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The climate crisis is forcing the American Red Cross to expand its disaster-recovery work

Catherine Boudreau   

The climate crisis is forcing the American Red Cross to expand its disaster-recovery work
  • The American Red Cross responds to nearly twice as many disasters today compared with a decade ago.
  • The US has already seen 15 billion-dollar disasters in 2023 so far.
  • The relief group plans to spend $1 billion over the next few years on more staff and financial aid.

Hurricane Idalia, which struck western Florida on Wednesday and moved through the Carolinas as a tropical storm, could be the opening round of what scientists predict will be an "above normal" Atlantic hurricane season.

Officials in about two dozen counties ordered residents to evacuate from the Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula, and hundreds of thousands were without power.

During these major disasters, many evacuees head to shelters run by the American Red Cross, which is racing to expand its services as hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires become more extreme due to the climate crisis. Just before Hurricane Idalia made landfall, the relief organization announced that it plans to spend at least $1 billion over the next several years to respond to climate-fueled disasters and support survivors for longer periods of time.

"Today we're responding to nearly twice as many disasters as we were a decade ago," Jennifer Pipa, the American Red Cross' vice president of disaster programs, told Insider. "When we see that kind of monumental increase in demand for our services, we acknowledge that we can't continue to do the same way of business."

So far this year, the US has already seen 15 billion-dollar disasters. The Red Cross has responded to the deadliest wildfire of the last century in Maui, a typhoon that struck Guam in June, record rainfall and flooding in the Northeast, atmospheric rivers and a tropical storm in California, wildfires up and down the West Coast, and deadly tornadoes in the South and Midwest.

The Red Cross and other emergency responders are sometimes forced to return to the same places year after year when disasters strike, and they see the resiliency of those communities erode over time. Pipa said the average recovery time after natural disasters is longer, meaning people are staying in shelters longer and require extra support to transition to sustainable housing.

"We've found that 60 to 90 days post-disaster, many national organizations that have come in to provide immediate support have left and are no longer present, so resources aren't available for families," Pipa said. "That's why we're bringing in what we call bridge assistance."

To address longer-term needs, the Red Cross has identified some of the most vulnerable communities and is providing families with more direct financial aid for security deposits, home repairs, and child care. The relief organization is also extending case work for up to a year, which assists people with access to healthcare, food, and housing. Nearly 400 households affected by Hurricane Ian in 2022 and the atmospheric rivers in California have participated.

The Red Cross is adding 69 staffers, the majority of whom will be located at the local level. By the end of 2024, these employees will be in 15 counties across a dozen states.

Establishing relationships with small nonprofits, religious organizations, and other community groups before disaster strikes is also part of the strategy, Pipa said. These groups don't always know how to plug in to a disaster-relief operation or access federal dollars, but they're often critical to delivering food to rural residents or providing healthcare.

"There are three distinct barriers to recovery: housing, food insecurity, and physical and mental health," Pipa said. "Those are all things that we see consistently keep folks from transitioning from shelters to their next recovery step. The Red Cross won't ever be everything to everyone. So connecting families with community partners that have expertise in these areas results in better outcomes for families."

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