For better economic and equity outcomes, shift focus from natural hazard recovery to mitigation


By Jacob Gottlieb, IEDC intern

In recent years, natural disasters, or hazards, such as wildfires and hurricanes have increased in frequency and intensity. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, natural hazards exacerbate racial economic inequities.

The Natural Hazards Center’s Advancing Racial and Social Equity Through Natural Hazards Mitigation webinar, hosted by Alan Kwok, PhD, director of disaster resilience for Philanthropy California, addressed these issues by examining the following:

  • How disaster aid programs, in addition to the hazard events themselves, exacerbate racial economic inequities
  • Why changing the narrative around disasters to emphasize the need for mitigation and preparedness is essential to advancing racial equity
  • The importance of multi-sector partnerships in unlocking financial, political, and relational resources for the benefit of communities of color
  • The types of investment required to support both racial equity and disaster resilience

How did we get here? Kwok noted that the last four years have been particularly significant for the high amount of environmental deregulation; however, historical policies such as redlining have resulted in both economic and environmental disparities for communities of color. Historically-redlined communities lack the infrastructure and resources to improve their environmental health. As a result, historically-redlined areas are on average five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than non-redlined areas, increasing vulnerability to disasters and poor health outcomes for communities of color.

Disaster aid programs are generally less accessible to communities of color because these programs are often not designed with a racial equity lens. People of color are less likely to access disaster aid programs because they are less likely to trust the government, more likely to be restricted by their immigration status, and often more time-constrained. Black and Hispanic wealth decrease following disasters while white wealth increases. Communities of color need disaster aid the most, but are simply not receiving enough compared to white communities.

Kwok discussed how the narrative around disaster and hazard policy needs to change to ensure more effective strategies. First, thinking of wildfires, hurricanes, and other disaster events as natural disasters is counterproductive. Kwok emphasized how framing events in this way encourages a public policy approach centered around disaster response rather than mitigation. While disaster mitigation spending has increased in recent years, meaningful disaster mitigation investments are typically only made following highly-visible disaster events instead of the continuous investments that effective disaster mitigation strategies require.

Kwok made a strong case for why governments and philanthropic organizations should shift their disaster and hazard response efforts away from relief and towards mitigation. The economic argument is simple: for each dollar spent on disaster mitigation, there will be six dollars saved during recovery. Preventing these disasters, rather than reacting to them, results in better outcomes for communities of color.


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