Why Natural Disasters Hit Vulnerable Groups Hardest

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This is an NLC staff post by Bernadette Onyenaka and Chelsea Jones.

Hurricane season is upon us yet again, and while nothing is ever certain, what does seem clear is that this is a hurricane season the U.S. will find hard to forget. If we are lucky, perhaps we will take the lessons that we are learning yet again and do something about them.

It seems like just yesterday that the nation watched with baited breath as Hurricane Harvey battered Southern Texas and Louisiana, inundating the area with relentless rainfall and unprecedented flooding. Without much time to mourn the devastation, our nation then braced for the impact of Hurricane Irma on Florida and the Caribbean. Now we watch once again as Hurricane Maria overwhelms Puerto Rico —the most severe hurricane to hit the territory since 1932.

But the rescue and volunteer efforts after Harvey and Irma are a reminder that even in these most divisive of times, Americans will put their lives on the line for their fellow neighbors.

However, before we begin to pat ourselves on the backs for being a nation of heroes, there are some observations that beg unpacking.

History is Our Greatest Teacher

It was impossible to watch the destructive power of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — as tens of thousands fled to rooftops, evacuation corridors, and public shelters — without recalling the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But it’s clear that we have learned some key lessons from that tragedy in the twelve years since.

From Katrina, we learned the importance of preparing for evacuation through strategic transportation adjustments. In both Texas and Florida, city leaders made safety the top priority when making evacuation (and non-evacuation) calls — thus saving the lives of many Americans.

While Harvey was a much stronger storm that dumped nearly three times as much water on the Houston Metro area than Katrina did in New Orleans and Mississippi, the death toll from both Harvey and Irma combined seems to have topped out at 150, in stark contrast to the 1,800 lives taken by the flood waters of Katrina.

The faces of those displaced and disrupted by Harvey and Irma were not nearly as homogenous—that is to say, they were not overwhelmingly black and poor — as those of Katrina. The tragic circumstances that New Orleans’ most disadvantaged communities faced during Katrina ultimately helped avert even further desperation and neglect during Harvey and Irma. While many New Orleans residents were threatened and chastised in their search for food, we saw investments like food stockpiles and expanded shelters pay off during both Harvey and Irma.

So, it would appear as though we have indeed learned from the mistakes of our past, and for that we ought to recognize our growth. But in that same vein, we must also ask what have we not yet learned. As we watch the devastation of Maria tear apart a territory already in dire financial constraints, we must decipher how our local leaders can shorten our societal learning curve when it comes to disaster preparedness and the disparate outcomes of the aftermath.

The Road to Recovery is Often Long and Inequitable

As victims of Harvey and Irma begin to put their lives back together, we must yet again observe and unpack the truths that have been laid bare. Once more we find that, while hurricanes are indiscriminate in their path of destruction, not every community is equally vulnerable to their wake.

A large body of epidemiological research has shown that certain groups are more likely than others to suffer when disasters strike. These populations include immigrants, non-English speakers, communities of color, the poor, and people who live in high density housing. Low income families, who are disproportionately represented by people of color, are more likely to live in flood prone areas with insufficient infrastructure, and inadequate flood control protections, if any at all.

Lower income homeowners may lack the financial resources for flood insurance and access to networks to rebuild as quickly. Those who are economically disadvantaged often lack mobility and places to flee to when catastrophes strike–all of which undermine their ability to survive events like Harvey and bounce back in the years that follow. This is a pattern that happens over and over again.

It costs us billions in reactive emergency dollars and immeasurable costs to people’s lives. Our nation demonstrates through event after event that we have a great capacity for acute compassion — but a tepid ability for sustained empathy and will to invest in long term and preventive efforts that can alleviate the impacts, including the disparities brought to light by natural events.

If we are to recover from the bearing of this callous hurricane season, we must recognize that disparate impacts require equitable re-investment. Equity beseeches us to devote sustainable resources to our most vulnerable communities, and counteract the potential for a disparate impact again.

Disaster Preparedness Can Help Eliminate Inequity

So, after Harvey, Irma, and now Maria, what should our local elected officials do to mitigate the damage and the disparities?

The first and most obvious need is to build a robust emergency preparedness plan, which, as we learned from Katrina, is not to be taken for granted. Local elected officials need to not only understand the risks that may confront their city, but focus their attention on comprehensive risk assessment, specifically for the communities who are most vulnerable. Our leaders need to openly discuss with each other and their constituencies the unique issues faced by the economically burdened and communities of color and initiate the push for necessary changes.

These dialogues must touch on the collective impact that inadequate disaster prevention planning has on our communities overall, as well as highlight the disparate impacts of our socially and economically underserved communities. Racial equity may not seem like an obvious piece of the puzzle of emergency preparedness, but the research paints a different picture.

Studies show that every disaster disproportionately and almost permanently disrupts the lives of those with the least resources to withstand disaster. These communities are often left without options or ability to continue their lives as normal after such emergencies.

Houston, for all of its successes in the handling of Harvey, has demonstrated that political will must be centered on the principles of good governance and policies that are in the interest of public safety, even if they are at odds with public will. Local elected officials must take leadership roles in shifting attitudes and actions for proper infrastructure and social investments within their jurisdictions. Additionally they must strongly advocate to superseding levels of government for appropriate investment in preparedness and protections for unimaginable natural events.

The issues of disaster preparedness are complex, and further complicated by competing interests, investments, and infrastructure and regulatory policies, but that does not absolve elected officials from serving as the voice of reason and example of action for preventive infrastructure, smart city planning, and balanced regulatory implementation.

If our leaders opt not to engage in these necessary actions, our cities most vulnerable to natural disasters, and their residents most vulnerable to life altering disruptions are destined to suffer repeatedly, disparately, and unnecessarily. And no one, but especially no leader should consider that an acceptable option.

Disaster preparedness is not simply a coastal city issue, but also a national issue. The past three hurricanes have shown us the importance of city leaders banding together to fight the potential for disparate impacts. As we lean on one another to mourn the loss of life and damage to infrastructure, we must also lean on one another for innovative ideas and solutions that paint a brighter future for our country and its most vulnerable communities.

Bernadette Onyenaka is the Racial Equity Manager at the National League of Cities.

Chelsea N. Jones is a current Public Policy and Management Masters student at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Chelsea has invested her time in racial equity work through advocacy in the Texas Parole Department, Texas Health and Human Services Commission and in D.C. as a policy fellow on Capitol Hill.

Bernadette Onyenaka
Racial Equity Manager
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