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Social Equity and Inclusion in Emergency Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Teklemariam 
July 18 2019

As of this writing on July 12, 2019, New Orleans is bracing for yet another ominous natural disaster due to Tropical Storm Barry. The Mississippi River, which in midsummer is usually at 6 to 8 feet, is currently at 16 feet and is expected to surge up to 19 feet at the hands of Barry in the Big Easy, a level not seen since 1950.

There is no denying the fact that extreme weather is a growing phenomenon across the globe. Over the past century, millions of lives have been saved due to improved technologies to forecast most naturally occurring disasters. However, when disaster strikes, it has been the poor, the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled that have mostly taken the brunt of the aftermath. In the case of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, for example, the majority of deaths were localized in low-lying parishes concentrated by low-income and poor communities of color who were unable to flee or take cover prior to the storm making landfall.

Katrina’s aftermath perhaps was the first major disaster in the United States that illuminated the inequity that exists in both preparedness, planning and responding to disasters within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other state and local governmental agencies.  

Social equity has become a foundational anchor and one of the main pillars of public administration ever since the first Minnowbrook conference convened in 1968. While we have witnessed a great deal of progress, there is still a lot to be achieved in the field of emergency management, where equity and inclusion have largely been absent in both the practical and pedagogical spheres.

Perhaps the most significant change since Katrina in regards to equity has been the establishment of legal and planning precedents to include the needs of people with disabilities in emergency management as a legal requirement at the national, state and local level. This has been largely achieved through the works of advocacy groups for people with disabilities. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act and The Stafford Act now mandate equal opportunity and integration for people with disabilities in general population emergency shelters. However, no specific legal or policy actions have been taken up to address equity and inclusion in emergency management along racial and socio-economic lines.

The disproportionate loss of life and destruction of communities of color during natural disasters have not only been evident during severe weather events. During the 2009-2010 H1N1 Pandemic Influenza breakout in the United States, people of color suffered significantly higher rates of hospitalization from illness and death compared to their white counterparts.    

Some federal agencies have in the past decade began to address these disparities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health supported the creation of The National Consensus Panel on Emergency Preparedness and Cultural Diversity through its report that, “Provided guidance to national, state, and local agencies and organizations on the development of effective strategies to advance emergency preparedness and eliminate disparities for racial and ethnic communities across all stages of an emergency event.”

FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute provides multiple courses and training through different platforms such as its onsite training and offsite delivery in partnership with emergency management training systems; colleges, universities, and technology-based medium programs. However, a scan through available course titles and descriptions indicates there are no courses that explicitly include social equity and inclusion as their focus.

While national, state, and local agencies engaged in emergency management play catch-up in integrating social equity and inclusion in the work of their organizational culture, the growing number of higher education institutions who have included degrees or certificate programs related to emergency management must also play a role in including equity in their student and faculty body, as well as their pedagogical development. There are some positive outlooks that have developed in recent years in this regard. FEMA’s 2018 Emergency Management Programs in Higher Education report indicates there has been a steady growth in the diversity of the student body in programs that are related to emergency management. However the report does not provide an overall assessment of equity at the pedagogical level.

With increased natural disasters, particularly related to extreme weather incidents, it is increasingly important that there is a strong understanding of the importance of social equity and inclusion in all aspects of emergency preparedness and management. This should be inclusiveness along racial, socio-economic, and rural-urban divides.  


Author: Nathan (Natan) Teklemariam is a third year Doctoral student at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Teklemariam is a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and a 2018 ASPA International Young Scholars recipient. [email protected] 

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