A study of over 500 counties in the Southeast finds that communities with higher than average poverty and unemployment rates wait much longer to get their power back after major storms. 

Co-authored by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the study uses power outage data from eight major hurricanes that hit the Southeast over three years.

Using that data, and applying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index to counties affected by those hurricanes, researchers looked for correlations. 

Controlling for the randomness and strength of these weather events, what they found, said Associate Professor Chuanyi Ji, was significant relationships between social vulnerability and longer wait times for power restoration. 

Geospatial Plot

Maps of the Southeast showing average power outage durations over eight hurricanes (left) and power outage durations held for social vulnerability, where counties in organge and red have higher values.

Credit: "Socioeconomic vulnerability and differential impact of severe weather-induced power outages"

People in counties with higher social and economic risk factors waited an average of three hours to have power restored. 

“That also means from industry perspective, it's not just the accidental undesirable service which results in the longer power duration,” Ji said, ”but kind of like across the many, many service providers.”

Power outage data shows some county populations waiting up to a week to have power restored after a hurricane, compared to hours in counties considered less vulnerable. 

Still, Ji said there’s more to dive into. 

To identify causes, that's really important,” Ji said. I think this study mostly provides a reference point to policymakers, and potentially the industry, saying we need to perhaps reexamine how resource allocation is done.” 

Georgia Power’s policy, for example, is to restore power first to the “greatest number of customers” in high impact areas, and then fix smaller lines.

This cluster-first approach is common, said Ji, who asked that future studies consider possible public health risks of long wait times for storm relief. 

“Having power is kind of like a basic requirement for all people, rich or poor, old and young,” Ji said. “What can be the further impact of not having power for three hours to those disadvantaged communities?” 

Especially considering that socially vulnerable communities already face barriers to other critical resources, like emergency medical care and social services. 

It’s almost certain that extreme weather events will become even more frequent, putting vulnerable communities at risk. 

According to an analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on climate change and social vulnerabilities, people considered low income by federal poverty level standards are between 11% to 25% more likely to experience different health, labor and infrastructure disparities due to climate change. 

Non-white communities face similar future odds, though Ji’s study found no major correlations between power outage duration and race and ethnicity.