Hurricanes and Marginalization: How Climate Disasters Affect LGBTQ+ Persons

In the early morning of August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina battered the coastal shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Category 4 hurricane brought extreme flooding, resulting in the failure of New Orleans’ aging levee system. Torrential downpours, combined with the inundation of the city’s two rivers, led to 80% of New Orleans being underwater. Local agencies tasked with providing aid and community support were immobilized, prompting widespread chaos as residents struggled to find adequate food, shelter, and clean water. Many of the tens of thousands of residents that stayed behind huddled in shelters such as the Mercedes Superdome, where tensions ran high, supplies ran low, and the threat of waterborne bacteria became an increasing concern. Others chose to evacuate and seek shelter in the surrounding inland areas of Louisiana, creating massive traffic jams that left evacuees stranded on the interstate.

Arpollo Vicks, a male-to-female transgender person, started living her life as a woman in New Orleans when she was twenty years old. Her friends and family called her Sharli’e, and the students that she worked with as a substitute teacher called her Ms. Vicks. Sharli’e’s life was turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina, as she and her friends swam and treaded over a mile and a half to reach the New Orleans Convention Center, another makeshift shelter similar to the Mercedes Superdome. They spent two nights in the Convention Center, but decided to leave after the threat of gun violence and disease. They then spent two days stranded under an Interstate 10 overpass until they were picked up by a rescue bus bound for Houston, Texas. Arriving at Texas A&M University’s Reed Arena, she and her two friends were hungry and in desperate need of a shower.

Sharli’e explained her situation to a volunteer, citing her fear of showering in the men’s bathroom. The volunteer felt it was appropriate for Sharli’e to shower in the women’s bathroom and allowed her to do so. The next day as Sharli’e exited the women’s bathroom she was immediately arrested by the police for criminal trespassing. Her bail was set at $6,000, an exorbitant fee for a criminal trespassing charge; she was left in jail for almost five days, all for showering in a women’s restroom.

Instances such as Sharli’e’s, though not quite as severe, illustrate the vulnerability of sexual and gender minorities in the face of disaster. Sexual and gender minorities are often the most severely affected by disasters given their lack of protections in everyday life. For example, young LGBTQ+ people are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ+ youth. Combined with this lack of adequate housing, LGBTQ+ individuals are often the target of racial and sexual violence. Transgender women are particularly vulnerable, as the number of transgender people murdered in 2020 has surpassed the total for all of 2019, with a few months still to go. If LGBTQ+ persons are marginalized and even murdered for simply existing or using a bathroom, how do we expect their treatment will be equitable as climate change progresses?

Although hurricane seasons vary in intensity and frequency each year, the 2020 Atlantic season has shaped up to be unusually active. Prior to the start of hurricane season, which runs from June 1st through November 30th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predicted approximately 19-25 named storms. This estimate is well above the average season of 12. Throughout the agency’s history, it has never before forecasted an Atlantic hurricane season with up to 25 named storms.

Each year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) maintains a list of only 21 names to be used for each tropical cyclone basin in the world. Tropical cyclones vary by strength and are only named once they reach a particular strength threshold, often sustained winds of approximately 39 miles per hour. Storms have been named in the Atlantic Ocean since 1954 as a means of making communications more effective to the public and to cause less confusion among meteorologists who monitor them. Giving a tropical storm or hurricane a name further adds a sense of urgency for Americans to be on alert.

Yet, what happens when the list of 21 names is exhausted? The National Hurricane Center then turns to the Greek alphabet to name storms. It had been drawn on only once before in 2005, the very same year that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. Tropical Storm Wilfred already formed a few weeks ago, solidifying the 2020 season as having the most named storms in the shortest amount of time. The 2020 season has already reached the second letter of the Greek alphabet as Tropical Storm Beta recently made landfall near Houston causing massive flooding in surrounding areas.

I worry that as climate change progresses, we will continue to see the intensification and increased frequency of tropical cyclones. This intensification will only equate to more disaster. As forest fires blaze in the Western United States and the effects of COVID-19 continue to strain the public health system, we realize that disaster can take many forms. It affects everyone. Our differences, however, makes the effects of our disasters quite unequal.

The everyday vulnerability of LGBTQ+ persons will continue to place them at a higher risk when confronted with climate catastrophes. LGBTQ+ persons may already feel unsafe utilizing accommodations such as restrooms in public spaces, for fear that their sexual and/or gender identity may incite violence. Being crammed into makeshift shelters with thousands of other people because of hurricanes will elevate these fears further. I agonize that we will continue to repeat situations similar to Sharli’e’s over and over as more people are displaced. How can we protect LGBTQ+ persons in the face of disaster when our society at-large does not protect them?

Our current calamities underscore the insecurity and vulnerability associated with our natural disaster response. We must continue to have difficult conversations at the intersection of climate change, gender, and sexuality. Educating ourselves on the compounding issues that LGBTQ+ Americans face will better influence our policies and systems of government. For those living in hurricane-prone areas, we must band together and demand equitable climate justice.


Brandon Rothrock – Rachel Carson Council Fellow

Brandon Rothrock is working on a Master of Arts in Geography and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of West Virginia. His RCC project is on climate justice and the LGBTQ+ community. [email protected]

 

 


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