Addressing racism in disaster management?


Wherever you turn — TV, radio, newspaper, or smartphone — there’s news of human, ecological, and economic disaster.

In 2021 alone, the U.S. was impacted by 20 weather and climate disasters, each costing a billion dollars. (

Whether disasters take shape as hurricanes, flooding, chemical spills, mass shootings, or the pandemic, Black communities suffer more than White communities. (National Institute of Health)

While disasters affect everyone, they often reveal systemic racism in all its ugly forms.

The good news is that disasters can be managed in a way that minimizes their impact on Black communities — and may even lead to full, and better, recovery.

However, this can only happen if diversity and inclusion take priority in the process on the local level.

What is a disaster? “There’s often a misunderstanding about the differences between emergencies and disasters,” explains Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, Dean of Pitt’s School of Public Health and the Jonas Salk Professor of Population Health. “An emergency is an event that a town, city or county can manage on its own, such as roads closing due to snow and ice.

“A disaster is an event that’s too big to manage locally. The capacity simply doesn’t exist.”

To receive federal aid in the city of Pittsburgh, for example, the mayor, in collaboration with the governor, must declare a State of Emergency, which allows the federal government to step in with help.

Federal responders manage disasters using a five-stage cycle of 1. detection, 2. response, 3. control, 4. mitigation, and 5. preparedness.

“Unfortunately, there’s unfairness in each of the stages,” says Dr. Lichtveld. “But, in Pittsburgh, and other cities, we’re working together with underserved communities to change that.”

The detection stage is about quickly and accurately identifying the disaster in terms of forecast, warning system, impact, and equipment.

Inequality in this stage stems from people not recognizing – or not wanting to recognize – vulnerable populations.

“If we know a neighborhood ‘always floods,’” says Dr. Lichtveld, “why don’t we take steps to prepare that neighborhood first before a hurricane hits?”

The response stage takes place when federal government agencies step in, such as FEMA.

In this stage, unfairness happens when those who need help most may not get it early enough. As a result, in parts of a neighborhood where resources are scarce, people must often fend for themselves until help arrives.

The control stage focuses on how fast authorities contain and deal with a disaster — and what displaced people do in the meantime.

This stage is about personal resources.

“Do you have flood insurance, for example,” Dr. Lichtveld asks. “Do you have an emergency fund you can tap into? Do you have family or friends you can stay with? If you don’t, can you afford a hotel if your home is contaminated with mold?”

This is where underserved communities are most vulnerable.

The mitigation stage is about community resources. How can key spots in a community become less vulnerable during a disaster and in future disasters?

“How can we protect schools, community centers, and health clinics so they can reopen quickly after a disaster?” says Dr. Lichtveld.

“These places are touchstones in a community especially for children and elders.”

The preparedness stage serves as the hub of the disaster management cycle and is most important for Black communities.

“This stage is about getting ready for the next event,” says Dr. Lichtveld. “We tend to spend too little time and money on this when we should spend more.”

What can Black communities do to help end racism in disaster management?

People of all colors can start by changing disaster language.

“We need to shift from using the term ‘disaster management’ to ‘all-hazard management,’” Dr. Lichtveld states.

“When we think about disaster in terms of natural hazards only, we miss opportunities to prepare for other types of disasters, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which are man-made.

“Climate disasters can also be just as devastating to underserved communities with the same health concerns and mental health trauma.”

A shift is also needed in how a community takes inventory before a disaster strikes.

“Instead of making a ‘needs’ assessment, we should focus on an ‘asset’ assessment,” says Dr. Lichtveld.

Assets include Black churches; small businesses, such as beauty salons and barbershops; little leagues; and other local organizations.

Ideally, these organizations will come together as part of a community advisory board and work with city officials to gain trust and establish ownership of a preparedness plan.

There’s also the role of Black youth.

Dr. Lichtveld points to this summer’s first annual Public Health Science Academy, a University of Pittsburgh program that builds bridges to younger, generations and provides a path to a career in public health.

The 2022 academy included 10 juniors and seniors from CAPA, Pittsburgh Science & Technology, and Taylor Allderdice.

Each student logged 120 hours working directly in underserved neighborhoods on a variety of health-related projects, including one studying urban heat and health inequity.

“It’s time to get our children thinking about and understanding the role of public health in making life better for everyone –but especially people who live in vulnerable communities,” Dr. Lichtveld states.

Pitt’s School of Public Health is also offering a bachelor’s degree in Public Health — the first new bachelor’s degree in almost 30 years at the university.

“We’re hoping some of the amazing students who worked with us in the academy will become frontline public health leaders.”

While our country is experiencing more disasters, especially due to climate change, Dr. Lichtveld reminds us we can’t lose hope.

“If we look to Black community leaders to lend their expertise and assets to the planning process, our neighborhoods can recover from disasters with resiliency,” she states. “Everyone deserves a healthy home. That’s our motivation.”



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