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Climate Refugees: The Displacement Consequences of Hurricane Ian

By Anna Wilk

Image courtesy of Unsplash

On September 28th, 2022 Southwest Florida was hit by the second deadliest hurricane that the United States has experienced this century. Nearly 150 people died in Florida due to the hurricane. This number comes from a combination of drowned victims, people who chose to stay behind, individuals who died from power outages that affected their health and wellbeing, and others who called for help but were not rescued in time. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, thirteen counties were deemed eligible for disaster assistance. These thirteen counties included Seminole, Orange, Osceola, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Hardee, Sarasota, DeSoto, Charlotte, Lee, and Collier counties. The populations within these - around 7.8 million people - comprise more than a third of the state’s total population.

Climate disasters do not discriminate when they cause havoc. Socioeconomic inequalities are magnified in an individual’s or a family’s ability to recover from the destruction caused by the weather event. In a survey of individuals recently displaced by climate disasters (hurricanes, wildfires, excessive heat, flooding, etc), 39% reported that they were able to return home in less than a week, 20% in less than a month, 8% in less than 6 months, 12% in more than 6 months, and 16% never returned home at all. These numbers are exacerbated when looking at income demographics: 43% of individuals making less than 25K a year never returned home because of the burdens of transportation and the lack of resources to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

Prior to the arrival of the storm, 2.5 million people were encouraged to evacuate their homes by Florida officials. There were systemic failures in the evacuation orders which ranged from not knowing the correct trajectory of the climate disaster to not providing support for families who do not have the financial means to relocate. Originally, the storm was projected to hit Tampa and Tallahassee the hardest so the earliest evacuation orders were sent out to those communities; however, both of these cities were spared, and the communities of Fort Myers and Naples, which were not sent evacuation orders until later, faced the consequences of the storm and a lack of preparedness. Shadow evacuees (individuals who are not required to evacuate but choose to do so anyway out of fear) are dangerous to the survival of those who do need to evacuate since they cause unnecessary traffic congestion on the roads.

On the positive side, many communities throughout hurricane-prone zones came together to create shelters and provide resources to those who had to evacuate their homes but were unable to rebuild due to financial constraints. These shelters are similar to refugee camps in that they provide homes, food, and medical supplies for individuals until they are able to rebuild their lives beyond the shelter. Unfortunately, for many, this takes years.

A further dive into the disparate effects of hurricanes and hurricane relief on individuals of different income brackets leads to evidence of the necessity for more progressive legislation. People with lower socioeconomic statuses are statistically less able to access mitigation measures prior to a natural disaster due to insufficient education surrounding types of disaster aid, limited ability to get to and from disaster assistance centers, and the fact that low-income individuals are more likely to live in homes that are vulnerable to disasters. In the case of weaker hurricanes, the transferring of funds from non-disaster programs such as Medicare and unemployment insurance can be a positive means of providing relief toward earning losses. In the case of stronger hurricanes – category three and higher – the relief provided is much lower than the earning losses. Hurricane Ian was a stage four hurricane. Policy initiatives should include more evacuation support for people of low socioeconomic status, safer housing, poverty mitigation, and more financial adaptation measures targeted toward low-income communities. This could look like providing transportation to low-income areas for evacuation and opening shelters with adequate resources to sustain these families during the weather disaster as well as augmenting the number of funds allocated toward hurricane relief and distributing it equitably rather than equally to all those affected.

Hurricane Ian is not the last natural disaster that will cause millions of American residents to become climate migrants. Due to an augmentation in sea surface temperatures as well as changes in the atmosphere and rising sea levels, hurricanes are increasing in intensity. The wind speed is becoming faster, there is more precipitation, higher flood elevation, and the hurricanes themselves take longer to move through their trajectories. These factors will only continue to proliferate causing these natural disasters to become more dangerous. This is why it is critical that legislation surrounding hurricane mitigation measures are passed rapidly, and that resources to help communities prepare for and adapt to these disasters are allocated efficiently.


Works Cited

Department of Health and Human Services. (2017, July). Greater impact: How disasters affect people of low socioeconomic status. SAMHSA.

Fawcett, E., Smith, M., Sasani, A., Robles, F., & Weingart, E. (2022, October 21). Vulnerable and trapped: A look at those lost in Hurricane Ian. The New York Times.

Hurricanes and climate change. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. (2022, September 22).

Ivanova, I. (2023, May 25). Millions of Americans are fleeing their homes because of extreme weather. CBS News.

Johnson, J. H., et al(2022, November). Will Hurricane Ian Trigger Climate Refugee Migration from Florida. Urban Investments Strategy Center.

Nyce, C. M. (2022, October 3). Escaping Hurricane Ian. The Atlantic.

Silva, D. (2022, October 7). Latino families, some of them climate refugees, found a home in Southwest Florida. Ian took it all away.


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