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Racial and ethnic data can guide equitable disaster recovery

by Yvette Chen

We live in a time of increasingly destructive storms and disasters, which often hit communities of color most intensely. But new data gathered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could guide a more robust and equitable disaster recovery process.

As Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have illustrated, climate-induced disasters intersect with existing and historic systemic challenges like segregation, economic inequality and housing discrimination — all of which disproportionately affect communities of color.

These communities, already more exposed to disasters, are also less likely to get needed assistance. For example, a 2019 study found that survivors of Hurricane Harvey were less likely to receive FEMA grants if they lived in a non-white neighborhood. And a study by Rice University found that white residents are able to rebuild their personal wealth after a disaster, while otherwise similar residents of color lose wealth.

While these studies are informative and important, they point to a much larger — and unmeasured — problem. That’s because FEMA does not currently collect data on the race and ethnicity of aid recipients. That data gap makes it difficult to quantify the true impact of inequitable disaster relief on communities of color.

Now, that may change. In December, FEMA requested authority from the Office of Management and Budget to begin collecting data on the race and ethnicity of disaster survivors. Applicants for aid would be asked, but not required, to disclose their race and other demographic information.

These data could help researchers, advocates and policymakers finally quantify what we already know: Racial disparities are exacerbated by our current recovery process.

After Hurricane Sandy tore through New Jersey in 2012, communities of color faced insurmountable systemic barriers when trying to obtain recovery assistance. Fair Share Housing Center was able to document that discrimination, and successfully secure the largest fair housing settlement in history. But lawsuits should be a last resort. Collecting data on race and ethnicity will allow for a smoother and more equitable relief process from the outset.

Typically, inadequate data leaves an incomplete picture of the aftermath of disaster. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of the largest weather-displacement events in history; an estimated 1.5 million people were forced to leave their homes, and roughly 40 percent were not able to return. Ten years after the disaster, the population of families living in public housing declined from 5,000 to 1,900. Due to inadequate data collection, researchers must piece together data from sources like the Census and postal service to quantify displacement and conduct analyses by race. Disaster assistance remains even more of a mystery.

It’s time for FEMA and other federal agencies to make the disaster recovery process more equitable, and FEMA’s new proposal is a good first step. The agency’s effort to collect demographic information is an important step forward. It is also crucial that FEMA make this data publicly available and accessible, so policymakers and researchers can determine whether FEMA policies perpetuate inequality and how they can be improved. Better data can help identify ways to make the disaster recovery process more equitable.

Now, we have a chance to lend our support to this important proposal: Through March 28, FEMA is accepting public comments on its proposal to collect demographic data on applicants.

Yvette Chen is the planning and policy analyst at Fair Share Housing Center. She works on data analysis, writing and collaborating with other organizations to further fair housing and racial justice in the context of land use and disaster recovery.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published March 1, 2022 on The Hill.

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Urban Resilience Project

Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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