FAU professor Monica Escaleras on how economies respond—or not—to natural calamities
Climatologists, storm trackers and meteorologists thrive on prediction and crisis. They are the pundits of the “before” and “during” aspects of a natural disaster. But what about the aftershocks—figurative as well as literal?
Monica Escaleras, professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University, has devoted much of her study to the cultural inequities and financial fractures that disasters like hurricanes leave in their wake. In 2016, the native Ecuadorian co-wrote a paper on “Public Sector Corruption and Natural Hazards,” where she explored how corrupt practices in the construction industry worsened disaster outcomes in developing countries. Her work hit closer to home, in South Florida, with a 2019 research paper, completed with three colleagues, about the economic fallout from Hurricane Irma. She discusses some of that paper’s key takeaways, and more.
On her entry into disaster management:
In Ecuador in 1986, we had a really strong earthquake, and I lived through that experience. I was 16 at the time. My dad is a doctor, and he made sure our house was under code. And our house didn’t suffer a thing. We went five, 10 blocks down the road, and the houses were completely collapsed. It caught my attention in seeing how there was a big inequality in how the natural disaster affected the different sectors of the economy, as well as individuals.
On solutions to recover from destructive hurricanes:
One way to help people bounce back is to educate them to have hazard insurance. We found that in the U.S., around only 12 percent of individuals have flood insurance. So once again, individuals that are in the low-income or middle-income [brackets] don’t have the funds to rebuild. The other takeaway is disaster assistance. FEMA gives out funds to individuals to rebuild and to upgrade. From our study, we found that at least 30 percent of individuals that applied for funds were denied. They also found the loan process to be difficult. Especially here in Florida, we have individuals from different backgrounds. Perhaps English is not their first language. They have a hard time navigating the application for these funds. One of our recommendations at the end of the paper is to make the process smoother, with more information on how that can be done. Another takeaway is that infrastructure services such as disruption to electricity, internet and cell phones delay the recovery of individuals. And there’s some research indicating that perhaps policymakers should consider helping the infrastructure of electricity in the rural areas.
On similarities between natural disaster and pandemic response:
I have my phone and can sign up for alerts. I think there should be other ways [to get the information]. … It’s the same thing with the vaccine. The information is not in one place; it is not getting to the minorities and the most vulnerable.
On the politics of disaster assistance:
We all have to come together to find a solution, especially now that we have climate change. … All of us want the best for the environment. All of us have to come together. That’s the only way we can get out of the problems that Florida is facing.