Resilience summit discusses how states can help vulnerable populations prepare for and recover from disaster

Hurricane KatrinaThousands of people were unable to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina due to lack of access to transportation. These individuals were disproportionately elderly, low-income African Americans. Photo by Andrea Booher, via the FEMA Photo Library.

A community is only as resilient as its most vulnerable residents. States can do more to define who is most at risk in the face of natural hazards, and can begin to take steps to address these populations’ needs.

That was the takeaway from the panel of environmental justice experts who spoke at the Governors’ Institute on Community Design State Resilience and Economic Growth Summit in Washington, DC, last week. The panel discussion was part of a a two-day event that brought together experts on disaster recovery and long-term resilience to discuss best practices and new strategies for states.

“You can’t just talk about the general population and resilience and expect resilience to spread to all communities,” began Matthew Tejada, Director of the Office of Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “It’s important that we save a special place to talk about resilience for those communities that are overburdened, that are vulnerable.”

Groups can be “vulnerable” to disaster based on a range of criteria, such as income, age, race, physical or mental disability, access to transportation, access to health services, proximity to a floodplain or housing type. What is common to all vulnerable communities, however, is that they not only face greater burdens going into a disaster, but they will also face greater challenge in recovering after disaster strikes. The goal is thus two-fold, Tejada explained: to lessen these communities’ burdens before disaster, and to increase their resilience in the aftermath.

Jacqui Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, built upon Tejada’s comments by providing a framework for defining and addressing equity. Equity, she explained, can be understood as having three components: procedural equity, which is fairness and inclusion in political processes and decision making; distributive equity, wherein decisions are made based on social welfare and need; and contextual equity, which takes into account peoples’ different capabilities, access to resources and power. This framework can help states identify where their current processes and actions may overlook the needs of certain groups.

Current initiatives like the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Competition are opportunities for states to incorporate greater equity into their disaster resilience efforts, added Jalonne White-Newsome, Federal Policy Analyst at WE ACT.

All of the panelists stressed the need for outreach when addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. “Outreach should always be a part of your job, whether you are at the federal or state level and whatever your role is,” remarked Tejada.

The panel ended with questions from Summit participants, including, “What’s the first thing state agencies should do to help vulnerable populations?” “Know who your stakeholders are so you can bring them to the table,” Tejada responded immediately. White-Newsome added, “You have to be intentional in understanding a community’s vulnerabilities, so that you can be efficient in addressing them.”

To that end, Tejada mentioned three tools that the EPA will make available to help states identify vulnerable populations in their communities. An environmental justice tool that analyzes demographic and environmental factors to look at vulnerability at the census tract level will become available in November. Additionally, environmental risk screening tools C-FERST and T-FERST are currently in beta testing. An EnviroAtlas that allows the user to examine the availability of various community resources is also in development.

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design is an initiative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation administered by Smart Growth America. The State Resilience and Economic Growth Summit took place on October 6-7, 2014. See the full agenda here.