Equity and Social Justice in Disaster Recovery

Recovery is an area where we can concentrate on this issue.

by Eric Holdeman / March 5, 2019

I'm still collecting ideas, facts and organizing my own thoughts on the topic of equity and social justice in emergency management. I was "raised" in emergency management with the concept that in disasters, you do the most good for the most people. When making choices in disaster response, I think that is still valid in many cases. 

Think of the restoration of electrical power. You don't prioritize which homes get electricity first. The power companies restore power by connecting the major power lines that are preventing service to large swaths of geography and customers. Then, if you are the last house in a remote location fed by a single power line, it could be much longer to get service to your home.

Switching gears, lets look at today's NPR story, Minorities Likely To Receive Less Disaster Aid Than White Americans. I still need to hear/read the entire story, only catching a piece of it on my Amazon Echo this morning. The highlight was about home buyouts. These are done with mitigation grants. The study that was done showed that FEMA dollars are being allocated more to whites than minorities for these purposes. In the piece, FEMA points out that they are not the ones identifying the properties to be "bought out." Rather, that is typically a local government function. It is FEMA funding, but it is allocated and directed by local authorities.

I can see where this can become an issue. No. 1 is the economic condition of the property owners. What is their home worth? Importantly, where will they live, what can they afford if they volunteer to have their house purchased? Typically, these houses are victims of repeat flood events. Disasters have a way of capturing people and trapping them where they are. 

In disaster response, like the restoration of power, I think the emphasis on doing the most good for the most people still holds. However, in recovery, we have the benefit of time to focus our energies, do more outreach and become more creative in how we can serve our minority communities within our larger community. Just working with the people who get letters and respond is not enough. Providing information is not enough. We will need to work with individual families to try to help them get the benefits of becoming more disaster resilient by where they live. 

Like convincing people to become prepared for disasters, I call it "missionary work." Repeated contacts, information presented in a way that is culturally relevant.