wrong.

Yet part of the destruction is compounded by policy decisions and economic realities in American cities. So, let’s take a second to talk about how the U.S. government could save lives during hurricanes but won’t. 

Let’s focus on evacuations in particular. There was not a mandatory evacuation for Houston. The mayor claimed that it would have been deadly, as congested freeways would lead to drowning en masse on the highways. Yet, if the government had issued an evacuation a week or more before likely landfall, they could have evacuated the city in anticipation of the damage coming. Even if it didn’t hit a city with millions of people in it, the event could serve as a test run for the inevitable next big storm in a future with warmer Gulf waters. 

I also want to talk about how privilege means that people with higher incomes and no disabilities are far more likely to get out. And as I mentioned in a previous column, in policy decisions “high income” is basically code for “white people.”

How do you evacuate from a major city in the path of a hurricane? Leaving by road requires having a car, which costs fairly large amounts of money. Plane tickets have sold out and buying them from scalpers could cost you several thousand dollars in Miami right now. The U.S. also has almost no affordable intercity public transit to speak of, so if you can’t afford a car or plane ticket, it’s rather hard to leave Miami right now as perhaps the most powerful storm in recent Atlantic history barrels towards the city. 

Disabilities also complicate things, since physically leaving the home and navigating shelters and evacuation services (when they exist) can be difficult. Being undocumented also adds in a layer of uncertainty as there is no national policy preventing deportations of those seeking help in disaster zones, which caused anxiety in Houston.

So what currently happens is that many upper income and disproportionately white people can leave, while the disproportionately disabled and non-white lower income people in a city are left to their own devices in a natural disaster.

I maintain that the government could and should intervene to save lives and prevent this inequality. It’s not hard to imagine the federal government issuing a state of emergency, reclaiming their ownership of the interstate system and sending in a fleet of buses or transport vehicles to systematically evacuate major cities at the first sign of a particularly dangerous storm. Improving intercity public transit could also help, as it at least gives people with lower incomes a chance of getting out.

Will we do this? Probably not. It would require spending large amounts of money to help people who aren’t already well off and planning for disasters in advance, both of which Americans tend to be reluctant to do. But until we take every step we can to improve hurricane evacuations, the lives lost will lie squarely on the shoulders of the policy makers who could have prevented it, but wouldn’t. 

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