The growing prevalence of battered RVs and tents as housing of last resort, crowding city streets, public lands and commercial campgrounds, has been recognized for some time as the inevitable byproduct of soaring rents and gentrifying real estate. But it’s not just higher costs that are contributing to America’s housing immiseration. A growing horde of climate refugees—a phenomenon long associated with Third World countries—also is becoming an inescapable part of the landscape, driven by extreme weather events that are growing in both number and intensity.
Last week the American Red Cross, which has among the most comprehensive overviews of national crises, reported it had responded to more than 80 separate disasters over the previous 100 days—some, it averred, accelerated by the climate crisis. “In the 1980s, we had an average of three billion-dollar disasters each year, while over the past five years the country has seen a six-fold increase and now averages 18 of them annually,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations for the Red Cross. “We’re now running major disaster operations nearly continually throughout the year, as our climate changes and extreme weather increases.”
The Red Cross’s observations were buttressed by a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau that concludes an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. were forced to evacuate their homes last year by extreme weather—some never to return. The estimate was extrapolated from 68,504 responses to a survey conducted Jan. 4-16 and is still considered “experimental,” as the bureau first started tracking displaced people only in 2020 and is still refining its methodology. Still, the scale of the problem it reveals has surprised and even shocked some observers.
“These numbers are what one would expect to find in a developing country. It’s appalling to see them in the United States,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told NBC News last week. “The United States is not in the least prepared for this. Our settlement patterns have not reflected the emerging risks of climate change to the habitability of some parts of the country.”
High on that list for 2022 are the Gulf Coast states, where hurricanes displaced almost a million people in Florida—7% of the population—and twice that percentage in Louisiana. More than 22,000 homes were destroyed or received major damage just from Hurricane Ian. Meanwhile, atmospheric rivers on the West Coast displaced more than 250,000 in California, while tornadoes and other severe weather displaced hundreds of thousands more—more than 380,000 just in Texas—across the South. Indeed, the National Weather Service already has confirmed 123 tornadoes in the U.S. in 2023.
Most public officials, however, have not risen to the occasion—or have made the homelessness problem even bigger. In battered Florida, for example, where rents last year increased an average 24% in the largest metro areas, state legislators repeatedly diverted money from a trust fund meant to support affordable housing programs for other purposes. Meanwhile, the Orange, Osceola and Seminole school districts reported a one-year increase of 45% in homeless students, and a tent city of dozens of people has sprung up next to downtown Orlando.
Final 2022 figures for the U.S. overall are still being tallied, but it’s sobering to realize that in 2021, more than 40% of all Americans lived in a county that was struck by extreme weather that year. That percentage will almost certainly grow, and as it does, the population of suddenly homeless people will grow in lock-step. Some—perhaps a majority, for now— will be able to rebuild, but those with inadequate or no insurance, or whose livelihoods have been demolished along with their homes, will not.
And as this dynamic evolves, many recreational campgrounds will more closely resemble refugee camps. It’s already happening, in slow motion. And it’s not something “over there,” in an earthquake-devastated Turkey or a flood-swamped Pakistan, but right here at home.
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