To assure equity in emergency response, it is important to focus on the intersection of natural hazard and the humancreated environment. Some groups have social vulnerabilities that put them in greater peril in the case of disaster. There is no agreement on what to call the vulnerable populations. There is agreement that low income individuals, children, seniors, disabled individuals, certain ethnic minorities, travelers, and recent immigrants are among the vulnerable populations. Within the total vulnerable population, some groups, such as minorities, are less able than others to organize to get help. This panel discussed the disparity in emergency response to vulnerable populations.
Key insights and issues discussed
Panelists and individual participants discussed a number of important issues and offered some personal insights:
— The GAO evaluated how federal and state governments were able to mobilize to provide services to specific vulnerable populations, finding that low income individuals and families receiving public assistance, families with children, and disabled individuals were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina.
— During Katrina, federally administered programs that already had disaster programs in place to assist individuals and families receiving benefits, such as Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) and Supplementary Security Income (SSI), functioned well. However, state-administered federal programs, such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, struggled to ramp up and meet the demand. These programs, which lacked disaster plans, made limited use of flexible service delivery options, such as call centers for accessing assistance and online application services, and did not use debit cards to issue benefits.
— GAO made recommendations for improved planning, service delivery, and eligibility determinations. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA) included provisions to address the challenges faced in serving individuals with disabilities and included provisions to appoint a disability coordinator and develop guidelines for accessibility to shelters. Governments at all levels have made important advances in disaster recovery since PKEMRA. However, full compliance has not yet been achieved.
— The expansive use of cell phones for access to the Internet, social media, and news creates an important outlet for emergency public communications, especially warnings and education campaigns. Public communications during an emergency must be credible, reliable, accurate, timely, clear, and consistent throughout all media and communications outlets. Cell phone and communications technology must be leveraged to create greater access, timeliness, and credibility.
— Successful public communications require that both individuals and government agencies keep up with the technology to maintain access to emergency communication and for providers and governments to deliver high-quality services. Further, policies, whether administrative or legislative, will need to incorporate rules for the inclusion of vulnerable populations that may not have the same degree of access to the latest communications technology.
— Research indicates that small businesses are disproportionally vulnerable to disasters. However, it has been difficult to research and provide comparative data on the impact of a disaster and recovery on this group because of conflicting definitions of terms such as small business and disaster. Local emergency planners and emergency managers can play an important role by: (1) providing lifeline and education services, and (2) leveraging public-private and community partnerships to support small businesses during a disaster and help them establish preparedness practices. Additionally, leading state and local governments should allocate resources for disaster mitigation strategies, such as land use regulation.
Presentations for download: