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DCE Magazine

The Social Impacts of Natural Disasters

Spring 2020

A new Emergency Management course examines how impacted communities can recover at a grassroots level.

Widespread wildfires and blackouts have ravaged California in recent years, and earthquakes are a constant threat. While the toll they take are typically measured in acres, number of structures damaged and billions of dollars in cost, the human toll is sometimes downplayed — how it affects individuals in ways large and small.

Giving aid to reeling communities in the aftermath of disasters is a crucial mission for emergency management professionals, working at the grassroots to help all residents recover. That's the idea behind the new Social Impacts of Disasters course, part of the Emergency Management certificate program.

“One aspect of emergency management is planning for businesses and infrastructure,” said Todd De Voe, course instructor and EM director for Titan Health and Security Technologies. “Social impact means looking at how natural disasters affect individuals in the community, and it goes way beyond just dealing with casualties and property damage. It's about working directly with the people.”

Look at Katrina, he said. New Orleans has lost 20% of its population since the hurricane. “Not by death. Those were the people who lost everything and had to move away. It's had a lasting impact on the city.”

De Voe's new course focuses on ways to engage with communities, identify special needs of various groups, and find solutions to the social impact while coordinating with local agencies and governments. It stems from research that began in the ‘70s on the sociological aspects of managing disaster zones.

For example, studies found that businesses owned by minority women were impacted at a much higher rate than others, mainly because most are in the service industry, “a lot of nail salons and beauty salons that need a steady stream of customers to survive,” De Voe said. “They're likely to shut down if they lose business for more than three days.”

It's not enough to identify the problem, you need to work with the community to find a workable remedy, he added. “The City of Santa Cruz is a good example. When a wildfire displaced some local businesses, laws were changed to allow them to set up a tent city of sorts. It turned into an open-air mall that had local ice cream shops, barber shops and bookstores, all open for business.”

“Social impact means looking at how natural disasters affect individuals in the community, and it goes way beyond just dealing with casualties and property damage. It's about working directly with the people.” Todd De Voe

De Voe also points to East Porterville, a town in Central California that lost its water supply a few years ago. Truckloads of bottled water were brought in to help the residents, but that wasn't sustainable as a long-term solution. So the city changed an ordinance to allow residents to keep large cisterns on their property to collect and store rainwater.

Having large plastic tanks in their yard wouldn't have been allowed before, but a creative solution crafted through community activism helped ease the burden on residents.

“We address these issues in the new course,” said De Voe, host of the popular EM Weekly podcast. “When you identify the social impact, how do you engage the community and work with public resources to find a remedy? Disaster resiliency starts at the grassroots, and emergency management involves community activism. With the climate heating up, natural disasters aren't going away.”

Learn more at ce.uci.edu/em.