Harvey has pummeled Houston. Irma has devastated the Caribbean and is projected to hit Florida. More tropical depressions are forming in the Atlantic, and scientists have warned that with rising temperatures come stronger, more frequent hurricanes. And yet, as is not the case with events like tornadoes, we get advance warnings when hurricanes are coming our way. There’s often time, sometimes even plenty of time, for people to flee.
Why don’t they? Why not leave New Orleans before Katrina, or Houston before Harvey? At the very least, why don’t people go to a shelter? Often, the answer (to this and many questions) depends on a person’s wealth, or race, or age. Many people are unable to flee because they don’t have the means, they can’t risk their job, they’re old, or they’re disabled. Nor do governments provide much in the way of means to evacuate. Even when they do, state-sponsored solutions can fail without adequate preparation, as we saw in New Orleans in 2005, when the city bused evacuees not inland but to the Superdome.
Now and then, government actively discourages its residents from seeking safety. Consider the tweet from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Florida earlier this week, which read, “If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we'll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail.”
In response to the backlash, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office’s claimed repeatedly that the jail is a “safe and secure location.” In light of how prisoners are often treated during natural disasters, that doesn’t inspire much confidence.
In the wake of Harvey’s flooding, inmates report terrible conditions at Beaumont-area prisons in Texas. Many were without running water for days; finally bottled water was delivered. Some have reported standing water in cells, a scarcity of food, and a lack of access to medication. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denies these claims.
Before Katrina, when asked about plans to evacuate Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman said, “The prisoners will stay right where they belong.” Where the 6,500 prisoners belonged was apparently in floodwaters up to their necks, abandoned in locked cells, most guards having fled.
OPP is not actually a prison, but a parish jail (in Louisiana, counties are called parishes). As a jail, it was housing some prisoners who had not yet been to trial, including those held for low-level offenses like public intoxication, or even traffic violations.
One year after Katrina, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report based on interviews with more than 1,300 OPP inmates at the time of the flood, detailing human rights violations and abuse during that time. The evacuation of the entire facility took days; toilets overflowed, and without food and water, prisoners resorted to drinking sewage-contaminated floodwater to survive. Though the Sheriff’s Office insists that no one died, inmates and guards gave interviews that contested that.
Questioned after the storm about these eyewitness reports of human rights abuses after the storm, the ACLU notes, Gusman said, “They’re in jail, man. They lie.”
Natural disasters are not completely natural. Particularly when there’s advance warning, much of the devastation is preventable—but only when the contingency plans don’t reinforce the inequality that has been baked into our system for quite some time.