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Shelter From The Storm

Image Credit: 

NASA via NYTimes

Hurricane Harvey has broken records in rainfall and will likely break even more records for damage.  Casualties have been mercifully few, measured in dozens, but damage will be measured in the tens of billions of dollars.  Emergency services, members of the armed forces, and civilian volunteers are already hard at work in the recovery effort, knowing full well that they may yet see another storm this year.  As recovery efforts continue, people are already asking how Houston, indeed, all of America, could have been more prepared.  Civil infrastructure will receive renewed attention, as will Federal Emergency systems, law enforcement, insurance policies, and more.  Another topic raised has been the question of how to manage the evacuation of the city.  Houston, America’s fourth largest city, with a population of over 2 million, presents a daunting challenge.  Looking at the issue more broadly, Houston raises another daunting issue:  the United States needs to re-examine its refugee policy.

A discussion about refugees and Hurricane Harvey may seem out of place, but here is some context:  This year alone, as many as 12 million people have been displaced by flooding in India’s Bihar province a mudslide in Sierra Leone has killed over 1,000; and flooding in Bangladesh has killed another 1,000 people while also damaging half a million homes and destroying thousands of square kilometers of crops.[1]  This is not unusual.  In fact, such events are getting worse[2], if not in terms of people killed, then in economic impact.  The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake killed over 250,000 people in 14 countries, also disrupting billions of dollars in commerce through the world’s busiest shipping lane. 

Future incidents may do even more damage.  The global population is increasingly urbanized and concentrated in coastal cities[3].  Earth’s total population has increased tremendously in the past 100 years[4], leading to a commensurate increase in subsistence demands.  More mouths to feed mean more resources to produce, distribute, and consume.  More centralized populations mean more demands on infrastructure, civic planning, and security.  Governments and such communities are tasked highly and more will be demanded of them sooner rather than later. It is altogether appropriate to take a pre-emptive approach to managing future disaster relief efforts. Accordingly, now is the perfect time to reconsider US refugee policy and reinvigorate the debate on refugee policies at the national level.

Consider the present circumstances and consider the future.  The city of Houston has a population of over 2 million.  Well-meaning critics have demanded to know why an evacuation order was not given before Harvey made landfall.  However, it only takes a few minutes with a calculator to demonstrate that a short-notice mass migration of 2 million persons over distances exceeding 200 miles, across choked highways, through crowded gas station, to places of shelter able to accommodate their numbers, is barely conceivable, much less feasible.  So what of mass devastation along the US East Coast, like a stronger Hurricane Sandy?  Or what if Hurricane Irma, already on its way toward the Gulf of Mexico, continues North and West?  Besides the resources needed to continue recovery and relief efforts in Texas, phenomenal resources will be needed across years to accommodate people whose homes, already damaged, may end up completely destroyed.

The Texans recovering in Houston, or potentially fleeing from Hurricane Irma, offer much to consider regarding existing US refugee policies.  Over 10 million Syrians remain in refugee status, either internally or externally displaced.[5]  Over 2 million registered refugees come from Afghanistan.  Over 1 million refugees originate from South Sudan.  All of these are just refugees.  The United Nations has a technical definition of refugees[6], and this matters, because displaced persons can move internally within their home countries or across borders, dramatically affecting security, resource distribution, economics, and exacerbating social tensions.  Consider also that, as of 2015, over 240 million people (over 3% of the global population) were working or residing outside of their country of origin[7].  With that in mind, it is easier to understand how the next major weather events may not occur in the Americas, but the effects may be very direct.  Take Marawi City, where an urban battle has raged for over 100 days on the Philippine island of Mindanao.  The fighting, initiated by a mere few hundred fighters, has disrupted that regional economy and the entire nation’s security.  The origins of the insurgent/terrorist elements that initiated the battle lie within socio-economic problems, problems that can be easily exacerbated by natural disasters and public perceptions of federal response. In a near future where such already-existing tensions have reached a boiling point, a major meteorological or geological disaster can lead to even worse consequences in other such nations.

At present, the administration under President Donald Trump has lowered the annual number of refugees allowed into the United States to 50,000 (down from 110,000 under President Obama)[8].  Much of the substance of discussion about the above refugee policy is steeped in security concerns and social ills, and it has invigorated debate about religion in society, job security, and the role of the United States in the affairs of other nations.  The relatively small number of 50,000 refugees admitted at our convenience is contentious enough in the public forum; what of an emergency relocation of millions?  Yet the number of refugees admitted is hardly the point of this article.  The point is that a growing global population that finds itself more mobile in search of work, more urbanized, more centralized in coastal cities, and more socially intertwined in tight confines, will soon present problems much larger in scope than Hurricane Harvey, and they will touch us.  This increasingly interconnected global economy (and global society) will necessitate more global partners to share the metaphorical load as potentially tens of millions may be forced to flee to safety from future disasters; we will not be exempt.

As the United States considers the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey, we can take warning not just of future domestic challenges but also of future international challenges.  Discussion on infrastructure can no longer be confined to just ‘roads and bridges.’  Concerns about insurance policies and economic support for afflicted persons may need to extend well beyond storm-damaged areas.  Indeed, the next great storm may not even occur on US soil, but it may still hurt the US terribly.  As disasters intensify and the damage increases in scope, more people will seek shelter from the storm, and they will look to America for relief.  We need to be ready when they are at our door; they may come knocking much sooner than we think.


[1] "Submerged." The Economist (London), September 02, 2017, 9056th ed.

[2] "In a Warming World, the Storms May Be Fewer But Stronger : Feature Articles." NASA. Accessed September 05, 2017.

[3] "Human Population: Urbanization." Human Population: Urbanization. Accessed September 05, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Figures at a Glance." UNHCR. Accessed September 05, 2017.

[6] "What is a Refugee? Definition and Meaning." USA for UNHCR. Accessed September 05, 2017.

[7] "Learning to Live Together." Migrant | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Accessed September 05, 2017.

[8] "An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy." American Immigration Council. August 12, 2017. Accessed September 05, 2017.