African Americans disproportionately affected by disasters


Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, causing billions of dollars of damage and a death toll in the thousands. (Photo courtesy of Dan Anderson)


by Stacy M. Brown
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

The tornado which devastated an Oklahoma town last month has once again sparked debate about emergency preparedness, particularly in the African American community where disaster readiness hasn’t always been a priority.

“We’ve seen the effects of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters. We’ve also seen the effects they have had, especially on Black people,” said Cindy Vaughn, a Prince George’s County resident.

“However, we (African Americans) tend not to pay too much attention to these things and that’s one of the main reasons why we’re not always prepared when natural disasters and other tragedies strike,” she said.

The attitude toward preparedness among America’s Black population remains nonchalant despite frequent disaster occurrences and rising death tolls, according to several studies.

Officials at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York recently completed a study, “Planning for Responding to and Recovering from Disasters,” which revealed that African Americans are likely to view themselves as being more at-risk from man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks, industrial and power plant accidents, or nuclear bombs.

Blacks in the survey said it was likely they would experience a major disaster within the next five years, compared to 47 percent of other U.S. citizens.

Forty percent of African Americans said they would characterize the threat level of a disaster happening in the U.S. as either high or severe.

However, just 24 percent of African Americans surveyed said they are prepared for a disaster but they had a “great intention to prepare,” and indicated that they would be open to better preparation if offered a tax credit or financial incentive.

“Imagine that,” said Dana Stevenson, a psychologist in Northeast Washington, D.C. “We will prepare for a disaster only if the government or another entity pays us to do so. That makes very little sense that someone would take the position that they’ll take steps to preserve their own well-being or their own life if someone else pays the freight,” Stevenson said.

Blacks tend to be disproportionately affected by all kinds of disasters, according to officials at the National Resource Center for Public Health Readiness & Communications at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia.

“Every second counts in an emergency,” said William Begal, president of Begal Enterprises, a Rockville, Md.-based disaster restoration company. “But, we assist before a disaster occurs by either creating a disaster plan, or filling in the pieces of what may already be in place and implementing it,” Begal said.

Still, some argue that poverty and systemic discrimination, which has occurred over the course of American history, has caused many African Americans to regard messages from the government and other authorities with suspicion, doubt and even fear.

“There is no question we have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to the government doing what is right,” Stevenson said.

Such historic disasters like the Mississippi River Flood in 1927, the Vanport Flood in 1948, and more recently Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate how African Americans suffered, in part, due to the actions or inactions of the government.

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