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Hungry and Poor People Hardest Hit by Natural Disasters

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By Sarah Godfrey

I am one of the millions of people who lost power on Monday night, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. If the electricity isn't back on in my Virginia apartment by the time I return home from work this evening, I'll be forced to throw out about $75 worth of frozen food—48 hours is the maximum amount of time that food in a full freezer remains stable during an outage, I'm told. I was able to move some of the more expensive items to a friend's freezer, but not everything. I've already lost most of the contents of my fridge, since food stored in a refrigerator is no longer safe to eat after about four hours without power.

Although the cost of replacing the food is an unexpected expense, I'm fortunate enough to be in a position to restock my fridge and freezer without it being too much of a financial hardship. Many of the people who've lost power this week are not so lucky.

Natural disasters hit those living below the poverty line especially hard. Poor people are less able to evacuate in the days and hours leading up to natural disaster, and they don't have the means to recover as quickly. They are unable to splurge on a hotel room when the power goes out for several days, unable to absorb the cost of all of the extras—from bottled water and batteries to take-out meals—that make it easier to ride out a hurricane. They may not have an extra $20 to spend to take a taxi to work when the public transportation system goes down. And they can't afford to replace all of the food that goes bad when the power goes out.

Whether Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010,  the current flooding in Nigeria, or the flooding and power outages that accompanied Sandy, we have seen, time and again, that natural disasters prove especially dire for poor people. 

A network of public and private agencies have already jumped into action to help Sandy victims, and federal disaster aid will be available to state and local governments as well as individuals. Assistance could include disaster SNAP benefits, or D-SNAP, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture can authorize during a presidentially declared emergency.

But still, even if help is available, it's hard not to be struck by the fact that "the haves" were much better equipped to deal with Sandy than "the have-nots." Today, in the Atlantic, David Rohde looked at "The Hideous Inequality Exposed by Hurricane Sandy," and found that the storm unveiled his city's sharp economic divide. 

"There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not," Rohde writes. "Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city's cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home."

"Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface," Rohde writes.

Sarah Godfrey is Bread for the World's associate online editor.

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