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Ensuring equity in disaster preparedness and recovery efforts

Hurricane windows being installed illustrate the need to prepare for natural disasters

Hurricane shutters being installed. Photo credit: Getty Images. 

April 24, 2024


As the intensity and frequency of natural hazard events like hurricanes, coastal storms, flooding, and wildfires increase, so does the importance of prioritizing equity in disaster preparedness and recovery.

While natural disasters can affect anyone, certain socially vulnerable groups, such as minority populations, households with low incomes, individuals with low educational attainment, and older adults, are more vulnerable to natural hazards caused by climate change and face a harder path to recovery after disasters occur. In addition, access to federal disaster aid for these groups has historically been challenging due to decentralized management processes and overburdensome federal program requirements and policies.  

Equitable disaster preparation and recovery efforts seek to ensure that all community members can prepare for and recover from natural disasters. This includes, for example, ensuring socially vulnerable groups are aware of and can easily access federal, state, and local resources before and after a disaster event; designing local preparedness and recovery programs to meet the unique needs of those groups; tracking and disaggregating outcomes of those programs by race, ethnicity, and other indicators of social vulnerability; and modifying programs to reduce disparities if they are identified. 

This brief discusses key steps and resources localities can use to promote more equitable planning for disaster preparedness and recovery.

Key strategies

Determine people and places at risk of climate-related natural disasters

Several existing tools can help localities understand potential climate change impacts to communities of concern. These include the Social Vulnerability Index, Neighborhoods at Risk Tool, National Risk Index, and the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Each tool identifies communities with an elevated risk of being impacted by climate change using a variety of sociodemographic and environmental factors and can help localities determine where to focus their planning and recovery efforts. 

Structure equitable resilience and recovery programs

Localities should prioritize the housing needs of those who may be least able to prepare for and respond to disasters to ensure these communities can access and benefit from disaster management efforts. To start, they can tailor outreach and engagement efforts to ensure different communities are aware of the programs and to encourage broad participation in planning and decision-making. This may include partnering with community-based organizations (CBOs) to help access hard-to-reach communities and build community trust, translating materials into languages relevant for the community, and ensuring community meetings are held in spaces accessible by public transportation. 

For example, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico implemented a robust stakeholder engagement process to gather input to inform its Community Development Block Grant Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) Action Plan. The plan aimed to identify strategic and high-impact mitigation activities to address future disaster risks. To ensure this strategic planning document adequately represented the needs of Puerto Rico’s diverse communities, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing (PRDOH) gathered input from residents and service providers on mitigation needs. PRDOH partnered with a non-profit that provides legal education to low- and middle-income Puerto Ricans to increase participation in surveys, public comments, individual meetings, and roundtables across the island. Upon learning that the key storm-related disruptions experienced by residents and service providers were related to power and drinking water, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing allocated over half of its $8 billion allocation of mitigation funds to infrastructure projects that increase resilience in these and other related critical assets.

Localities can also take steps to reduce the burden of participating in housing resilience and recovery programs. For example, localities can help community members understand which programs they qualify for and how to access them. Localities can also help residents navigate program applications and benchmarks by providing real-time application support, translation services, and easy-to-access resources and tools. Localities can also form relationships with federal agencies working locally to support recovery efforts. 

For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hired 11 local staff from the Salem and Eugene areas to help communities recover from winter and spring storms in Oregon in 2019. These local staff provided FEMA with valuable local knowledge to help with recovery efforts. Local communities, in turn, were provided with disaster recovery training which they could build on to support future disaster recovery efforts, strengthening their local emergency response capabilities and creating better connections to federal resources. Efforts like these can help households navigate complex administrative processes that have disproportionately limited the amount of federal aid accessible to low-income communities of color.

It is important to prioritize vulnerable communities in any housing resilience or recovery program to ensure assistance reaches those with the greatest need. To do so, localities can consider offering rebates, financial incentives, and other resources for those communities to implement climate adaptation measures, such as grants to help low-income homeowners install green roofs or rainwater harvesting systems. For recovery programs, localities can consider prioritizing those who meet specific criteria, such as lower-income homeowners, renters at risk of displacement or unhealthy living conditions, and unhoused or housing-insecure residents. 

For example, following the catastrophic Camp Fire in 2018, the town of Paradise, California applied for a grant from the CalHOME Disaster Assistance Program to help fill funding gaps for lower-income households hoping to rebuild after the disaster. The Camp Fire had displaced roughly 50,000 people, many of whom were lower-income retirees with limited access to resources or capacity to rebuild. To ensure all residents had equitable access to disaster recovery support, the town also launched a “Building Resiliency Center” to directly assist homeowners, connecting residents with planners and advocates who could listen to their concerns and help them navigate the housing recovery process.

Finally, localities can use disaster resilience and recovery efforts as an opportunity to think beyond immediate recovery needs to plan for long-term affordability and sustainability. 

Provide community-specific services and resources

Localities can improve disaster preparedness and response by tailoring resilience and recovery efforts to the needs of specific communities that face disproportionate risks related to climate change due to social, economic,  or geographic factors. Such communities may include individuals with lower incomes, indigenous communities and communities of color, older adults, individuals with disabilities, and individuals with limited English proficiency, among others. 

  • Lower-income neighborhoods often experience the worst devastation in the wake of disasters due to the construction or condition of their homes or location in areas susceptible to repeated impacts. Households with limited resources face a higher financial burden for housing recovery. 
  • Renters account for over a third of U.S. households, yet most housing recovery programs disproportionately serve homeowners. Special consideration must be given to ensure affordable and safe rental options remain during disaster events, like implementing strong renter protections and prioritizing low-income renters in recovery programs.  
  • Uninsured or underinsured households may lack the resources to rebuild, particularly with some insurers raising rates or leaving hazard-prone regions. Localities can help connect uninsured or underinsured households with federal resources to reduce the burden of recovery. For community members who are unable to rebuild, localities can help ensure that buyout programs adequately compensate homeowners so that they can relocate out of harm’s way but remain connected to their community and livelihoods.
  • Individuals needing accommodations may require additional support before, during, and after disaster events to understand and access resources. For example, older adults and people with disabilities may require additional application support as well as physical supportive services, such as home retrofit programs.

Evaluate equity metrics and program outcomes

Any planning or recovery program should include defined equity goals and metrics so that localities can track progress toward equitable outcomes. Localities can capture and evaluate data on program participation and results, such as the number of applications expected versus observed, the percentage of complete or incomplete applications, or the timeline for delivery of assistance. Data can be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, income, or other socioeconomic characteristics to determine whether minority or other marginalized communities have adequate access to the benefits provided through the programs. Localities can use this data to assess whether the programs are reaching their target audiences and adjust their outreach and engagement efforts as needed.

Use resources for equitable planning and recovery

Localities can access disaster planning and recovery support through a range of sources, including programs managed by FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Several such programs are included in the Housing Solutions Lab federal funding directory

Disaster preparedness and recovery resources

Several frameworks exist to help localities create and fund equitable disaster plans, including the Equitable Adaptation Legal and Policy Toolkit, Equity in Disaster Planning and Recovery, Community Resilience Toolkit, Resilience Roadmap, and the Ready to Fund Resilience Toolkit

Frameworks that support equitable disaster recovery include the Achieving Equitable Recovery: Post-Disaster Guide for Local Officials and Leaders, the National Disaster Recovery Framework, Community Recovery Management Toolkit, and Housing Recovery Support Function. HUD Disaster Resources provides a collection of HUD and other federal disaster recovery resources.

A range of federal funding programs can be used to fund disaster preparedness and recovery, such as those related to community development (e.g., Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG), energy efficiency (e.g., CDBG Disaster Recovery, or CDBG-DR), home repair (e.g., USDA Section 504 Home Repair Program), and rental assistance (e.g., Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG)). 

Overall, FEMA and HUD provide the most critical resources for communities before and after disaster events. These include: 

FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program, Hazard Mitigation Assistance Program, and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Post Fire. 

HUD’s Community Development Block Grants – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) and Community Development Block Grants – Mitigation (CDBG-MIT). 

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