The Who, What and How of Equity and Access in Disaster Response and Recovery

Sep 28, 2023

This is the fourth in a blog series about National Preparedness Month. Read the last post to learn get a behind the scenes look at disaster response and recovery.

Disasters, whether natural or human made, can magnify existing inequities and challenges for historically marginalized and under resourced communities. It’s important to understand how equity and access intertwine with disaster response and recovery, but first let’s consider what ‘equity’ and ‘access’ mean in the context of disaster response Equity refers to the recognition, and subsequent actions, in a fair and just treatment of people as a part of an acknowledgement of systemic oppression. Access means that people are able to successfully utilize the array of federal and local resources before, during and after a disaster in ways that are most helpful to them and their communities.

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Who is Disproportionately Affected?

Under-resourced communities can face impacts that are disproportionately severe and last longer. Their hurdles can often become more expensive during disaster recovery as well. These groups can include but are not limited to:

  • Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)
  • People who identify as LGBTQIA+
  • People living with disabilities and/or cognitive conditions
  • People of various religions and national origin
  • Residents in rural areas
  • Older adults
  • Service and migrant workers
  • Those with limited English proficiency or limited financial literacy and resources
  • Indigenous populations
  • Undocumented residents
  • Unhoused people

What are the Challenges?

Because many of the issues around equity and access are rooted in a history of oppression, there is often a lack of trust around governmental agencies, which are commonly embedded in disaster response, especially for marginalized and undocumented people. It’s imperative that trust be built between these communities and the disaster responders before a disaster happens so that they are not left out of planning with little access to preparedness information and a lack of understanding around the actions they should take during an emergency.

“The community leaders with the most clout are those who are simply the longtime residents of a neighborhood. They likely know almost everyone on their block and are a trusted voice and resource of information. So, when disaster response organizations engage the grassroots community leaders in preparedness efforts year-round, they can rely on those trusted voices to quickly and seamlessly disseminate information and resources in real time on behalf of their organization.”

— Brooke Campbell, director, Volunteer Houston

Additionally, the challenges these groups face are unique and often exacerbate extreme challenges. For example, marginalized populations may live in more vulnerable and hazard-prone areas due to lower land values and affordability. Residents may be near industrial or chemical complexes and railroads. All of these factors can lead to increased vulnerability and a greater chance of more severe disaster impacts than well-resourced communities.

“In the Weaver Fertilizer fire [in which 600 tons of chemicals caused 6,500 residents to evacuate to escape the noxious fumes], the majority of the impacted population was Spanish speaking. The city and county officials were briefing only in English. A community leader took the time out of her full-time job to go and translate during briefings and accompany officials. If it weren’t for her, the community would have no idea what was going on or what resources were available.”

— Amy Lytle, executive director, HandsOn Northwest North Carolina

A lack of personal resources can become an undue burden as well. No means of personal transportation or a reliance on public transportation can make it difficult to evacuate when the need arises. Workers who make an hourly wage may be excluded from safety planning and recovery resources because their workplace may not allow for them to take paid time off to evacuate or to visit resource sites that operate on a 9 – 5 schedule. Educational levels, financial literacy and a lack of savings can all put people in the position of being unprotected in many ways, for example, not being able to afford insurance.

How Can Incorporating DEI Practices Help Solve Inequity?

Understanding how to promote equity and access throughout the disaster lifecycle helps operations become more nimble and responsive to the population. Strategic planning can be improved by ensuring that historically marginalized people are invited into the planning process. Giving them agency over planning means they’re more likely to be informed about and fully adopt community solutions. These changes can lead to different approaches in the implementation of strategic planning, civil rights enforcement and financial investment. Plus, decision makers are better equipped to identify how to invest financial resources to lessen potential loss of human life and property.

For example, having renters add their voices to planning, could mitigate the risk of absentee landlords. Another example might look like mapping out evacuation strategies for older adults who live in care home settings, so they remain safe from a threat like a hurricane or a wildfire. Regardless of the specifics of a given situation, understanding how to promote equity and access throughout the disaster lifecycle ensures that under-resourced populations can recover and bounce back more quickly from a disaster.

“It means that folks can access resources in ways that meet their needs — not a one size fits all approach. They can have voice and agency at every decision-making level. All disaster responders should have the training and tools they need to advance equity.”

— Chris Cameron, executive director, HandsOn New Orleans

And not accounting for basic DEI principles? Mistakes will ultimately sabotage the effectiveness of disaster preparedness initiatives. We can start by building resilience in under-resourced communities through innovative mitigation and adaptation projects. The most effective way to ensure that response measures are effective is to listen to the voices of people with lived experience who are disproportionately being impacted by disaster so that they are included and considered in the planning process.

Our final post in this series examines how nonprofits and NGOs will need to become more nimble around disaster response and recovery, regardless of their missions. Plus, don’t miss a behind-the-scenes look at disaster response and recovery.

Amy Marquis
Director of Communications, Points of Light

Seasoned storyteller Amy Marquis champions mission success at Points of Light, guiding content creation and messaging strategy.