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Americans have spent more nights in emergency housing in 2020 than in any other year on record

Cause for concern: Climate change
Cause for concern: Climate change 08:13

Record-breaking wildfires and a relentless hurricane season — on top of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — have left more Americans in need of emergency housing than ever before. 

American families have spent more time in Red Cross emergency lodging in 2020 than any other on record, the humanitarian organization recently announced. More than one million times this year, a person in the U.S. has relied on disaster housing — more than four times the annual average from 2011 to 2019. 

"Families are overwhelmed coping with the greatest number of billion-dollar disasters in a single year — on top of the coronavirus pandemic," said Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross.

Volunteers emphasize that responding to disasters in 2020 was distinctly different from any other year — and not just because of the pandemic, but because disasters are getting exponentially worse. 

A record-breaking disaster season

The 2020 fire season is finally winding down in the U.S., but the damage is done: nearly 14 million acres have burned across the nation, about double the 10-year average and the most acres burned since reliable record-keeping began in 1983.

Five of the six largest fires in California history and three of the four largest in Colorado history all burned this year. This dramatic increase in the acres burned is due to fires that are burning hotter and more intensely than they used to, CBS News' meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli reports.

As the western part of the country falls deeper into megadrought, spurred by less reliable rainfall and rising temperatures, scientists expect severe fires will only continue to become even more common.

As fires devastated the western U.S., the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season spawned 30 tropical storms — two and a half times more than average. This breaks the former record set in 2005 of 28 named storms — with the potential for more storms this year, even though the season is officially over.

"I've never seen hurricane seasons like this year. I've met with disaster survivors that got displaced twice or three times this year," Mustafa Al Lami, who has volunteered in back-to-back disasters in Louisiana, told CBS News. "A Lake Charles resident that just moved back to his house after getting displaced by Hurricane Laura came back to a Red Cross shelter because he got displaced again by Hurricane Delta. The resident didn't want to go back again to Lake Charles because he was tired from continual displacement, so they rented a house in New Orleans. However, just two days after moving into their new house in New Orleans, the survivor got displaced again because of Hurricane Zeta." 

These kinds of dystopian weather events are not a coincidence — they're a sign of human-caused climate change. Extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, but the recent boost in both the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, which will only get worse as society continues to release heat-trapping greenhouse pollution

Evacuating during a pandemic 

Disaster housing looks a little bit different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Red Cross told CBS News that when the size and scale of evacuations and disasters permit, individual hotel rooms or dormitory-style rooms are used. But for larger-scale disasters, more typical emergency shelters were opened, with coronavirus safety precautions like masks, sanitizer and social distancing.

"The fear you went through and it was very tiring, stressful and scary all at once right and I've never been through it before so it was new. On top of the pandemic," Patricia Wilson, who was evacuated from her home during California's Creek Fire, told CBS News. "I have family members and others, but my parents are old. I didn't want to risk their health." 

She said she was so exhausted and overwhelmed, she was in disbelief that there was even emergency lodging available at that moment, given the pandemic restrictions. 

"It was the longest I've ever stayed in a motel," she said. "It was good because we had somewhere to be but it was really hard at the same time because we really weren't able to rest because of the worry." 

Patrick Fraser, whose family was affected by the Creek Fire in California, echoed that sentiment — he didn't think anyone was coming to help. "Like most people, I said, 'Okay we're on our own, so I have to figure something out,' but when [the Red Cross] ended up putting us up, that was awesome."

For some volunteers, the pandemic made their job even more rewarding. 

"I was craving that interaction," Christine Wilson, who volunteered during the August Complex fires, Creek Fire and Mountain View Fire in California, told CBS News. "We've been so closed up and estranged from everyone and not interacting in person. It was a wonderful opportunity just to be able to do that in person."

"We love to be very close to those impacted to give them a comforting hug or sit closely and listen to their story," Al Lami said. "Now we've had to shift those hugs to air hugs." 

The pandemic has also made dealing with back-to-back disasters exponentially more difficult, especially because many volunteers were unable to fly to disaster areas. A lot of relief had to be done virtually, including mental health and financial support, which actually presented an opportunity for even more people to volunteer.   

"I think there's a misunderstanding that people think you can't volunteer because you can't travel," Christine Wilson said. "No, you can deploy virtually and it's very flexible."

Selfless volunteer efforts

Despite the numerous disasters and the pandemic, the Red Cross said that more than 70,000 people around the country joined the organization this year as volunteers, which comprise over 90% of the organization's workforce. More than half of new volunteers were millennials and Gen Zers. 

"Their selfless and kind-hearted actions underscore the unwavering humanitarian spirit of people in our country, and we are incredibly grateful for their willingness to give to others," McGovern said.

Christine Wilson said that onboarding new volunteers offered moments of hope during the difficulties of 2020. 

"When I rethink about everything that happened this year, especially as part of the volunteer screening team, the sheer volume of people wanting to volunteer, was massive, and it was impressive," she said. "That's what I look back on as a high point." 

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