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Disasters have been a constant presence in the news this year, including devastating floods in Vermont and historically deadly wildfires in Hawaii. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there have been 66 major disaster declarations in 2023 so far, a record-setting pace that’s depleted our financial resources and stretched emergency management offices dangerously thin. Over the past five years, economic losses from disasters in the United States have averaged more than $150 billion annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
By virtue of their unique circumstances and needs, we often talk about disasters in isolation. But how have these disasters collectively affected American households and families, and how does that inform our preparation for a warmer future?
The US Census Bureau’s recent Household Pulse Survey offers a rare, comprehensive look at the breadth and scale of disasters’ effects in the US. The Pulse Survey was launched in 2020 to collect and disseminate near–real time data on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergent issues. Beginning in December 2022, the survey added a “natural disaster” module, asking respondents about their recent experiences with extreme events like hurricanes, floods, and fires. By the final round of data collection in October 2023, the Census Bureau had administered these disaster-related questions to 12 separate samples, totaling 826,941 respondents—an unprecedented view of disasters’ nationwide effects.
The scope and costs of disaster-driven displacement
During the Pulse survey, between 1.2 and 1.7 percent of respondents reported having been displaced by a natural disaster in the past year, representing an average of 3.1 million people. This finding means about 1 in 70 adults in the country were estimated to have been displaced from their homes because of a disaster in the previous year alone. Not surprisingly, a large share of those displaced were because of hurricanes (about 45 percent) and floods (about 23 percent), but other disasters like fires (16 percent) and tornadoes (11 percent) were also prevalent.
Most respondents reported being out of their home for less than a month, but during the course of the survey, between 27 percent and 41 percent were displaced for longer, including a significant number for more than six months or who hadn’t returned home at all. Roughly one-third of disaster survivors responding to the survey—representing more than 1 million people—were displaced for a substantial period.