5 min read

Hurricane Ian, Insurance, and Collapse

Hurricane Ian, Insurance, and Collapse

Rather than talk about the particular damages that Ian wrought–though they were extensive–I want to talk about the implications of such a storm as they apply to climate change*, collapse, and some more banal features of day-to-day life. Hurricane Ian is a powerful example of systemic failures, of human obstinance, and of the increasingly precarious nature of our lives.

Ian formed and struck in late September. As a Category 4 hurricane, it was one of the strongest storms to make landfall in the United States on record, killing over a hundred people, causing the entire island of Cuba to lose power, and wreaking over $50 billion in damages. There are parts of Florida that, residents will say, are simply no longer there. But Ian wasn't just a particularly powerful storm–it's also indicative of the wrongheaded way the United States government and its citizens have gone about, effectively, colonizing a region that should not support permanent settlement.

*To be clear, describing Ian as a product of climate change, particularly so soon, is a bad idea. Pinning a single storm on climate change is a misunderstanding of climate, generally speaking.

Florida is Uninsurable

Perhaps the most boring subject I can think of on paper that's applicable to collapse: insurance. But if you want to live in a place where a disaster may happen (spoiler alert: everywhere), and capitalism still exists, you want insurance. And for an idea that exists in capitalism, it's actually pretty rad: pool risk and resources so that no one person or group of people is overburdened by disaster. This becomes a problem, however, when an area is so prone to disaster that the cost to everyone insured grows out of control. It's more of a problem when that cost is partly masked by government programs and policies that allow for, shall we say, non-strategic use of funds.

Put plainly, no matter how many times your home is flooded or wiped off the map in Florida, the government will frequently back insurers to allow you to rebuild right where all your stuff once stood. To make up for that, insurance costs are skyrocketing to the point that a lot of folks can simply no longer afford insurance at all. Insurers themselves are having a hard time in Florida, as re-insurance (insurance for insurers) is becoming harder to get for risk-prone areas. Soon, it may become difficult to find someone willing to insure a home in Florida, let alone for you to afford said insurance.

Which leads me to the idea of brittleness, a term borrowed from Alex Steffen. Brittleness is "the quality of breaking suddenly and catastrophically", in a given region, city, piece of infrastructure, etc. A town, like Ft. Meyers, Florida, which is extremely susceptible to serious damage from a hurricane, would be said to be very brittle. And that brittleness is going to make life as we know it difficult in such a region. When investors, insurers, city governments, whomever, begin to view an area as impossible to profit from, they will abandon that area (see the article above). And, while we are still under the yoke of capitalism, that abandonment can be very difficult to survive.

Sacrifice Zones

We've talked about sacrifice zones briefly before: an area, frequently populated predominantly by people of color or those with low-income, that is allowed to carry the burden of the negative effects of, usually, industry, so that other areas can benefit. There will be similar zones lost to climate change–there already are–and they of course begin with communities of color that are left to fend for themselves against rising seas and strengthening storms. Like some communities left to breathe in air pollution or drink water spiked with toxic waste, there are already coastal communities in the United States (and abroad) that are watching the water lap at their doors. This trend is only going to grow with the impacts of climate change.

Where this isn't already happening, it won't suddenly strike tomorrow. Florida is not going to become an empty wetland, occupied only by gators and stubborn retirees, before or even after the next election. But gradually, business is going to be harder and harder to conduct in Florida and environs surrounding, and like the movements of the stock market, money is going to follow money out. It may begin most visibly in ways similar to sacrifice zones, with parts of a city–already likely redlined–abandoned by governmental efforts while other parts receive infrastructure and investment to keep them alive. Sea walls, levees, pumps, could see rich areas–where people can still afford insurance, among other things–continue to thrive while just beyond that infrastructure people are forced to flee, losing their homes, or to drown. Because we live in a white supremacist state, this is going to begin with communities of color.

Just Move

Both sides of the aisle are guilty of dismissive rhetoric when it comes to various groups of people. On the left, folks have long looked down their noses at communities like those in West Virginia and Kentucky, where coal mines shuttered and left families destitute, or, on the right, where communities of color have suffered from pollution or institutional neglect. This is even the case when it comes to political divides created by recent authoritarian legislation. And they all say the same thing: move. But this is not a simple thing, nor is it easy, or cheap. And yet, when we're talking about regions that are being hammered by climate change, moving almost must be the answer, because things are only going to get worse.

While we should rarely expect help from capitalists or the government these days, both should recognize that it is for the best that those who are able and willing to relocate from these battered regions do. The best way to encourage that is for there to be incentives from insurance companies and the government for people to move away and start afresh in less vulnerable regions. This single solution can actually help remedy our problems twofold: it diverts money from falling into a pit in an area that is uninhabitable; and it allows for the restoration of a natural environment that can lower the severity of climate impacts elsewhere. Wetland restoration is a powerful tool for combatting flooding in a given region, with the added benefits of increasing ecological diversity and, (however minimally) providing a carbon sink.

Storms like Ian, wildfires and droughts out west, and the slower effects of climate change like sea level rise and biodiversity loss are only going to become worse and more frequent. There are vulnerabilities around the globe, and some regions are more vulnerable than others. Relocation is not an option for everyone, for good reasons and bad, but we have got to be aware that parts of this planet are not destined for the human population–many due to no fault of said population. We need to accept that, unfortunately, and do what we can to help those who choose to leave and sympathize with those who stay–because that shit's hard, y'all.