How Inequality and Politics Influence Government Responses to Natural Disasters

By Fernando Tormos, Gustavo García-López, and Mary Angelica Painter

After a hurricane strikes, governments and electric utility companies go to work restoring a sense of normalcy to their communities. Typical disaster recovery efforts include providing food and shelter to the displaced and medical services to the injured, and turning the power back on. While governments and electric utility companies claim that they do not give preferential treatment to specific groups while performing these services, people on the ground have questioned whether such a claim is true in practice. Who is right? When disasters occur, do governments and utility companies place a priority on helping some while neglecting others?

The 2017 hurricane season provides ample evidence of the inequalities that mark disaster recoveries. Within one month, hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, making that season one of the costliest to date and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Hurricane Maria caused a complete power outage in Puerto Rico, the largest blackout that America has ever incurred. This outage is a tragic natural experiment that provides a unique opportunity to understand prioritization during disaster recovery processes. Although a variety of factors determine the groups to which governments and utility companies are most responsive, our research shows that social vulnerability and support for the ruling party are key predictors.

Some Communities are More Vulnerable to Disasters

Everyone is vulnerable to disasters, but some are more vulnerable than others. Vulnerability refers to a community’s exposure to risk, loss, and harm; in particular, social vulnerability describes how resilient a community is, and how the attributes of a particular population will shape not just the impact of a disaster, but also dictate that population’s ability to recover from it. Socioeconomically marginalized groups exhibit marked social vulnerability: they tend to be less prepared for disasters, experience greater impact from those disasters, and—tellingly—also elicit less government responsiveness during disaster recoveries.

Our research shows that, in practice, socioeconomic conditions and partisan politics influence responses to disasters—even though governments and utility companies claim to prioritize the needs of critical infrastructure like hospitals and emergency operation centers. We employed statistical models to explain the distribution of power restoration crews after hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, and showed that communities with greater numbers of socially vulnerable people waited longer for crews to begin working in their neighborhoods. Our research also found that power restoration crews took fewer days to reach communities that supported the ruling party than those that did not.

How Can Governments and Utility Companies Improve Disaster Recoveries?

To create a more level playing field, governments and utility companies can take steps to achieve equity in disaster response, and save lives in doing so.

  • Prioritize vulnerable communities: Current disaster resource distribution practices tend to leave those in the greatest need behind. Governments and electric utility companies can reduce loss of life and suffering by officially prioritizing vulnerable communities, as they do with critical infrastructure.
  • Invest in disaster preparedness in vulnerable communities: Inequality during disasters is often a reflection of existing inequalities. Governments and utilities can enhance disaster preparedness through greater investment in vulnerable communities on flood prevention, modernizing electric grids, and transitioning away from a heavy dependence on fossil fuel for energy generation.
  • Monitor political disparities: Utility companies and governments tend to coordinate disaster recoveries without much oversight from the communities they are serving (since those communities without power and have a reduced capacity to communicate.) Increased monitoring of how disaster resources are distributed can bring public scrutiny to bear on disaster response, and reduce the tendency to give preferential treatment to communities that are politically supportive of the ruling party.

Preparing for and Recovering from More Frequent Extreme Weather

Climate change is expected to make extreme weather more frequent and damaging. When hurricanes strike, outages will ensue. These outages are more than just inconveniences; they tend to result in loss of life, increased hospitalizations, medical supply shortages, and disruptions of healthcare systems. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and especially those people within them who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment and procedures like ventilators and dialysis, are exposed to greater risks and tend to wait longer for restoration. Prioritizing vulnerable communities during disaster preparedness and recovery holds the potential to reduce loss of life and alleviate their burden of powerlessness.

How Social Workers Play A Role In Disaster Relief

Federally declared disasters have increased by 40% over the last 15 years, according to the Clinical Social Work Journal, and internationally, those numbers are higher. Over just the last two decades, natural disasters have doubled.

In the past, the term “disaster” was poorly defined, leading to emergency response plans that were a one-size-fits-all solution to multifaceted problems. This approach left survivors with fewer options for critical care, especially in the area of mental health.

The National Center for PTSD recently redefined disaster as “a sudden event that has the potential to terrify, horrify, or engender substantial losses for many people simultaneously.” It went on to further define disasters based on type, differentiating between natural and man-made disasters. If more widely accepted, this definition opens the door to opportunities for mental health care in these urgent situations, giving social workers a vital role in relief, recovery, and community resiliency.

Responses in Disaster Relief Social Work

Social workers can offer a variety of mental health services in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Traditional psychotherapy performed by therapists is known for its long-term approach involving session work and trust building, allowing patients to share their trauma narratives. However, when social workers are called up for active disaster relief, their critical and immediate intervention skills are far more necessary for psychological triage. Among them are:

  • Psychological first aid (PFA): PFA assists those in crisis in the aftermath of disaster. It relieves initial distress in an effort to promote short- and long-term coping. This sometimes includes crisis intervention and counseling.
  • Family care: Family social workers help families during crisis. They aid survivors in locating the services they need to overcome post-disaster challenges and repair their lives.
  • Mental health media communications: This field provides voices and vital points of view for under-represented or disadvantaged populations.
  • Resilient community capacity building: This includes creating response plans for various groups.

Above all, the pledge to “do no harm” is the first aspect of every skill.

Assistance During Disaster

Disaster relief programs typically consider the short-term needs of survivors in order to identify the best allocation of resources and promote beneficial coping in the aftermath of tragedy. Social workers assist in these programs in a number of ways, including:

  • Case management: Social workers locate appropriate resources for clients, making sure they receive the services they most require.
  • Case finding: Case finding involves providing survivors with information about the programs available to them. Many are unaware that such services are available or fear stigmatization for participating in them.
  • Outreach: Social workers performing outreach increase program locations in order to allow services to be more accessible.
  • Advocacy: Using connections within various relief organizations, social workers advocate on behalf of clients to qualify them for additional services.
  • Brokering: When acting as a broker, social workers link client systems to the resources they need, fulfilling client needs throughout a multiplicity of programs.

Ultimately, all these methods allow social workers to disseminate information, refer clients to services, and assist them in qualifying for resources in disasters.

Disaster Relief Social Work in Practice

In the U.S., the American Red Cross and the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program have provided almost half of all social workers participating in disaster relief programs. Depending on the type, duration, and severity of disaster, the challenges and requirements of social work change. When preparing ahead of an impending calamity, social workers may be identifying and organizing supplies, assisting with area and hospital evacuations, or even determining which patients can or should be moved.

During an actual emergency, the needs of the afflicted tend to take precedence over one’s own needs. Moment-to-moment changes in operational requirements contribute to the notion that social workers must remain flexible. They must be able to go where they are needed when they are needed there. The following are some real-world examples of social workers in the midst of disaster.

HURRICANE HARVEY

The residents of Beaumont, Texas, were witness to devastation on a massive scale. In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Harvey descended on Texas and Louisiana, and with it came ruined homes and wrecked lives.

In the end, the storm caused over $125 billion in damage and took 107 lives. The end of the storm was nowhere near the end of the damage. Long-term psychological trauma is a reality for many survivors, especially children. According to a recent survey in the aftermath of a hurricane, nearly 3.4% of respondents were found to have suicidal thoughts. The assessment, response, and counseling of suicidal behaviors were critical concerns that social workers on the ground were able to address.

HURRICANE MARIA

In September 2017, the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, was deployed to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The crew included social workers and mental health providers for inpatient and outpatient mental health services. These providers developed protocols to educate the ship’s staff in treating psychiatric patients in addition to treating patients on board.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES

The Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative was established in Sonoma County after the devastating Tubbs fire to offer survivors tools for dealing with trauma. In the wake of the fires, The Guardian reported that many social workers were funded by grants from FEMA, which allowed them to connect with nearly 70,000 people in Sonoma County alone. These social workers were able to identify and refer thousands to much-needed mental health services.

Research Applications

Further study of the impact of disasters on the mental health of survivors is critical to the practice of disaster relief social work. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has emphasized that children are especially vulnerable in disaster conditions, as they take their emotional and behavioral cues from adults.

Anxiety and startle responses, typical symptoms in children that have survived hurricanes, require therapeutic activities to help them cope in healthy ways. According to NASP, other disasters can prompt separate trauma responses. Tornadoes can cause survivor’s guilt due to their suddenness, whereas wildfires, given their advance warning, can cause anxiety. Negative effects stem from displacement, property destruction, and the concerns associated with biological threats to one’s health.

Facebook Introduces a New Center for Crisis Response

Facebook announced that their crisis response tools, including Safety Check, Community Help, and Fundraisers, will be accessible in a new center on Facebook called Crisis Response. Beginning today, people will also be able to see more crisis-related content, such as links to articles, photos and videos posted by the Facebook community, from crises around the world where Safety Check has been activated.

Since the first Safety Check tool in 2011, Facebook has continued to develop a number of crisis response tools to better serve its community. When there is a crisis, people use Facebook to let their friends and family know they’re safe, learn and share more about what’s happening, and help communities recover. People will be able to access Crisis Response on Facebook in the upcoming weeks from the homepage on desktop or from the menu button on their phone. They will see the following tools when they’re on a crisis page:

  • Safety Check: an easy way to let your friends and family know you’re safe. It will continue to work the same way it does today and will be featured at the top of each crisis page if you are in the affected area.
  • Links to Articles, Photos and Videos: crisis-related content from public posts can help people learn more about a crisis.
  • Community Help: people can ask for and give help to communities affected by the crisis.
  • Fundraisers: let people create fundraisers and donate to support those affected by the crisis and nonprofit organizations helping with relief efforts.

As part of the single resource hub, Facebook will also include links to articles, photos, and videos from public posts so people have access to more information about a crisis in one place. Safety Check activations and related information may also appear in News Feed to help provide additional details about a crisis.

Facebook strives to continuously provide people with helpful information to keep them safe and help communities to rebuild and recover.

Hurricane & Flood Handbook: After the Storm

Take it from someone who has seen 27 inches of water lap against the living room walls: plan ahead. No photo album should live lower than three feet in a cabinet. Children’s cheerleader pom-poms and refrigerator art are no longer stashed on the closet floor. And, never throw away old phone books — they can raise Grandma’s heirloom drop-leaf just high enough to save it. (Remember, phone books swell and get even higher when wet!)

There’s a lot you can save. But you’ve got to plan, while the sun is shining.

If house flooding occurs

Should a sustained storm bring record rainfall to your area, your home may take in water. Even if you are not near a river or bayou, your neighborhood may be so saturated that water simply has no place to go but in and up.

If your street water is climbing into your yard and/or if your neighborhood is prone to flood:

  • Put on rubber soled shoes or rubber boots. Do NOT go barefoot in your home.
  • If possible, move your car off the street into the garage.
  • Remove gasoline cans and flammables from the garage or put them high into the rafters of your garage.
  • Grab your pre-prioritized list of items that must be moved higher (onto a tabletop or countertop), such as documents, photos and computers.
  • Unplug all electric cords from wall sockets in anticipation of water rising over the socket.
  • Turn off electricity at the breaker if you believe that water will approach sockets.
  • Remove lower drawers from dressers and place higher — they swell shut if wet.
  • If you have a one-story home, go into your attic while the water is still low and check for a roof exit if necessary. Bring with you any necessary tools you would need to create an attic opening to your roof.
  • Keep exterior doors closed. Unless you are near a river or creek, most rising water does NOT enter through doorways, but through ground saturation. So chances are, it will come from everywhere at once. Doors need to remain closed to keep out animals and insects that are groping for places to land.
  • Keep battery-operated communication devices on for updates on weather and evacuation boats that may be coming through your area.
  • Do not drink water from the tap until you have been advised that the water system was not contaminated.
  • If your house is flooding, your toilets won’t flush. Have a temporary “chamber pot” designated. Camping toilets are good to have on hand.

When it’s over

  • First, call family members to let them know where and how you are.
  • Then, call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance in your area.
  • If you have flood insurance, call your agent.
  • Pull out your camera and take pictures of the damage. Visual aids assist agents, if you have flood insurance.

The aftermath of a mess

Depending on the amount of water, the type of home and your geographic area, these tips may help you save belongings:

  • Hardwood Floors: (sitting on screeds, not pre-fabricated) every 3-4 feet, remove a plank and save it. Wood is porous and swells when wet, making the planks “pop” out and appear unsalvageable. But wood dries out and returns to its normal position. Wait several weeks and then replace the missing plank. Removing planks immediately after a flood allows the foundation and wood to dry out faster.
  • Remove carpet AND carpet padding immediately.
  • Remove the molding around the floors that are against the wall and save. This speeds up drying.
  • Rent or purchase at least two dehumidifiers if possible, and run them 24 hours for several days. They truly do pull out tremendous moisture.
  • Borrow fans and turn the air conditioner colder for several days.
  • Sheetrock must be cut out at least three feet above the water line AND insulation removed as well. Insulation is highly absorbent.
  • Swab down the gutted exposed boards with a mix of one quarter cup bleach to a gallon of water to prevent mold.
  • Clean-up equipment: When using sprayers, wet vacs, vacuum cleaners and other cleaning equipment, use an extension cord with a ground fault circuit interrupter or install a GFCI in the electrical circuits in damp environments.

To save wet documents

  • If valuable papers have gotten wet, chances are you won’t have time to pull them apart and find a large enough area to let them dry. If they are partially drying, they will stick together and rip.
  • So, take the entire file or stack of papers and resubmerge them briefly in water. Then wrap them in plastic and put them in freezer bags and freeze them until you have time to deal with them. They stay preserved and, for some reason, thaw without sticking together or ripping.
  • Saving photos: resubmerge and gently pull apart. Lay them on a flat surface to dry. Remember, photos are developed in liquid in the first place.

Cleaning up mold

After a storm or flooding is over, mold can be a serious problem. Act fast to prevent or clean it up:

  • Protect yourself from injuries during cleanup by wearing
    • Hard hats,
    • Goggles,
    • Heavy work gloves,
    • Waterproof boots with steel toes, and
    • Earplugs or headphones (if you’re working with noisy equipment).
  • Clean up and dry out your home quickly after the storm ends — within 24 to 48 hours if you can.
  • Air out your house by opening doors and windows.
  • Use fans to dry wet areas.
  • Clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water.
  • Fix any leaks in roofs, walls or plumbing as soon as you can.
  • Throw away anything that you can’t clean or dry quickly. For example, you might need to get rid of carpeting and some furniture.

If you notice mold, clean it up with a mix of bleach and water:

  • Never use bleach in a closed space. Open windows and doors first.
  • Put on rubber gloves.
  • To make your cleaner, mix 1 cup of household bleach with 1 gallon of water.
  • Clean everything with mold on it.

Disinfect Toys

Remember that anything that’s had contact with floodwater could carry germs. To keep your kids safe, make sure their toys are clean:

  • Make a cleaning fluid by mixing 1 cup of bleach in 5 gallons of water.
  • Wash off toys carefully with your cleaner.
  • Let the toys air dry.

You may not be able to kill germs on some toys — like stuffed animals and baby toys. Throw out toys you can’t clean.

Surviving a summer night without power

Trying to sleep in Houston without air conditioning when “low” temps are in the 90s could be used as a medieval torture device. Try misting your sheets with water to stay cool. Combined with a battery-powered fan, this technique won’t exactly mimic A/C, but it may allow you to sleep for a few uninterrupted hours.

The dangers of standing water

Flood waters and standing waters pose various risks, including the risk of drowning (even in shallow water), infectious diseases, contact with sewage and chemical and electrical hazards, and the potential for injuries. Flood waters can displace animals, insects, and reptiles. To protect yourself and your family, be alert and avoid contact. In addition, flood waters may contain sharp objects, such as glass or metal, that can cause injury and lead to infection. Avoid standing or moving about in flood waters as much as possible.

DEET: Your anti-mosquito protection 

Along with your other first aid preparations, have on hand good bug spray containing DEET — the one ingredient proven to thwart disease-carrying mosquitos.

Patrol the perimeter

Not only will wind damage a fence, heavy rains can waterlog fence posts, causing the fence to lean or collapse long after the storm passes. Check the entire perimeter of your fence for damage as well as potential damage and shore up any weak spots. Before letting pets roam freely in the yard, also inspect the perimeter for low-lying spots and areas that might have washed out during heavy rains, leaving easy-to-dig escape routes for adventurous animals. Also, inspect the yard for any broken glass or other sharp debris before leaving pets unattended.

Looters

Looters are unfortunately a very real threat after almost any disaster. Some of them are armed; all of them are nasty. Unpleasant as conditions are, you may need to decide whether leaving the area is better than losing everything of value you have left.

Dangers with generators: carbon monoxide poisoning

If you are using a combustion engine generator to provide electricity and AC while your power is out, think twice, and certainly do not put it inside your home. Generators can cause death through carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill or seriously and permanently injure people who inadvertently breathe in the noxious fumes emitted from generators in an enclosed space.

During hurricane season, emergency rooms see a rise in cases of CO poisoning from people bringing generators into their homes to provide power, often for air conditioning.

Food safety after a hurricane

Keep food fresh

  • If your power is out, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep in the cool air.
  • Put a block of ice in your refrigerator if you expect the power will be out for more than 4 hours. It will keep food cool longer. Wear heavy gloves when handling the ice.
  • Even if it’s partially thawed, you can still cook or refreeze frozen food as long as you can see ice crystals or if it’s still 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower.

Throw out spoiled food

Get rid of food if it:

  • Is in a can that’s open, damaged or bulging.
  • Has a strange smell, color or texture.
  • Needs to be refrigerated but has been warmer than 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) for 2 hours or longer. Foods that need to be kept cold include meat, eggs, fish, poultry, and leftovers.

Clean off canned food

If you have cans of food that came in contact with floodwater or storm water, you need to clean them off to make sure they’re safe to use. To get germs off the outside of the cans:

  • Remove the labels.
  • Dip the cans in a mix of 5 gallons of water and 1 cup of household bleach.
  • Label the cans with a permanent marker so you know what’s inside.

Water safety after a hurricane

Ask local officials or listen to the news to find out whether you can drink tap water or use it for washing. If it’s not safe, use bottled water if you can. If you don’t have bottled water, there are some things you can do to kill germs in dirty water and make it safe to drink. For example:

  • Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute.
  • Use household bleach. Add 1/8 teaspoon of new, unscented liquid bleach to 1 gallon of water. Stir well. Let the water sit for 30 minutes before you drink it.
  • Use water-purifying tablets. Adding these to water make it safe to drink. Follow the product’s directions.

Feeding your baby

If you have a baby, protect her from germs in unsafe water. You can:

  • Keep breastfeeding if that’s what you normally do.
  • Use canned or premixed liquid formula.
  • Use bottled water to make formula from a powder or concentrate.

If you don’t have bottled water, use boiled water to make formula. Make sure the water has cooled before mixing it with formula and giving it to your baby.

Only use treated (disinfected or purified) water to make formula if you don’t have access to bottled or boiled water.

Exit mobile version