Financial instability, housing insecurity and greater caregiving responsibilities make U.S. women more vulnerable to climate disasters.
This article originally appeared in Nexus Media News and was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.
On Sept. 8, 2020, Ashley Diaz and her two small children were asleep in their beds when Diaz heard a knock on the door. It was a neighbor warning them about an approaching wildfire. Diaz, who was seven months pregnant at the time, hesitated at first. She lived in Happy Camp, in northern California, where fires were commonplace.
Twenty minutes later, she got a “bad feeling.” She hurriedly gathered what she could: some children’s clothing and her father’s ashes. As Diaz drove away from her home of 16 years, she saw the flames advance.
“The house was literally going to be on fire,” she said. “If we had slept in another 10 minutes, I’m sure we would not have made it out,” she said.
The Slater Fire tore through the small community of Happy Camp (population 844), the homeland of the Karuk tribe, killing two and destroying some 200 homes, including Diaz’s. (Diaz is not a member of the Karuk tribe.)
In losing her home to wildfire, Diaz and her family joined the growing ranks of Americans displaced by climate-related disasters. In 2020, disasters displaced people 1.7 million times in the U.S., according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a Switzerland-based organization. (The figures reflect the number of displacements and not the number of people affected, as some people are displaced multiple times in a year.)
In 2020, disasters displaced people 1.7 million times in the U.S., and women bear most of the burden.
The center projects that figure will grow by about a quarter of a million each year, as wildfires, storms, floods, heat waves and droughts become more frequent and intense.
And women bear most of the burden. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of those displaced worldwide by climate change are women and children. There is limited gender-specific data on climate displacement in the United States—the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, does not break down data on those who seek out assistance in the wake of disasters by gender—but experts say the same factors that make women vulnerable to climate change globally, namely poverty and caregiving responsibilities, are present in the U.S.
“Women are often impacted because they just have fewer resources, due to systemic inequity and injustice,” said Margaux Granat, founding director of EnGen Collaborative, a Washington-based consultancy. She pointed to Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, as an event that showed the disproportionate impact of climate-related disasters on women, particularly women of color. Women were more likely to live in poverty and head up single family households before the storm. Afterward, they experienced a spike in gender-based violence, they were more likely to be unemployed and had the greatest difficulties in returning to their homes.
Diaz, who is 28, was struggling to make ends meet before the fire. She had been laid off from her job as a cashier at a grocery store a month before the fire and was relying on unemployment assistance. When the fire destroyed Diaz’s home, it took away any stability that she and her children, now five, two and one, had.
In the months following the fire, the family evacuated to a motel, which is where Diaz was staying when her youngest son was born. They then moved into a trailer temporarily provided by the Karuk tribe, and later into a mobile home, where Diaz performed odd jobs in exchange for free rent. In February 2022, they were evicted.
Now, they’re homeless, “going back and forth everywhere,” Diaz said. They stay with her brother for a few nights, then with a friend, rotating so as not to overburden anyone.
“The emotional part—it’s really bad. And then my kids have to deal with it, too. All this stress that I go through,” she said. None of the places where they’ve stayed has been particularly child-friendly, Diaz said. The motel room was up several flights of stairs, making lugging strollers and childcare supplies challenging. One of the trailers only had hot water for about a minute at a time, making bathing her kids nearly impossible. And the town lacks affordable diapers and other basic items, so she has to drive to the next town over.
Since the Slater Fire, Diaz has struggled to get back on her feet. The fire decimated the local housing stock, so Diaz takes daily trips outside of Happy Camp to look for housing. Coordinating with welfare agents in one town and landlords in another—all while ensuring her children are being watched after— is doubly challenging, Diaz said. She received some money from FEMA, which she spent on rent, gas and other day-to-day needs. Since the fire, she’s been unable to get a job.
Women are less likely to own their homes than men and more likely to depend on housing assistance. They are also more likely to face eviction—something that increases in the wake of disaster.
Diaz’s experience is hardly unique, said Carlos Martín, a housing expert at the Brookings Institute. “Households headed by women have that much more of a challenge because you can’t easily apply [for federal assistance] if you’re dealing with your kids, housing issues, health issues, et cetera,” he said. Following a disaster and evacuation, people often try to move as close to their original community and support systems as possible, he said. That stability is often particularly important to families with children, as parents often want to avoid changing school systems and daycare routines.
Climate-related disasters threaten already precarious housing situations, said Melissa Villarreal, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder. Women are less likely to own their homes than men and more likely to depend on housing assistance. They are also more likely to face eviction, something that increases in the wake of disaster. Renters, even when their homes are at higher risk of being destroyed in climate disasters, often receive little to no assistance in the wake of disasters, Villarreal added.
Diaz’s home was registered to her aunt, who was not living there at the time. Her aunt had been planning to transfer ownership to Diaz, but just hadn’t done so yet. After the fire, Diaz’s aunt received some insurance money, though not enough to rebuild.
Eventually, Diaz said, when she is back on her feet, she would still like to rebuild on her aunt’s property, close to her mother, brother and boyfriend.But until then, she needs somewhere to stay. With welfare assistance, she estimates she can afford about $750 in rent. Options are scarce.
“I’m trying to find a place, anywhere,” she said. “It’s just a really big, long struggle.”