With Harvey, Irma, Maria and more: What Do Natural Disasters Mean for the Future of Work?

Caroline Beaton

With Harvey, Irma, Maria and the Mumbai monsoon, the last couple months have been disastrous. And as tides rise, droughts persist and extreme weather spirals out of human control, disaster-prone areas are becoming increasingly dangerous places to live and work.

It’s partly our own fault: urbanization, industrialization and human-expedited climate change have made inevitabilities like floods, earthquakes and hurricanes all the more disastrous. Indeed, the exponential increase in damage and loss from natural disasters worldwide since 1960 has occurred, Harvard researchers explain, in part “because more people have located in harm’s way.”

Some companies don’t take these rising risks seriously. One employee at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a kununu employer review, “Do not apply if you believe in ethics, law enforcement, environmental enforcement, or think that climate change might be possibly a real thing.” On the opposite coast, an employee of a major beverage retailer lamented that its company “play[s] this image of conservation” and “the Global Warming schtick” while wasting “obscene amounts of plastic/paper/etc.” An AT&T employee similarly observed that natural disasters are “a publicity stunt rather than a concern.”

Meanwhile, employees bear the brunt of disaster:

Real employee stories in times of natural disaster

One delivery driver from a popular pizza restaurant chain was repeatedly forced to deliver “in adverse weather and dangerous conditions,” such as right before Hurricane Matthew and during flash floods.

Another employee, at a major national bank, wrote that associates were forced to report to work during serious flooding and snow storms and threatened with termination if they didn’t show up.

One employee at a customer call center in Miami related that they “expect you to work during a natural disaster and don’t even provide food.”

Maybe slightly better: according to one employee, GC Services workers were allowed to stay home during flooding in Houston—but only if they used a vacation day.

Likewise, flooding near a clothing retail store incited no precautionary and compassionate measures by management: “Our DM couldn’t understand why we couldn’t arrive by boat,” one employee wrote.

Of course, there are exceptions. The 2016 floods in Louisiana showed one employee at Louisiana Health Service and Indemnity Company that “I work for a company that truly cares about its employees and its clients … [T]he company treats its employees with respect, courtesy and concern.” And according to one Home Depot employee, HR called workers potentially affected by a tornado to see if they were okay and offer financial assistance.

But, in general, a combination of increasing disasters and inadequate employer reactions makes living in risky areas less desirable. Indeed, research suggests that after natural disasters, people who have experienced them tend to perceive higher likelihood of another disaster. Many never permanently return to their homes. As disasters become more perilous, workers may begin to realize that living in a prone area means risking their livelihood and their lives.  

 

The future of living with natural disasters

In 2015, the Federal Emergency Management Agency required all states to begin hazard mitigation for future disasters. Thirty-two states will update their plans in 2018, and the remainder in 2019. The problem, observes Natural Resources Defense Council senior analyst Rob Moore, is states predict future disasters based on historic data. And the whole issue with natural disasters is they’re rapidly getting worse and affecting cities in unpredictable ways that are hard to plan for. Moore explains, “Looking only at historical data leaves a state blind to the possibility that future storms may present new challenges and expose new vulnerabilities.”

Because both states and companies can botch their prediction and mitigation efforts, individuals must weigh their risks and endure the consequences of their decisions alone.

One way people calculate risk is with a kind of cost-benefit variable known as “amenity risk.” People often decide to take a risk because of other benefits that are correlated with the same risk. For example, you want to live on a shore somewhere, which means the chance of flooding (risk) and an ocean view (amenity).

 

With each new and ever-closer disaster, people’s risk equations change. Sometimes they realize that the amenity doesn’t outweigh the risk. Eventually, they may decide it’s worth swapping the ocean view, or the hip but mudslide-prone hillside, for an inland, safer city. This choice is becoming more appealing as low-risk cities develop their own strong economies and vibrant cultures. Denver, for example, was practically a cow town in the 1990s. Now it’s a booming tech and startup scene. A hundred thousand people move to Denver every year, and The New York Times recently recommended it for Amazon’s second headquarters. Denver isn’t on the water, isn’t on a fault line, isn’t at huge risk of mud or landslides or tornados, doesn’t get ice storms and has surprisingly mild snow storms compared to the East Coast. Its vast plains can accommodate masses of people without compromising the underlying stability of the landscape.

If safe, promising alternatives don’t influence people to settle away from disaster-prone areas, impending threats might. For instance, Harvey may scar Houston’s economy for years. “A lot [of Houston’s economy] depends on how many city residents stick around after the water recedes,” one reporter writes for CNN. Why? “Population levels affect the number of jobs available and, ultimately, the level of economic activity.”

The inverse matters too. If the job market is bad, people won’t move to the city, which stagnates population growth, which makes the job market bad. For example, since Katrina, New Orleans’ population and job market have suffered in tandem. The same cycle threatens Houston, especially if it becomes known as a city with a big flooding risk (it’s had three major floods since 2015).

 

Now that we’ve seen what Harvey, Irma, Maria and the Mumbai monsoon can do to communities, people may be finally catching on that no coastal city is free from looming water and the longterm effects of natural disasters. CityLab staff writer Brentin Mock pointed to Sonali Fernando, who works at New Orleans’ Ace Hotel, as an example of this evolving caution: She offered a place to stay to people escaping Harvey on her Facebook page, along with the message: “I do not think New Orleans is a great place to evacuate to, as we are still subject to storms and [the] effects of storms, but always happy to help. Encourage people to head North.”

 

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.