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Climate change is making extreme weather more common in the U.S. That means serious financial problems for millions of people, according to a new survey. Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team explains.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The survey was conducted by NPR, Harvard University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and it asked people all over the U.S. about their experiences with heat waves and hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather. And one of those people was Jennifer Harris. She's a nurse who lives in Hampton, Va., and answers phone calls from unknown reporters.
JENNIFER HARRIS: I'm a very trusting person, Rebecca, so...
HERSHER: When I called her up, Harris told me that extreme weather has cost her family a lot of money. Their town is on the coast, which means there are hurricanes and also thunderstorms, nor'easters and floods.
HARRIS: We've had roof damage. We've had siding damage. We have a shed out back where we had siding damage on that. We've had - our fence, we've replaced it twice.
HERSHER: Now, one thing the survey found across the country is that when a storm causes damage like that, most people end up paying for a big chunk of the repairs themselves. The survey found that most people do not get help from the federal government, and insurance doesn't cover most of the repair costs. And that can happen even if you think you have good home or rental insurance, like when a storm damaged the Harris' house.
HARRIS: So basically, we assumed our home insurance would cover everything. But we had a - what was it, babe, a deductible?
HERSHER: Basically, their insurance policy required them to pay 10% of their home's value out of pocket before the insurance company would start paying. And they ended up having to ask their relatives for help to pay for the repairs.
HARRIS: We budget. And I don't want to make it seem like we're poor, but honestly, we do live paycheck to paycheck. And it's hard to save up when something like that happens.
HERSHER: Harris said it took at least five years for the family to recover financially. The new survey suggests things like this are happening to millions of people. Caroline Ratcliffe is an economist at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
CAROLINE RATCLIFFE: People can get hit from multiple directions.
HERSHER: In 2020, before she worked at the bureau, Ratcliffe co-authored a study that found natural disasters can cause lower credit scores, more debt and more mortgage delinquency, and that people who live in less wealthy neighborhoods get hit harder.
RATCLIFFE: Disasters can have the effect of widening existing inequalities, and it's going to make - create a bigger spread, basically, between the haves and the have-nots.
HERSHER: The new survey backs that up. Households that make less than $50,000 a year suffered weather related financial problems at more than four times the rate of those who make more money. All of which suggests that, ideally, people would be more prepared for extreme weather to help prevent expensive damage. Jennifer Harris says she would love to feel more prepared for hurricane season, which just started this month.
HARRIS: It is expensive being hurricane ready. That's the only thing.
HERSHER: The list of expenses goes on and on - special flood insurance, sandbags to keep the water out of the house. They have to be ready to evacuate if there's a storm, which means getting a hotel room or buying gas to drive hours to stay with relatives. They have a generator in case the power goes out and an emergency kit, but Harris says it's so full of useful stuff that it's always getting cannibalized for everyday needs.
HARRIS: There's water bottles there, there's batteries. As soon as Christmas hits, I always forget to buy batteries. We dip into that kit and grab the batteries.
HERSHER: Forecasters say this summer, there will be more severe hurricanes than usual, as well as longer heatwaves, worse wildfires and heavier rain, in part because of global warming. And that means families like the Harrises are crossing their fingers, hoping to be spared. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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