It was indistinguishable, in almost every way, from a refugee camp. Hundreds of people slept under tarpaulins or on the bare ground, or scrounged desperately for food (too little) and through mountains of donated clothing (too much), or huddled in circles to protect their families. There was the same vacant, defeated look in people’s eyes; the same air of danger and predation and fear.
But this wasn’t a faraway war; it was a scene unfolding this week at a Walmart parking lot in Chico, Calif. – a normally pleasant part of the wealthiest of the 50 United States. Surely, the similarities were superficial. This wasn’t an uprooted migrant population, authorities told themselves – just some local families who’d had their houses and communities burn down in the record-breaking Camp wildfire. After a couple of days, police and officials said, these people would be moving along, going back home, and life would return to normal. They began clearing the parking lot.
Watching from her home in Houston, Angela Blanchard gave an exasperated sigh, and reflected on her decades of work in disaster recovery and migration settlement – two things that, she has found, are in most ways nearly identical.
“Make no mistake, no one’s going to remember when everything burned,” she said in her Cajun drawl. “They’re going to remember whether or not somebody helped them recover. And that’s a multi-year process.” Disaster recovery, she has discovered, is not a matter of flames and floods but of self-generated migrant emergencies that last for years.
When disasters occur, governors tend to get in touch with her. During her 20 years as head of the huge migration-settlement and neighbourhood-development charity BakerRipley, she found herself leading Houston’s responses to hurricanes Katrina and Harvey and a dozen other disasters. (She is also a lecturer in disaster management at Brown University in Rhode Island).
“What we saw in Katrina,” Ms. Blanchard says, “is people settling in from New Orleans right next to the Somalis and Pakistanis and Cubans and Colombians our organization was serving.” And her staff were learning that the two groups had near-identical goals: Find secure housing that enables new arrivals to group together in a community; get their kids in a school as soon as possible; get connected to the economy. Or, as she says in one of her slogans: “We need to help newly-arrived people earn, learn and belong.”
And she intends to tell Californians that their state, like most in the United States, has a disaster plan that risks creating a de facto refugee crisis, because it’s based on obsolete short-term assumptions: “The biggest problem we have no good intermediate housing solutions. None! We have a six-week to three-month shelter plan. And then a precipice. And then two years later - maybe, optimistically - your house might be rebuilt. Between two months and two years, nothing. Good luck. Long-stay hotel, or you rent a spare room, or Airbnb, and you go broke.”
Major natural disasters, especially the kind that have been experienced this century, don’t just drive people out of their homes for a few days, or even months. A large proportion are displaced for very long periods – and many never return. Sometimes, as researchers found was the case with New Orleans after Katrina, the ones who never return are the lucky ones. Disasters rupture communities in ways that aren’t easily remedied.
Unfortunately, we still tend to think of these events as anomalies. We might be able to mobilize society to cope with the long-term human displacement of a single once-in-a-century catastrophe. But what if rising atmospheric temperatures and ocean levels mean that once-in-a-century catastrophes are occurring every few months?
“They’ve got to look at Houston,” Ms. Blanchard says. “Houston has had one federally declared disaster event for every nine-month period over the last five years. And these are not the disasters I grew up with, where it was a two- to three-day thing and then you kind of mopped up and you went back to work. The climate scientists are all begging us to understand what the world is telling us – that this is bigger now.”
In other words, it might be worth treating every day like a state of emergency.
“For a decade now, I feel like I’ve been begging governments to stop tweaking their plan based on the last big one. Stop saying, ‘This is unprecedented.’ Stop it, because they’re all going to be unprecedented. … If I had a big alarm bell, I’d just be clanging it away saying, ‘Don’t plan for the last one, plan for the biggest one ever’.”