As Economic Policy Institute Senior Economist Elise Gould wrote, the drop-off in unemployment “was almost certainly due to Hurricane Irma, which struck smack in the middle of the reference period, and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.” Over the phone, she told The Intercept that the storms had “a larger effect than I would have expected.”
While drawing direct correlations between warming and any single storm is virtually impossible, rising temperatures almost certainly shaped both Irma and Harvey. Each benefited from unusually warm waters in the seas where they brewed. The fact that sea levels are higher than they were just a few decades ago also makes storm surges higher. Worth noting as well is that Harvey was the third “once-in-500-year” flooding event Houston had experienced in just three years.
It wasn’t all bad news from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal body that collects employment statistics. Unemployment fell across race and ethnicity. Wages also grew by 2.9 percent over the same period, though Gould notes that this might be a misleading result of the storms. “Ordinarily that would seem like a nice boost,” she said, “but in the service sector, for instance, you had around 75,000 losses — greater than overall losses. That may be in part because workers who work in low-wage sectors like that are less likely to be counted as employed because they didn’t work any shifts in that period. If you take a bunch of low-wage workers off the market, it brings wage numbers up.”
Storms in general tend to hit low-wage workers the hardest, and not just in BLS accounting. On top of the hardship caused by wages lost by shuttered or destroyed workplaces, poorer workers and the unemployed have a much harder time relocating away from areas vulnerable to storm damage, let alone rebuilding after the fact — either in shouldering costs up front or in navigating the kinds of lengthy red tape required to get substantial aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.