P!NPoints: Individuals in Disasters: Reframing the Discussion of Disaster Victims

By Gavin Smith
Executive Director, UNC Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As people commemorated the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last month, it is fitting that we recognize the key role individuals have played in the recovery of the Gulf Coast. All too often the media, government officials and others describe those impacted by disasters as “victims.” This perception has shaped how government disaster assistance programs are developed and administered, the nature of post-disaster philanthropy and even the degree to which we as individuals prepare for disasters.

Casting the individual as a victim implies that they are helpless and unable to assist themselves or members of their community. It also implies that disasters are unforeseen events that one cannot prepare for and those that are impacted must accept their fate.

This is not meant to blame those that are more vulnerable than others when it comes to the effects of natural hazards and disasters. Socially vulnerable populations such as the poor, elderly, the homeless and handicapped may need special forms of assistance. Rather, it means that we as a nation should invest more time and resources toward enhancing individual and community preparedness.

It is not uncommon for the federal government and private sector firms to spend hundreds of millions of dollars after a major disaster to rebuild our physical infrastructure and damaged buildings. On the other hand, we invest very little in pre-event capacity building of our social and institutional infrastructure, which is just as important.

A key aim of disaster assistance policy should be to build greater self-reliance at the individual, neighborhood and municipal level through an enhanced awareness of natural hazards and their effects, the hosting of pre-event training and education programs and the direct involvement of individuals in policy-making and planning initiatives.

Defining all individuals as victims discounts the preexisting strength of social networks, the diversity and vitality of neighborhoods and the emergence of locally-based groups that tackle identified problems in the aftermath of a disaster. Nor does this definition recognize that individuals often have the best understanding of local needs. Unfortunately, this knowledge is underutilized when crafting post-disaster relief strategies. When individuals and the information they hold is linked to other organizations, both within and outside of their community, and flexible, collaborative strategies are developed for pre- and post-disaster conditions, community resilience is enhanced.

Following Hurricane Katrina, several groups formed, each started by a small number of concerned individuals. One such group, the Broadmoor Improvement Association in New Orleans, highlights the power of individuals acting together to address identified weaknesses in the post-disaster delivery of assistance. In this case local “disaster victims” played a key role in helping to mobilize community support, inform neighbors about pertinent policies and programs, identify external resources needed to rebuild, track the repair of damaged housing, create and staff committees, market their success and encourage citizen reinvestment and create a permanent organization capable of sustaining the commitment to the Broadmoor community beyond Hurricane Katrina recovery initiatives to include public safety, quality of life issues and economic development.

I encourage you to review the good work done by the Broadmoor community as an example of how individuals can take control of a dire situation and through hard work, make their community a better place to live.

The Broadmoor community was able to achieve success in spite of national policies that do not make it easy to navigate federal programs or build the capacity needed to sustain such efforts over time. In order to more effectively harness the power of individuals and local grass roots efforts to take hold and thrive, existing national and state disaster assistance policy should be amended.

This means placing a greater emphasis on the involvement of individuals affected by disasters in pre-event policy formulation and planning. This will not only go a long way in reducing the stereotype of individuals as disaster victims, it will help to build a greater ability to prepare for, mitigate against and recover from future disasters that our certain to occur in our future.

Dr. Smith is the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters and the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management. The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, which is located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focuses on conducting research associated with natural hazards and disasters and translating the findings to practice.

Photo courtesy of www.rebuildlakeshore.com