Disaster Recovery, Equity and Unmet Needs

Communities across the United States are struck with the disparity of inequity in disaster. Recovery fund disbursement often exemplifies the vast difference between the haves and the have-nots.

Consider places like Monterey County or Half Moon Bay in California where there are extremes in how people live. They have incredibly wealthy property owners with multimillion-dollar homes and migrant workers (often working for those wealthy property owners). In my recent conversations with local emergency managers, it is clear there are two totally different types of needs of these sub-communities, within the larger community. This disparity contributes to the extreme issues of inequity in disaster recovery.

What are the unmet needs of disaster recovery?

What defines the term unmet need in an emergency management situation?

People’s perceptions of “what they really need” vary drastically according to the socioeconomic status in our culture. This comparison trap can drastically impact who gets resources, who feels they are entitled to those resources, and how resources are given after a disaster. In today’s political climate and the extremes of the haves and have-nots, some might argue that many people feel like they deserve their piece of the pie when the government is doling out millions of dollars in aid for a community or region that has been struck by fire, flood or another disaster.

Without thinking about things like equity and how that applies to payments and definitions of important determining factors like need the government could allocate $200,000 to two different households and have two totally different outcomes. Here’s a thought exercise: one family has a lower income and no additional resources like retirement funds, while the second household has a middle-class income with retirement savings accounts and expendable income. $200,000 means something incredibly different to each of those families. It can be the difference between a legacy of debt and a recoverable experience.

    Who defines what is “needed” or what qualifies as an unmet need in disaster recovery?

    When a community recovery fund is created, who is responsible for navigating recovery and issuing payments based on need? Often times the fund and its administrators are overwhelmed and overworked. Case managers may be funded partially by the fund and partially by the county.

    As such, they must try to strike a nearly impossible balance between satisfying a need being met and keeping people happy, when a resident is requesting access to the funds, they must evaluate is this a true need like food and shelter, or is this a perceived need and these funds should be spent elsewhere?

    woman sitting on a curb with burned car in the background

    Underinsured or Uninsured Homeowners

    Let’s look at Boulder County, a pretty wealthy community, that was impacted by the Marshall Fire in December 2021. In this community, many people own their homes or live in family-owned or inherited property. Often that means, those homeowners are not fully insured for the cost that it would cost to rebuild their homes. At this point, they have a gap of roughly about $350,000 between being fully insured and being underinsured.

    So it is a pretty complicated outcome in this fairly wealthy area impacted by huge underinsurance gaps. It divides the community into roughly three groups:

    • a group of people in Boulder Creek will be totally fine because they were fully insured
    • a group of people can fall back on their retirement accounts, or pull from college savings and get second mortgages and construction loans – this will be a lifetime financial impact because it will change their retirement and possibly their children’s college plans
    • and finally, a group of people that can’t do that. This group of people will be impacted by a legacy of debt beyond their current means – impacting future generations.

    It’s SO much more complicated than everyone gets their slice of pie

    If everyone in a community feels like they deserve a piece of the millions their community has gotten in disaster recovery aid, where do equity and inclusion come into play?

    How do we work equity into every facet of the disaster recovery process?

    If our case managers are seeing legitimate needs like a family who cannot afford to pay for childcare and a resident in the same community sees the rebuilding of their backyard fence as a legitimate need, how do we empower these case managers to not only serve the greater need but feel empowered to do so?

    How do we pre-educate the resident needing their fence rebuilt to understand that they can afford the need themselves, without assistance?

    Do you really have the need like somebody else does who may not even have basic food, shelter, or the opportunity to care for their own family?

    I wish there was a way to say – all we need to do is… and then we would have a solution to this thorny disaster recovery problem. But the reality is the need for equitable and inclusive access to disaster recovery funds cannot simply be addressed by empowering case managers with the knowledge to determine when a true need is present.

    Pre-educating residents on their own ability to fund certain needs without assistance, as well as providing resources such as financial counseling or grants that could help close underinsurance gaps, are all strategies we should consider in order to ensure everyone has an equal chance of accessing these vital funds. We must make adjustments to our vision and our community when disaster strikes. Recovery is neither simple nor easy.

    Ultimately, it’s important to remember that each person’s experience during times of crisis will vary widely based on factors like income level and expendable resources—so let’s work together toward creating a more just system that supports those who may otherwise fall through the cracks.

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