This video was posted 2 days ago and documents the realities of living and surviving in the wake of a natural disaster, in this case, the ongoing volcanic eruptions on the Big Island of Hawaii. Some of the evacuees and displaced homeowners are elderly, disabled and/or chronically ill and their lives have been turned upside down by clouds of toxic gasses and rivers of lava running through their homes and communities and their situations are being made worse by the lack of reliable social services available to anyone under these conditions. But being chronically ill, disabled, and dependent on medication on top of the “normal” disaster-related stresses healthy people are also experiencing is proving to be unbearable and people are starting to crack under the strain. One 81-year old diabetic man is living with his 83-year old wife in tent in the shelter parking lot, doesn’t have his medication, and the Red Cross is not helping them and is only making things worse with their bureaucratic red tape making displaced and chronically ill people jump through ridiculous hoops just to have their basic needs met with shelter, food, water and medical care.
I can really relate to these people because I was becoming intolerably ill in late 2012 just as Hurricane Sandy wrecked the east coast and I lost my apartment and was essentially homeless, and had no choice but to move back in with my now ex-partner’s mother where I slept on a couch for 6 months, and then on a toddler bed for another 6 months during which time I was becoming increasingly and devastatingly ill. Since then, based on that experience and others I have had since I first fell ill with a serious chronic illness, I have realized that it is frequently not the illness itself that causes all or even most of the problems chronically ill people face, but it is the lack of resources and social and financial support available to sick people under the best circumstances that make our already grossly diminished lives unbearable. When we are also faced with extenuating circumstances like natural disasters and living and surviving in a disaster zone, often with no power, climate control, food, water, medication or other necessities of life it becomes an intolerable burden, and these disaster-related consequences can go on for months and even years, long after the public and geographically-distant friends and relatives have moved on and forgotten.
Before I was a cannabis refugee, having left my previous partner, home, profession, state and life behind when I had to travel across the country to treat my Crohn’s disease legally with medical cannabis, I was a climate refugee having lost my home to coastal flooding in a devastating hurricane, a loss from which I never recovered. There was a housing shortage in my area already even before the storm where people were living in conditions of severe overcrowding in multiple generation households, illegal apartments, hotels and other transient and substandard housing and paying through the nose for the privilege. After the storm came in and destroyed a full ten percent of homes in my area, including tens of thousands of rental properties of which there were too few anyway, I heard horror stories about landlords illegally raising rents and evicting tenants in order to jack up the rent for displaced hurricane survivors. Landlords also refused to repair damaged properties in a timely manner or at all, and evicted tenants or declined to renew leases when their own families and friends were displaced and needed somewhere to live, leaving long-term renters like myself and my then-partner with nowhere to go.
The devastating loss of property and the lengthy process to recover and rebuild from a serious natural disaster causes long-term housing shortages and other problems that are unfathomable to most people who think that recovering from a hurricane just requires mopping up a puddle or moving into a place that wasn’t damaged but it is never as easy as that. In the case of coastal flooding and hurricane damage, sea water is unbelievably destructive to the electrical grid including the wiring inside your house, and catastrophic flooding causes structural damage and instability, irreparable water damage including toxic mold and fungal growth and other issues. And widespread coastal flooding disperses dangerous pollutants for miles including upending and dispersing tanks of propane, gasoline and heating oil leaving a toxic petroleum slick over everything once the water recedes, and displacing the contents of landfills and garbage dumps, cemeteries, industrial parks, nuclear and other power plants and various hazardous toxic waste which leaves the landscape permanently polluted and is impossible to clean up or to restore to a healthful condition. For chronically ill people who may already be suffering from chemical and other sensitivities, these additional environmental pollutants can only be expected to make them worse, and this is probably partially responsible for what happened to me where my already failing health steadily and quickly declined after I was displaced and my community was left horribly and permanently polluted.
Immediately following the storm, we were without power for 10 days in November when a Nor’easter blew in and froze everything solid and we had no heat, light or electricity during that time. There was also a gasoline shortage which kept us at home and unable to travel to get additional needed supplies which were often many miles away where our neighborhood shops were closed and without power or supplies, and often had suffered the same storm-related damage as the local residents had. There were temporary public shelters opened for displaced people but shelters are never as comfortable as your own home, or the home of a friend or family member and can be dangerous and unhealthy for women, the very young and very old, and for the chronically ill, not to mention their pets including service animals. And the video above illustrates the problems many evacuees encounter when they try to access services at public emergency shelters only to be thwarted by red tape and regulations that are frankly obscene considering the circumstances, such as in this case at a Red Cross shelter where a plate of food was torn from a evacuee’s hand because he did not display the proper colored wristband, and where elderly and chronically ill evacuees were forced to sleep in tents in the shelter parking lot due to overcrowding and unhealthy conditions inside the shelter and were denied resources because they were not technically “in the shelter” but right outside.
And following Hurricane Sandy, the shelters were closed after only days or weeks when many people, myself included, ended up being displaced and in overcrowded and substandard housing for months if not years after the storm. Nearly 3 years later I had become terrifyingly seriously ill and was still living in my ex-partner’s mother’s house, having given up hope of ever finding an affordable rental where many people were still living in hotels being subsidized by FEMA and where thousands of rental properties had yet to be repaired, or were damaged beyond repair and being razed and rebuilt. Many damaged rentals were total losses and were un- or under-insured and were therefore never repaired or rebuilt at all.
I didn’t lose my car at the time but many people did — 250,000 cars were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy alone with only 16,000 of those being new cars in dealer lots. The rest were owned by people who were presumably then left without a vehicle. And a million cars were lost between hurricanes Irma and Harvey. As always, the social and financial impacts of these losses are disproportionately borne by the chronically ill who often lack the physical, mental, emotional and financial resources needed to arrange timely repairs, but who also desperately need reliable transportation to visit doctors, therapists, pharmacies and other health-related chores that are time-consuming, tedious and exhausting under the best of circumstances. And even after the power comes back on and the shops reopen, many people remain displaced and in uncomfortable, intolerable and even abusive living arrangements that would be unhealthy under the best of circumstances, but for the chronically ill these living situations can only be expected to make their illnesses and disabilities even worse than they were before.
And on top of what I was already dealing with after the hurricane and with my failing health, I had people emailing, texting and calling me with constant demands for assurances — assurances that I was okay, that we were rebuilding, and that things had returned to normal, but I now realize that what they really wanted was to make themselves feel better at the expense of my time, energy and sanity in dealing with them. Because as I had repeatedly told them, I was not okay, we had been unable to rebuild, and things would likely never be “normal” ever again or anytime soon and everyone who had gone through what we had gone through knew that but everyone else seemed fundamentally unable to believe the reality of it, or to accept it. And that experience as a disaster survivor is uncannily similar to what I have experienced as a seriously chronically ill person who has had to gather the emotional, mental and physical grit to attempt to communicate troubling realities to people who say they want to know, but who really want assurance that I am fine or will be fine, in this case, that I have been or will be cured of an incurable progressive disease. They do not want to hear the ugly truth, which is that I will probably always be sick, that I will only continue to get worse, that there is nothing I or anyone can do about it, and that I am going to need long-term help from them or from “someone” if I am to survive. That they cannot fathom, and that they simply do not want to know.
And as similiar and as horrific as the experiences are of falling victim to a devastating natural disaster and falling victim to a serious chronic illness, many people (including myself) end up dealing with both things at the same time. Now, every time I see footage of people being evacuated from disaster zones, whether natural or man-made, I am acutely aware that some percentage of them are concurrently battling serious chronic illness and that the stresses they are encountering and will encounter are doubtless making their chronic pain and symptoms worse causing increased disability, requiring costly and traumatizing hospitalizations, or even leading directly or indirectly to death.
Frighteningly, it seems that both natural disasters (including climate chaos) and the incidence and prevalence of serious chronic illness are increasing over time and that therefore more and more people will be dealing with both things at once. And the more destitute people become after battling with chronic illness for years, the less they will be able to afford stable, safe and reliably maintained housing that will sustain the abuse of even ordinary severe weather. Now, every time my area experiences severe wind or rain I wonder how strong the roof is, how strong the windows are, and I am acutely aware that now that I have moved a thousand miles away from friends and family to treat with medical cannabis, I don’t even have an ex-partner’s mother or anyone to provide emergency shelter for me if I ever need it.
Now, if we have a wildfire, tornado or other unpredicable event I will be reliant on charities like the Red Cross who will refuse to feed me if I have the wrong colored wristband, or if I am unable to control my affect or behavior due to intractible pain and symptoms of disease exacerbated by a natural or man made disaster, and where I have learned that the Red Cross specifically (not to mention government benefits programs) simply does not do what it says on the tin. And I will again be put in the position of having to repeatedly explain all of this to people who would never believe that this is the reality in which we all live. In America anyway. But it is. As “unbelievable” as it sounds to people who have never experienced any of this firsthand, believe it. And assuming that current trends continue, where both climate chaos and chronic illness are only increasing over time, understand that it is likely to eventually happen to you.