The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 24, 2018

How social science helps build resilience in the face of disasters

October 24, 2018

Nnenia Campbell contributed to this post. A version was also published by the Consortium of Social Science Association’s blog, Why Social Science? 


We are dedicated to using social science to improve disaster recovery for people on the margins of society—in particular, on the needs of children and older adults in times of crisis. Our past work has shed light on how age influences vulnerability and agency. Uplifting and sharing lessons learned is especially important as we continue to face extreme weather events and a changing climate. 

Decades of social science research with, by, for, and about children and older adults tells us these things:

Recovery needs vary based on age

Children have unique disaster needs because of their age, cognitive abilities, and dependence on adult guardians and caretakers, with older children commonly more affected. Additionally, children tend to experience magnified effects because they must cope with disaster-related stress during a developmental phase in which their personalities and identities are forming.

Similarly, older people tend to have different health concerns, financial considerations, and worldviews than younger people. They often demonstrate significant resilience to disaster impacts because of greater life experience and coping skills, but many older adults face substantial barriers to recovery because of social marginalization and declining social support.

These factors help explain seniors’ overwhelming representation among fatalities in disasters, such as Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami.

The capacities of both elders and children to recover from a disaster can vary substantially based on individual and environmental circumstances. Social science sheds light on these variations, allowing us to better anticipate what support is needed and to respond appropriately after an extreme event. 

Youth and older adults can be untapped resources

Youth engagement in disaster recovery strengthens social ties, fosters a sense of community, includes diverse perspectives in community building, and promotes lifelong civic engagement. Recent research has shifted from focusing on children’s vulnerability to promoting their agency.

Studies have bolstered evidence on the meaningful and rich role youth can play in disaster resilience, emphasizing their capacity for engaging in tasks like providing peer counseling, distributing aid, participating in planning and rebuilding, and sharing educational disaster information with friends and family.

Although stereotypes associated with advanced age often lead to seniors being treated as passive victims or liabilities in the context of disaster, scholars have increasingly come to recognize that older adults are commonly an underused resource for community resilience. Research reveals that elders often possess skills and resources critical to disaster response and recovery, based on their life and professional experiences.

In past disaster recovery efforts, older adults have played key roles in fundraising, providing management support, distributing food and goods, and coordinating services. Moreover, studies have found that this kind of volunteerism can yield benefits for elders themselves in addition to providing essential support to communities, thereby creating a positive feedback loop. 

Organizations that support youth and seniors play a critical role in disaster recovery

As is the case with many other sectors, child-serving and senior-serving organizations are important components of any community’s social fabric. These organizations are wellsprings of expertise and can help ensure recovery processes accommodate the needs of children and older adults. It is vital to include these entities in disaster recovery efforts and to foster predisaster collaboration and preparedness.

Social science is critical to improve and innovate

By highlighting realities that run contrary to commonly held assumptions, the systematic study of disaster outcomes at both ends of the age spectrum points to the value of social science research for evidence-based decision making. The insights that scientists provide are only as good as the questions they ask.

But by requiring attention to the broader contexts in which complex societal processes unfold, social science inquiry raises better questions. The imperative of scientific rigor has led social scientists to challenge their assumptions about why children and older adults are more vulnerable to disasters and to question what we might learn from their efforts to cope with those vulnerabilities.

Nahir Ortiz, 14, cries in her grandmother's arms at the family's local church in the hurricane-ravaged town of Caonillas, Puerto Rico on October 1, 2017. The Ortiz family's house was destroyed by a mud slide that crashed into the back of the home. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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