Hurricane Sandy Upended My Family. Victims of Natural Disaster Deserve More.
By Maggie Poulos
Icy saltwater surged from beneath the floorboards. Within minutes, my feet vanished and I was waist-deep in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Sandy was sweeping the Eastern Seaboard and taking my Long Island childhood home with it. In the following months I witnessed government plans to rebuild my community fall flat, as homeowners scrambled for information about how to reach out for help rebuilding.
Unfortunately, mine is not a unique experience. More than 40.5 million individuals were displaced worldwide in 2020, more than 30 million due to natural disasters. And around the world, government responses to the displaced too often fall short. As weather-related disasters become increasingly common, it is vital that countries pursue more effective disaster response policies. The upcoming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, offers nations the chance to unite to protect those most vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.
In the year following Sandy I lived out of a suitcase. Bouncing from house to house, my family relied on friends and extended family opening their homes to us. Still in high school at the time, I worked overtime to pay attention in class, study for the SAT exam and apply to college.
After Sandy, the majority of homes were repaired, some were lifted and many were sold as residents lost patience with rebuilding or chose to avoid future flooding. My family moved back into my house in Oceanside, the home where my mother was raised, nearly one year later. Remnants of the storm remain, though, including 30 years of change to Long Island’s coastline caused in a single night and the community trauma of over 100 homes reduced to ashes in Breezy Point, Queens.
More than 50 million children across the globe have experiences like mine, or worse. Displaced due to climate-related disasters, they suffer significant impacts to their education and well-being. Indeed, the social and economic consequences of poor disaster response policy ripple across entire communities, including children, women, seniors and the disabled. Much of this displacement happens within countries borders, a recent report notes.
Those displaced by natural disasters are made doubly vulnerable by the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to stop the virus’ spread, including closed borders, have disrupted humanitarian assistance around the world. Government officials focused on fighting COVID-19, in some cases overlooking climate-related health dangers. Earlier this year, temperatures hit a record high in the Canadian province of British Columbia, causing hundreds of deaths. British Columbia Premier John Horgan stated that government officials were too focused on the pandemic and thought little of the heat.
Meanwhile, national lockdowns have worsened financial hardship for displaced families. School closures create obstacles to education for their children. Vaccines are less available to displaced people, who are more likely to live in densely populated areas and have limited access to healthcare.
Recovery from one natural disaster is difficult enough. Yet many communities are hit with one natural disaster after another, making recovery nearly impossible. Western Bangladash for instance, has been hit by a series of cyclones that washed away homes and infrastructure, including cyclones Sidr, Bulbul and Amphan in 2007, 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Every year during the Atlantic hurricane season, from June to November, a wave of anxiety pulses through Oceanside. The thought that another superstorm could hit is a shared worry. A hurricane of Sandy’s caliber has not yet returned, but it may. And we are without a clear path forward.
In a world where every new year is the warmest year on record, governments must anticipate climate-related disasters and prioritize natural disaster management. They must respond with concrete policy measures that offer accessible and sufficient short and long-term aid.
COP26 offers an opportunity for nations to do just that. While my experience with natural disaster displacement lies behind me, for many it lies ahead. Indeed, for thousands of vulnerable people around the world, it is a matter of life and death.
Margaret Poulos is a master of public policy student at Duke University from Oceanside, New York, studying the intersection of international development and environmental policy.