The Color of Climate

When Climate Disasters Hit the Covid-Stricken South, Poor POC Will Suffer Most

And they’re on the way right now

A woman observes a home leveled by a tornado on April 13, 2020 near Nixville, South Carolina. Photo illustration. Photo: Sean Rayford/Stringer/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Last Sunday, tornadoes, high-speed winds, hailstorms, and torrential downpours hit Mississippi for the second week in a row. It’s one of several states in the American South — along with Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama — that are starting to see severe weather patterns as we enter the warmer months.

There was hail in Dallas. There was a tornado near New Orleans. There was both hail and a tornado near Houston. And it’s just the beginning — researchers at Colorado State University project that there will be eight hurricanes in the United States this year, four of them major.

This is typical weather in the South—though climate change is making these types of weather events more severe—but this is far from a typical year. The coronavirus has killed thousands of people in the South and infected tens of thousands more since the first American case was reported in late January.

Millions of people in the region, infected or not, have been ordered to stay at home in order to mitigate the further spread of the virus. And although places like New York and New Jersey — the two states hardest hit by the virus so far — have already passed peak hospital demand, many states in the South are only just now hitting peak hospitalizations, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The combination of deadly weather and a deadly virus has many experts and first responders wondering how the two threats will combine to pose a major threat to millions of Americans throughout the year. And they should be especially mindful of the impact of people of color and poor people.

As we’ve seen, Covid-19 cases and deaths are not impacting everyone equally. Starting in early April, Black people began dying from the virus at disproportionately high rates. Since then, more data has been published showing that other communities of color are faring worse than white Americans, too.

Communities of color and poor communities have historically been the most severely affected by disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and flooding and are typically the last to receive relief in their aftermath. People in communities along the Gulf Coast, the same ones experiencing severe weather and who are on the brink of seeing peak Covid-19 hospital demand, only three months ago shared stories of such inequities with OneZero for our “Black in the Time of Climate Change” series.

The peak of the coronavirus isn’t projected for some Southern states until late June. And, of course, there’s the possibility they might experience a second peak in infections in the fall or winter. This means that we’re looking at the threat of the virus through every typical extreme weather event — hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, and wildfires — that happens in an average year in the U.S.

Last week, I said we need to keep our head on a swivel and look out for instances of environmental racism during the pandemic. But we also need to make sure we manage impending disasters with a mind toward protecting the most vulnerable among us.

For more on this fast-approaching future, I recommend this reading list:

  • Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, spoke to Earther’s Yessenia Funes about how the coronavirus and hurricane season might impact each other.
  • Firefighters all around the country are getting infected by the coronavirus or being quarantined because of it, begging the question of how the virus will impact efforts to prepare for wildfire season and fight fires once they come. Kendra Pierre-Louis of the New York Times explores that question.
  • For more about how how California is preparing for wildfire season amid the pandemic, check out J.D. Morris’ story on it for the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • And finally, over at the New York Times, Zoë Schlanger and Lisa Friedman explore what people should do if a disaster strikes during a pandemic.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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