Americans Are Moving Into the Paths of Hurricanes

Vann R. Newkirk II on the voluntary—and involuntary—movements putting people across the country in harm’s way

Travel trailers are inundated by floodwaters at the Peace River Campground on October 4, 2022 in Arcadia, Florida.
Travel trailers are inundated by floodwaters at the Peace River Campground on October 4, 2022 in Arcadia, Florida. (Sean Rayford / Getty)

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Vann R. Newkirk II, our senior editor and Floodlines podcast host, told me, “Some of the fastest-growing areas in the country have really intense flood and hurricane risks.” He explains why, and what this means for the future.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


‘We’re Stuck in a Cycle’

Kelli María Korducki: You know a lot about hurricanes. What stands out about Hurricane Ian last week?

Vann R. Newkirk II: It’s pretty rough. We’re looking at well over 100 deaths; there’s still power loss, and the total damages are going to cost a lot of money. When you think about Florida, you often think about the really developed parts towards Miami and the Atlantic coastal side of South Florida. But when storms come up around the other side of the state, the Gulf side, you run into a lot of unique risks—and a lot of rural counties take the brunt of it.

But on the flip side, Ian was originally forecasted to travel directly up Tampa Bay and bring a catastrophic storm surge into the city, which would’ve obviously caused damages and problems—and probably loss of life—that exceeded what we saw.

Kelli: How does politics play into immediate storm response and preparedness for future disasters?

Vann: There’s already a lot of political jockeying post-Ian. Earlier this week, Marco Rubio threatened to reject any future disaster-relief bill with too much “pork” in it for other projects. He’s seeking aid when he was critical of aid going out to other states before. Of course, he’s able to take that stance because the storm didn’t have the most catastrophic of possible effects.

The thing that strikes me is that [this jockeying is] all pretty rote at this point, especially in southern states—which are where hurricanes and the brunt of climate-related disasters are going to happen. It’s also where the bulk of conservatives who largely oppose robust safety-net spending and long-term assistance are in office. Something bad happens and obviously they’re going to petition for what they need, but they’re going to say they don’t want to become dependent or for aid provisions to be around too long. And then, when disaster hits somewhere else or somebody else, they’ll say relief spending is too high. I think we’re stuck in a cycle on this.

Kelli: What does the future of that cycle look like? Is there any indication that the known risks are affecting migration patterns?

Vann: If you look at some of the fastest-growing areas in the country, a lot of those have really intense flood and hurricane risks. You saw it with Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which hit Houston and its rapidly expanding metro area. The areas that got the worst of that storm were those that had recently become sort of suburbanized; they were places that had recently put down lots of pavement to accommodate all these new neighborhoods, which were marked on FEMA maps as having high flood risk. I think there’s a bit of individual denialism of flood risk in these housing booms, too, but also people are guided to those locations by real-estate developers and given a false sense of security.

Then on the flip side, lots of poor communities are sort of shunted to places that are high flood risk. Take the Tampa Bay area, which [is] one of the fastest-growing metros in the country. And so you can imagine, if the storm had traveled up Tampa Bay and had made a direct hit on that metro, new developments—places where laborers are being pushed out to, places that have been newly paved—would be vulnerable. And that’s where people are moving. Obviously the poster child for this is Miami. Miami is sinking and will be substantially underwater at some point, probably within some readers’ lifetimes. But also Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay—they’re all growing.

On the other side, you have the Jacksonville and Orlando areas; further north, there’s Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. All of these places were built on water and now are newly developing over wetlands. And cities are making development choices that don’t take into account the risks that are involved there.

Kelli: Is there any indication that there’s going to be some kind of comprehensive policy response to the encroaching threat of climate catastrophe on coastal regions?

Vann: I hope there will be! [Laughs.] There’s some light: There are funds in the new Inflation Reduction Act that should go to sustainable infrastructure, that aren’t being earmarked specifically through the EPA, for what they call “environmental justice communities.” I imagine that improving infrastructure will help manage flood risk a little better.

But to the larger question, I’m not sure. I think one of the main reasons why a lot of these cities are so attractive to new residents is because there’s a twin geography: the legacy of housing segregation and cheap land, plus the history of developing in flood lands. You have all those things put together, and wind up with the only markets in America where there’s an abundance of less expensive land that is developable to build new constructions on. I think that history, in lots of different ways, is making southern places more vulnerable to hurricanes and floods.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. President Joe Biden pardoned all people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law, and ordered a review of the classification of the drug as a Schedule 1 substance. The pardons will clear the convictions of some 6,500 people from 1992 to 2021.
  2. North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea and flew 12 warplanes near the border with South Korea. South Korea scrambled 30 military planes in response.
  3. Russian missile attacks in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia left at least three people dead. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s illegal annexation of the city.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Illustration of a Roman soldier statue wielding candy corn spear
(Getty; The Atlantic)

You Must Respect Candy Corn

By Ian Bogost

I am alive and autumnal. In this state, I read about candy corn, the seasonal candy that looks like corn kernels. And everything I read about candy corn insists that I have a strong opinion on the matter. Love it or hate it! But must I? The truth is simpler: Candy corn is not evil or good, but simply present.

I’m not going to rehearse the whole story. Candy corn is a late-19th-century confection, invented during an agrarian age that found horticultural treats endearing. Its tricolor, three-part composition was laborious to construct and novel to behold. Once perennial, it later became associated with autumn and then Halloween.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Steve Zahn and castmates in a still from "White Lotus"
(Mario Perez / HBO)

Read. String,” a new poem by Daniel Halpern.

“I read of a falconer trying to trap a hawk. / She fashions a noose of twine / around the feathered body of a live blackbird.”

Watch. The trailer for Season 2 of The White Lotus was released today. Catch up on the first season of the acerbic HBO satire about wealthy vacationers.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

“As you can tell, I love talking about hurricanes,” Vann told me. It’s an enthusiasm informed by a deep understanding of the history and politics, land-use policies, and migration patterns that shape how natural disasters unfold in American communities. These dynamics underpin Floodlines, Vann’s eight-part podcast series on the before and after of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—a storm whose groundwork of devastation was laid well before its 2005 landfall, and whose aftereffects are still being felt.

—Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.