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Natural disasters, boosted by climate change, displaced millions of people in U.S. in 2022

New data from the Census Bureau has surprised some experts who warn the situation could get worse: “These numbers are what one would expect to find in a developing country."
The only access to the Matlacha neighborhood destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept. 30, 2022.
The only access to the destroyed Matlacha neighborhood of Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept. 30 after Hurricane Ian.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP via Getty Images

Natural disasters forced an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. to leave their homes in 2022, according to Census Bureau data collected earlier this year, underscoring how climate-related weather events are already changing American communities.

The overwhelming majority of these people were uprooted by hurricanes, followed by floods, then fires and tornados. Nearly 40% returned to their homes within a week. Nearly 16% have not returned home (and may never do so), and 12% were evacuated for more than six months. 

The Census Bureau count is based on 68,504 responses it received as part of the Household Pulse Survey conducted Jan. 4-Jan. 16. The data collection is one of the few federal efforts to track displaced people, starting only in 2020. The bureau does note that the data is “experimental,” and is extrapolated based on its sample data.

“These numbers are very distressing,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who was not involved in the data collection. “These numbers are what one would expect to find in a developing country. It’s appalling to see them in the United States. … They’re only going to get worse in the years to come because climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and more severe.” 

Some states experienced far more of an impact than others. Florida had more than 888,000 people displaced. Louisiana had more than 368,000 displaced.

The U.S. was hit by a series of major disasters in 2022. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 18 extreme weather events had each caused at least $1 billion in damage. Climate experts have warned for years to expect more intense weather disasters as global temperatures rise.

The Census Bureau estimate, almost 1.4% of the U.S. adult population, is higher than other estimates. Data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, part of the humanitarian organization The Norwegian Refugee Council, previously estimated that disasters displaced an average of 800,000 U.S. residents a year from 2008 through 2021.

“The United States is not in the least prepared for this,” Garrard said. “Our settlement patterns have not reflected the emerging risks of climate change to the habitability of some parts of the country.”

The data showed that the more than half a million people who never returned home experienced multiple hardships, including lack of housing, food, water, sanitation and child care. 

“These are all things that we take for granted in a modern society,” Gerrard added. “Its absence is deeply disruptive to physical and emotional health as well as to child development.”

The data also showed disparities between people of different economic status, race and identities. Those earning less than $25,000 a year had the highest evacuation rate of any economic group, and Black and Hispanic residents had slightly higher evacuation rates than white residents.

According to the data, adults who identify as LGBTQ were disproportionately affected — 4% of LGBTQIA+ adults had to leave their homes compared with 1.2% of straight, cisgender people. 

“It’s important to note that a lot of these individuals that are LGBTQ are often also considered to be socially vulnerable, and really putting a strong intersectional lens to disaster response preparedness and recovery,” said Michael Méndez, a professor of environmental policy and planning at the University of California, Irvine. 

“Much of the LGBT community that’s vulnerable, and most socially vulnerable to disasters, are those that are African American, transgender and low income,” he said. “Oftentimes, that’s why they’re rendered invisible in the context of disaster policy and planning and preparedness. People write them off as not needing to provide extra resources for this community.”