Hurricane evacuations and the capability approach

With Hurricane Isaac bearing down on the gulf coast, news outlets are interviewing non-evacuating residents in the path of the storm. Residents do not evacuate for a diversity of reasons, but one prominent reason is that many do not have the means: not enough money and nowhere else to go.

We’ve seen this phenomenon before with Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and killed nearly 2000 people. In the aftermath, it became clear that a substantial number of its victims were simply too poor to get out of the way. So they died instead.

Hurricane evacuations and non-evacuations provide an excellent expository tool for understanding the capability approach to distributive justice. Under the capability approach, individuals possess the capability to do something if they have the genuine opportunity to act out some particular functioning. For one to have the genuine opportunity to do something, they must be able to elect to do it and have it realized. If one elects to do something but cannot realize it due to lack of resources, then they do not have the capability to do it.

So in the hurricane evacuation scenario, people without the resources necessary to evacuate do not have the capability to do so. If we think that individuals ought to have the capability to get out of the way of a deadly storm, then we cannot tolerate the sort of poverty and inequality that makes it impossible for many to do so. Or at minimum, we have to be willing to to provide evacuation resources to those who need them when a storm presents itself.

Otherwise we are saying that we do not actually believe that individuals ought to have the ability to be secure from unnecessary death caused by natural disasters. For a country that spends so much collective money on the military — an enterprise that is at least nominally about securing Americans from death and harm — it makes very little sense that we do basically nothing for natural disaster security. Maybe if we can convince people that terrorists are sending hurricanes towards America with hurricane machines, we can start to do something to protect hurricane victims.