The blog of the Urban Institute
September 23, 2020

With Increasing Climate Disasters, Who Receives Assistance Matters

Just three weeks after Hurricane Laura made landfall as one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the US, deadly wildfires swept across the West Coast. Under orange skies reaching from Washington to southern California, millions of acres of landscape burned.

These disasters are the tangible effects of climate change, which is increasing the intensity of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and causing warmer and drier conditions in the West. As the frequency of natural disasters increases, relief and recovery efforts must account for the diverse needs, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the communities affected.

As of September 13, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved 16 parishes in western Louisiana and eight counties in central California for Individual Assistance (IA) grants, which allow individuals and households to apply for funds to help with their recovery. Although needs will vary within these communities depending the amount of damage and assistance needed, county characteristics can help us understand how best to direct assistance.

Who have the disasters affected?

Our ability to recover from a disaster depends on our understanding of who is most affected and how to quickly and accurately deploy assistance. Higher-income households have more resources in reserve and can avoid chronic stressors such as low-quality housing, access to healthy foods, and difficult decisions on deferred health care. Low-income households are also less likely to be approved for federal recovery assistance, often for insufficient damage, even if that damage accounts for a larger portion of their overall income.

In the declared counties, 21 percent (Louisiana) and 11 percent (California) of the affected population have incomes below the federal poverty level. More than half of households in the hurricane-affected parishes make less than Louisiana’s median income, and 41 percent of households in fire-affected counties make less than California’s median income. Without existing safety nets, disaster response and recovery must prioritize these communities.

Renters are another key underserved demographic, especially in relation to long-term recovery needs. Renter households often have lower-quality housing than those who own and less control over house resilience characteristics. Disasters also put pressure on the rental market as those displaced look for new places to live, making it more difficult to find affordable housing in these communities. In Louisiana, 36 percent of the affected populations are renters, and 41 percent of fire-affected Californians are renters.

For young people and older adults, services such as schools, child care, or assisted living, which have already been disrupted during the pandemic, now face greater strain in the disasters’ aftermath. One-quarter of the affected population in Louisiana and 22 percent in California are younger than 18, and 15 percent are older than 65 in both regions. 

People with disabilities often rely on a web of social services, special assistance, and unique accessibility requirements, such as wheelchair-accommodating buses or occupational therapy. Twenty percent of the affected population in Louisiana and 23 percent of California’s fire-affected population have a disability.

Finally, the systemic exclusion of racial and ethnic groups throughout American history has resulted in unequal access to formal support systems for communities of color. Black-majority communities see a much lower rate of disaster relief small-business loans than elsewhere across the country. In Louisiana, 26 percent of the flooded parish population is Black, and in California, 32 percent of those affected by the wildfires are Latinx and 14 percent are Asian and Pacific Islander.

What can we do?

Last week, another disaster struck as Hurricane Sally made landfall in Alabama and northern Florida, barely missing the New Orleans metropolitan area but hitting other population centers. The emergency conditions in these communities also exacerbate the risks and realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing some of the immediate problems of the most vulnerable can help the entire community recover more quickly. Providing individual transportation assistance can help people keep their jobs and allow for businesses to remain open, and targeting key medical resources to more vulnerable populations—younger and older populations and people with disabilities—will increase the efficiency of the health care system. Immediate and direct subsidy assistance to renters, especially low-income renters, can also help keep local housing markets in check.

There must also be support and guidance for communities that take in displaced and relocated people in the wake of a disaster. Evacuees may create new stress on the receiving community’s support systems, especially if they end up staying for an extended period. Although some of these resource strains are real, especially in cases of large movements of people, much of it may be perceived.

This tension was apparent in the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, where city officials barred refugee organizations from sheltering hurricane evacuees. If evacuees were allowed to stay, they could be a net benefit to the community, expanding the labor force and inspiring new support networks that could also help locals.

As these disaster events become more frequent, we must focus on the specialized needs of vulnerable community members during and after disasters. We must keep these people at the forefront of recovery and rebuilding efforts and work to reform the national emergency management framework with an emphasis on equity.

An aerial view from a drone shows Jody Wright and her daughter Jamie Cade looking into her neighbor's apartment after the roof was blown off when Hurricane Sally passed through the area on September 17, 2020 in Perdido Key, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.