Natural disasters spurred by climate change will displace millions of Americans by 2022

Natural disasters forced an estimated 3.4 million people in the US to leave their homes by 2022, according to Census Bureau data collected earlier this year, underscoring how climate-related weather events are already changing American communities.

The vast majority of these people were uprooted by hurricanes, followed by floods, then fires and tornadoes. Almost 40% percent returned home within a week. Nearly 16% percent have not returned home (and may never do so), and 12% percent have been evacuated for more than 6 months.

The Census Bureau count is based on 68,504 responses it received as part of the Household Pulse Survey, conducted from Jan. 4 to Jan. 4. 16. The data is one of the few federal efforts to track displaced Americans, not starting until 2020. The agency notes that the data is “experimental” and extrapolated from the sample data.

“These numbers are deeply disturbing,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who was not involved in the data collection. “These figures are what you would expect in a developing country. It’s terrible to see them in the United States. … They will only get worse in the coming years as climate change causes extreme weather events to become more frequent and severe.”

Some states saw much more impact than others. Florida had displaced more than 888,000 people. Louisiana had more than 368,000 displaced persons.

The US was hit by a series of major disasters in 2022. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 18 extreme weather events caused at least $1 billion worth of damage each. Climate experts have been warning for years to expect more intense weather disasters as global temperatures rise.

The Census Bureau’s estimate, nearly 1.4 percent of the U.S. adult population, is higher than other estimates. Data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, part of the humanitarian organization The Norwegian Refugee Council, previously estimated that disasters displaced an average of 800,000 U.S. residents per year from 2008 to 2021.

“The United States is far from prepared for this,” Garrard said. “Our settlement patterns do not reflect the emerging risks of climate change to the habitability of some parts of the country.”

The data showed that the more than half a million people who have never returned home have experienced multiple hardships, including a lack of housing, food, water, sanitation and child care.

“These are all things we take for granted in a modern society,” Gerrard added. “Its absence is very disruptive to the child’s physical and emotional health and development.”

The data also showed differences between people of different economic status, race and identities. Those making less than $25,000 a year had the highest evacuation rates of any economic group, and black and Hispanic residents had slightly higher evacuation rates than white residents.

According to the data, adults who identify as LGBTQ were disproportionately affected: 4% of LGBTQIA+ adults had to leave their homes compared to 1.2% of heterosexual, cisgender people.

“It’s important to note that many of these individuals who are LGBTQ are often perceived as socially vulnerable as well, and really have a strong intersection lens for disaster preparedness and recovery,” said Michael Méndez, a professor of environmental policy and planning at the University of California, Irvine.

“A large portion of the LGBT community that is vulnerable, and most socially vulnerable to disasters, are African Americans, transgender people and low-income people,” he said. “That is why they are often made invisible in the context of disaster management and planning and preparedness. People write them off because they don’t have to provide additional resources for this community.

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