Last fall the United States and the Caribbean were battered by three devastating, record-breaking hurricanes--Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, Irma in the Caribbean and Florida, and Maria in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. The destructive power of these hurricanes was extreme, but their impacts were exacerbated by human decisions before and after the storms; they might have been natural disasters, but their aftermaths are a matter of human rights.
Hurricanes are unique natural disasters because we know they're coming for days in advance. This means that those living in the potential path have time to prepare or evacuate. However, many people don't have the resources to adequately prepare, the option to evacuate, or the funds to rebuild their lives afterward. During the worst hurricanes, those not in the path of the storm watch, feeling anxious and helpless, as the media broadcast images of people stranded in their damaged homes or wading through flood waters to get to safety.
Those of us outside the path feel helpless, but we may also feel compelled to help. Humanists aspire to reduce suffering and correct inequality. Anyone caught in the path of a natural disaster suffers, but the degree of suffering varies in ways that parallel existing social inequality. Those with lower incomes, less access to relief and recovery resources,
or identities that already marginalize them in their communities suffer disproportionately as a result.
Humanists can and do help in ways consistent with our commitment to reason and evidence. Foundation Beyond Belief unites the humanist community to respond to these hurricanes through our Humanist Disaster Recovery program. Because of this effort, the humanist community continues to improve the lives of people in Houston and Puerto Rico as they rebuild from record-breaking hurricanes in 2017.
In August 2017 Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane near Rockport, Texas. It was the first major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) to make landfall in the United States since Wilma in 2015. Once over land, Harvey quickly weakened to a tropical storm before stalling near the Houston metro area for several days. The storm dropped over sixty inches of rain in southeastern Texas, which is more than the average annual precipitation in the area. (The annual average in Houston, for example, is 45.28). The extraordinary amount of rain in such a short amount of time caused historic flooding and made Harvey the second-most costly hurricane in US history, surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After losing some intensity, Harvey hit Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas as one of the wettest tropical cyclones and most prolific tornado producers on record.
In addition to the storm's stall, massive urban growth exacerbated the damage in Houston. Fields can soak up water, but concrete cannot. Outdated flood maps that formed the basis of the National Flood Insurance program resulted in thousands of flooded homes whose owners didn't carry flood insurance. Renters and those in public housing generally have fewer options and receive less aid on average. Low income families are disproportionately affected by events like this; in Houston, the median household income for black and Hispanic families is less than half of that for white families.
From the nineteenth century to 2017, only four Category 4 hurricanes had come within seventy-five miles of Puerto Rico. Then, in September 2017, the island was hit by two major hurricanes in one month--Irma and Maria. Irma was a Category 5 when it passed just to the north, leaving 63 percent of Puerto Rico residents without power and officials predicting weeks to months to fully restore power to the island. At least three died as a direct result of Irma in Puerto Rico, and people had no time to start recovery efforts when the Category 4 Maria passed directly over the island just two weeks later. According to the National Hurricane Center, Maria was the third most costly...