“Where are we going to go?”
I remember sitting in my living room as my parents debated our options. It was September 2005, just months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana shoreline, sending thousands of evacuees into Houston. The local meteorologist had made his proclamation: my zip code was located in Evacuation Zone B, meaning it was recommended we evacuate in the event of a Level 3 Hurricane. At the time, Rita was projected to well-surpass that rating. I will never forget the fear I felt in the pit of my stomach as I helped my family move our furniture, valuable documents, and photo albums onto the second floor of our home. I was instructed to pack some clothes and whatever treasured items would fit into my small suitcase. We packed our bags, along with an estimated 3.7 million of our neighbors throughout the Houston area and Texas Coast. In the end, though Rita ended up veering eastward and sparing my family home, many weren’t so lucky. While the process of evacuating was frightening and painful (it took us over 24 hours to make the drive from Houston to the home of a friend-of-a-friend in Dallas), we were fortunate to have the resources to make the trip.
The price of emergency preparedness is much more difficult for many of our society’s most vulnerable to bear. As the 2014 Hurricane season begins June 1st, it is important to consider how to ensure all segments of the population are adequately prepared.
An individual’s preparedness is reciprocally determined through such things as the amount of available material and intellectual resources (e.g., emergency funds and personal disaster kits; timely access to disaster alerts and knowledge of evacuation routes), their social support networks (e.g., families, churches, local response or organizations), the community-level preparedness (e.g., relationships between emergency services, non-governmental organizations, local businesses, community organizations) and the ability of the community to access and leverage resources from those in power (public officials, federal or international aid agencies)
– Reiininger et al / Social Science & Medicine 2013
One study looking at emergency preparedness in low income Mexican-American communities found that several factors were associated with increased and decreased prevalence of hurricane preparedness.
- older age
- being white
- higher education
- increased income
- English speaking
- excellent self-reported health
- a special-needs family member
- increased number of people in the household
Additionally, this study found that the social context of individuals was important in emergency preparedness. The authors showed that those who were more trusting and more inclined to believe that they are treated ‘fairly’ within the community were more likely to implement steps in preparation for a hurricane. It seems reasonable to believe that the poorest and most-marginalized individuals may not share these feelings of trust and fairness.
In addition to the burdens of lost-income and property damage, the act of evacuating itself is an expensive business. Researchers conducted a survey of individuals who evacuated in the wake of Hurricane Lili in 2002 and calculated the total cost of the evacuation.
Researchers utilize a tool called the Social Vulnerability Index to assess which communities are most at risk in the face of public health emergency. This index considers a community’s ability to prepare, respond, cope and recover from a hazard event as a function of demographics, health care, social capital and access.
Of course, when one thinks of disastrous hurricanes, 2005’s Katrina is the first to come to mind. This Category 3 storm displaced hundreds of thousands and caused over $100 billion in damage. Katrina damaged 71% of New Orleans’ occupied housing units – the worst residential disaster in US history.
Sadly, many of the areas of New Orleans that experienced the worst flooding were in areas occupied by the poorest of its citizens. These communities are the least-equipped to prepare in the face of disaster, to evacuate when necessary, and to have the resources to return and rebuild after the storm.
When creating emergency response and preparedness policies, it is imperative to consider the resources available to the most vulnerable populations. At a summit on preparedness in Boston, various areas of policy development were identified to ensure that these needs were met.
While the 2014 Hurricane season looks to be relatively mild when compared to years past, we must still prepare for the worst.
Hurricane Season begins June 1. Are you ready?
Preparedness resources can be found at the links below:
Report written by Vidya Eswaran