Original illustration by Matt Jenkins

By Ziggy Gleason, age 12 and IndyKids staff

Last year was one of the most catastrophic and costly years on record for climate disasters in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a recent report. During 2021 alone, there were 20 climate disasters which cost the U.S. economy $1 billion or more and killed 688 people.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of natural disasters like floods, wildfires and tornadoes. Last year marked the seventh consecutive year with at least 10 $1 billion disasters, the NOAA report said. It was also the fourth warmest year on record, which may have contributed to the large number of disasters. After a climate disaster hits a region, whole communities are often destroyed. Cars are overturned, houses are ripped apart, sacred possessions are destroyed or charred, and many people are left with nothing. 

One of the most devastating events from 2021 was the December Colorado wildfire, the largest in the state’s history. It destroyed around 600 homes and caused an evacuation order for over 30,000 people. Also in December, the most destructive tornado in Kentucky history killed at least 70 people. 

“When a disaster has happened, people default back to mutual aid—regardless of whether they call it by those words or not—people spontaneously come together and care for each other in a time of crisis. [When] there’s profound loss, devastation, and trauma, there’s also a sense of communalism and coming together.”

Jimmy Dunson

“The data highlights a worsening and undeniable trend,” Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained to the Guardian, “that underscores the reality of how the climate crisis is already affecting every region of the country.” Following the wildfires, Garry Sanfaçon, Colorado’s disaster recovery manager, explained that recovery from disasters like this takes years. The state is still trying to recover from a flood that occurred nine years ago.

A recent poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist reveals that two out of three people would rather stay in their community and attempt to rebuild rather than relocate. However, rebuilding these communities is a long and often controversial process. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, provides help for people affected by various types of disasters. FEMA often provides trailers for people to live in and money to assist damaged homes. 

While aid is provided, systemic racism can play a role in how aid is given to those most affected by these disasters. The New York Times reported that FEMA often helps white people more than people of color, no matter how much damage the disaster caused to them respectively. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana in August 2020, FEMA awarded Roy Vaussine, a white man, $17,000, while Charlotte and Norman Biagas, a Black couple, received just $7,000 of aid, despite equal amounts of damage to their properties. 

Non-governmental organizations such as Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) help to provide aid to those hit by climate disasters. Their network is made up of social justice activists, eco-activists, Black liberation activists and those who are organizing support for disaster survivors in the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. 

“When a disaster has happened, people default back to mutual aid—regardless of whether they call it by those words or not—people spontaneously come together and care for each other in a time of crisis,” Jimmy Dunson, an organizer with MADR, told Sojourners while working in Louisiana following Hurricane Ida in 2021. “[When] there’s profound loss, devastation, and trauma, there’s also a sense of communalism and coming together.”