State of the Planet

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How Can Local Communities Address the Needs of Vulnerable Populations Prior to a Disaster?

Natural disasters impact communities’ physical well-being, social cohesiveness, economic conditions and mental health. Credit: NCDP

In 2011, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released new guidance for residents, emergency management practitioners, organizational and community leaders, and government officials called “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action.”The document’s key principles provided a new modality for collaboration in managing the complexity inherent in community disaster recovery. Disaster recovery not only impacts our physical well-being, but our social cohesiveness, economic conditions, as well as physical and mental health. In addition, disaster outcomes tend to disproportionally impact those already facing the challenges of inequity caused by limited access to social capital, economic resources, and barriers to self-efficacy. As such, recovery requires efficient integration of diverse expertise and unified effort in these fields in both pre- and post-disaster planning.

In a landmark 2012 article in Homeland Security Affairs titled “Integration of Social Determinants of Community Preparedness and Resiliency in the 21st Century Emergency Management Planning,” the authors noted that the “social determinants of community preparedness and resiliency” must be considered during early planning and hinge upon building trust among stakeholders and the inclusion of the local community. These social determinants include average income, percent savings, education levels, unemployment rates, and infrastructure, such as housing availability. The latter has been an area of extreme importance for long term recovery, given that communities can’t build back stronger if longstanding housing problems aren’t addressed in planning efforts. For instance, as noted in “Tracking the American Dream: 50 Years of Housing History from the Census Bureau: 1940 to 1990,” people of color have experienced lower rates of homeownership throughout the 20th century, often due to housing policies that have fomented segregation, while also depleting social capital for future generations. Redlining, a discriminatory lending practice conducted by many banks throughout the 20th century, has also created a poverty trap for thousands of families. A recent study shows that African American and immigrant homeowners who were previously denied bank loans are now suffering much greater health disparities, with life expectancy being many years shorter than other neighborhoods in the same cities.

In 2021, we are still experiencing the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in which these same issues have arisen with even greater detriment to communities with limited solutions. This disaster has exacerbated an already challenged affordable housing crisis. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, over one in seven renters is behind on payments, with people of color hardest hit. In December, 2020, Congress approved the American Rescue Plan of 2021 that included over $40 billion in emergency rental assistance that can cover back rent and help renters avoid eviction. However, it has been slow to reach those most in need. For many, an eviction and migration crisis will supplant the public health challenges for years to come.

There is clearly a need for better coordination and efficient delivery of funds and resources to those most deeply impacted by disasters, particularly in relation to the housing sector. Solutions are hard to come by, but there are ones through which meaningful change is being fostered. As noted in its May 2020 Planning Considerations on Disaster Housing Report, FEMA has recommended that states coordinate a Disaster Housing Task Force long before a disaster occurs. According to FEMA, a Disaster Housing Taskforce is “a permanent body that coordinates state, local, Tribal, territorial, Federal, nongovernmental, and private sector experts to identify and evaluate housing programs, resources, and capabilities as part of disaster housing planning.” Following an incident, the Disaster Housing Taskforce will:

  • Activate upon initiation of a housing mission
  • Determine the scope of disaster-caused housing needs
  • Explore available rental resources and feasible alternatives
  • Identify and implement housing solutions following an incident.

Research shows that an effective housing planning strategy at the state and local level, which is inclusive of the whole community and prepared to address longstanding challenges and solutions, can have a meaningful impact on long term recovery from major disasters. States with robust Disaster Housing Taskforces, such as Florida, have also recently shown the benefits of long-term housing planning, as a means to reduce the loss of life and property, while also preventing mass migration and the loss of community from disaster impacted areas. Such programs can help low-income families immediately pay for emergency repairs, rental security deposits, down payment and closing cost assistance, impact fees, mortgage buy-downs, and homeownership counseling. All of these efforts can assist in the rapid rehabilitation of impacted neighborhoods, as people rebuild rather than leave. Perhaps more importantly, these programs can foster community trust and well-beingin areas that were previously denied adequate disaster assistance.

Longstanding challenges in the U.S. housing sector, such as racial discrimination and redlining, have resulted in innumerable challenges, particularly as communities face an ongoing pandemic along with other major disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and earthquakes. This article has noted that disaster outcomes often unduly impact those confronting the challenges of inequity, but that solutions are possible when we have the temerity to try new research backed approaches that can clearly add value. One such effort involves the development and implementation of state-led disaster housing task forces, as they can help support community members, including representatives of and advocates for vulnerable populations, in the development of post-disaster housing plans to ensure that the needs of all community members are met.

If you would like to work on developing or becoming involved in the Disaster Housing Task Force for your state, Tribal nation, or territory – start by enrolling in one of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness’ free FEMA sponsored online or instructor-led trainings. (



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