Sep 29, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Hurricane prep: Can’t afford to, can’t afford not to

Illustration of a hundred dollar bill in the shape of a loaf of bread

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As Hurricane Ian hammers southwest Florida, Tampa's lower-income households lack the funds to stock up on hurricane supplies — and rising prices add to that pressure.

The big picture: Millions of Floridians spent the past few days evacuating or gearing up for the storm. But preparation ahead of a hurricane is an added stressor for the 42% of Hillsborough County’s population — and the 46% of neighboring Pinellas County — that can’t afford the basic cost of living.

Inflation has driven up the average price of groceries. Food costs have increased 11.4% over the last year — the largest annual spike since 1979 — according to a recently-published report by the USDA Economic Research Service.

  • Thomas Mantz, CEO of the nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay, says this is compounding with the impacts of COVID-19 on food insecurity in the Florida region, adding pressure to the nonprofit's bulk purchasing and disproportionately impacting communities of color in the area.
  • Black, Latino and Indigenous people in the U.S. are at least twice to three times more likely to live in food insecure households than white people. "There are far more people who are economically unstable than we've seen in many, many years," Mantz told Axios.
  • "Families don't have the resources to put food in their own pantries, keep things stocked up, because it's just too expensive."

Hurricane preparation calls for added investment. The Tampa Bay Times reports that Florida officials advise stocking up one week’s worth of nonperishable food and water per person, as well as pets.

What they’re saying: “It's going to be a challenge for folks if they don't have that capacity to be able to, or have places to store that type of food, [or] purchase that amount of food in that time. Especially now, in an emergency, trying to find enough food,” Elisa DeGregorio, who works for Pinellas County, told Axios.

  • DeGregorio is a shelter manager at Clearwater's McMullen-Booth Elementary School, which is serving as an emergency general shelter during Ian.
  • The shelter is providing three free meals per person per day, although DeGregorio hopes that demand doesn’t outweigh supply — a concern echoed across the region as businesses brace for supply chain issues after Ian.

Having enough food and water is only one piece of the preparedness picture. Hurricane kits also commonly include wood to board up homes, generators, sandbags, first aid kits, medications, flashlights and batteries, among other items.

  • "If you're someone who is in an evacuation zone and you have five kids and you're having to go drive two cars across the state, stay in a hotel for a week, that's when those expenses really start to add up really quickly," said Samantha Montano, an emergency management researcher.
  • "And that's before you even start talking about if your home is impacted, and then you have recovery costs on top of that."

Between the lines: Being without the right supplies or resources during a disaster event can have dire consequences — and those that do face these difficulties are typically severely cost-burdened.

  • A 2021 Our World In Data report found that the world has seen a “significant reduction” in the number of lives lost connected to disaster events partly due to emergency preparedness.
  • And a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that among U.S. residents over 50, lower-income respondents had significantly lower rates of disaster preparedness.

What we're watching: Feeding Tampa Bay serves 10 counties in the region and roughly 1.5 million meals every week, a number Mantz says they expect to see climb in Ian's aftermath. They've already started extra distributions in preparation for the storm's lasting blow.

  • "We've been on calls all morning," Mantz told Axios. "All of us are waiting for post-storm, at which point we'll jump in and start moving food into the most impacted areas."
Go deeper