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Over the past few months, severe weather has caused significant damage across the Southeast. In East Tennessee, heavy rains and flooding caused extensive damage and closed schools throughout Knoxville and the surrounding area. More recently, an outbreak of tornadoes led to injuries and deaths in Alabama and Georgia.

Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor of social work, conducts research on how climate impacts people, particularly the most vulnerable groups in society. She discussed the recent wave of severe weather, how it can be addressed, and what to expect for the future.

How are the recent floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters in the region affecting people in these communities?

Surviving a flood or tornado is traumatic. People may have feared for their lives. They may be grieving over lost loved ones, or be newly homeless and struggling to put their lives back together. Stress, anxiety, and depression can exacerbate other preexisting health problems.

The economic impact for some people will also be great. For those directly affected by a flood or tornado, personal belongings, household furnishings, or entire homes may be lost. Trying to recover or replace these items can drain household savings, if there were savings to begin with. The ability to take time off from work or deal with processing of insurance or FEMA claims will vary from person to person—often in ways that put the already economically vulnerable, such as people working in hourly or lower-paying jobs, even further at risk.

Who are the most vulnerable to the damage reaped by natural disasters?

Jesse Ribot, a professor at American University, once wrote, “Vulnerability does not fall from the sky.” In other words, a natural hazard might fall from the sky and hit anywhere—but understanding who is most vulnerable to the impacts of that hazard, and why, are the questions that really matter if we care about protecting people in equitable ways.

Children and older adults are often most vulnerable because their well-being, or even their physical ability to survive a disaster, such as evacuating during a flood or taking shelter during a tornado, depends on other people.

Not surprisingly, money matters too. In Knoxville, for example, we saw flooding hit neighborhoods across the economic spectrum—wealthy and not wealthy. But if we project out a few months or a year, we will likely see that it’s wealthier neighborhoods and households that bounce back quicker, and in some cases even bounce back to a higher level of wealth than preflood, than those who had less wealth to begin with. Sadly, the process of recovering from disaster can often exacerbate preexisting social or economic inequalities.

How can communities recover?

Recovery should be holistic and equitable. By holistic, I mean recovery should consider the range of needs that people have—from trauma counseling and temporary shelter to consumer protection and physical rebuilding of structures. By equitable, I mean recovery programs should consider that people with lesser means to begin with will be even further disadvantaged by disaster and may need additional or more flexible supports as they recover. For example, what kinds of expenses can be met with emergency management aid? One way to pursue equitable recovery is to ensure that the needs and voices of diverse community members are sought out, heard, and responded to.

Is there a way to limit the damage made by these disasters?

With climate change, we are entering a new era of natural disasters, where they hit, and the damage they cause. Some disasters could be prevented, or at least made less bad, with the help of new technologies. Smart stormwater practices, for example, could help mitigate flooding in a city if widely deployed. But adoption of smart stormwater is not just a technical solution; it’s also a social one that involves understanding if city decision-makers and the public would support such solutions. Similarly, for tornadoes, mobile home communities could be regulated to ensure that safe shelters are provided on site. But pursuing such a policy, or influencing people’s behavior to actually take shelter, are political and social problems that aren’t so simple to address. We need new teams of scientists, decision makers, and the public coming together to address disaster prevention in collaborative ways.

What can we expect of severe weather and future consequences in Tennessee and across the United States?

More people in more parts of the country will experience these severe weather events and related disasters. On the one hand, this may further grow the percentage of people who agree that climate change is here. On the other hand, if living through severe weather becomes the norm for people, recent increases in public attention and media coverage of climate change may wane.

It seems that we have a window of opportunity to try and address climate change now, while more people are experiencing its impacts and wondering if they themselves, not just their children or grandchildren, will have a safe environment to live in. In this window, we need to pursue two kinds of policies. We need policies that protect our most vulnerable groups from the inequitable impacts of climate change. And we need policies that move us much more quickly to clean energy in all sectors.

CONTACT:

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)