Residents watch water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake after Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico, September 23, 2017, photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

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(Urban Wire)

How COVID-19 Sheds Light on Disaster Policy's Need to Prepare for Multiple, Sequential Emergencies

Residents watch water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake after Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico, September 23, 2017

Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

by Carlos Martín and Aaron Clark-Ginsberg

August 11, 2020

With 156,000 deaths and counting and job losses rivaling the Great Depression (PDF), the COVID-19 pandemic is an unmitigated—if not a traditionally defined—disaster, comparable to or worse than recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires.

Yet COVID-19's impacts could be particularly severe for the millions of Americans whose lives have also been disrupted by natural disasters over the past several years and who may experience new ones—especially people who are temporarily or permanently displaced because of disasters.

Last year alone, Hurricane Dorian, the Kincade Fire, and similar events displaced 916,000 Americans. Though many families returned to their communities or settled elsewhere, they still profoundly experience the trauma and strain from those events along with new challenges from COVID-19.

Early effects from Tropical Storm Isaias are already being documented. Yet we are still in the midst of this year's hurricane and wildfire seasons, which may bring even more challenges.

There are several reasons why disaster-affected households are more vulnerable to the pandemic's impacts.

Disaster-Displaced Households Might Be More Vulnerable to the Pandemic's Economic Impacts

Hazard events of all kinds and sizes can affect families' credit capacities, debt obligations, credit scores, and other signs of financial well-being for years after. These households are already grappling with economic devastation in their home region. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, it destroyed 70,000 homes and damaged another 300,000. Three years later, thousands are still without homes. Other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina (PDF) and the 2018 California wildfires, also destroyed homes and forced many residents to migrate and find new jobs. Many of these households are still working to establish a foothold in a new location. COVID-19-related job loss, housing precariousness, increased health care costs, and other economic impacts will exacerbate these households' vulnerability.

Disaster-Affected People May Experience Worse Social Impacts from the Pandemic

This holds especially true for households who had to relocate, either because their housing became uninhabitable or because their livelihoods in their original communities became unviable. It takes time to build new friendships and establish new communities after a move. For people forced to settle in areas with different cultural groups, such as Puerto Ricans in Orlando after Hurricane Maria and New Orleanians in Houston after Hurricane Katrina, this can be especially difficult. Adding social distancing on top of being new in a neighborhood or job can add to the loneliness, similar to loneliness currently experienced by the elderly and other high-risk groups (PDF).

Disaster-Affected Households May Face the Compounding Mental and Physical Health Effects of COVID-19

People affected by disasters have dealt with one, if not many, crises, from living through disasters to migrating to a new location and rebuilding assets and establishing new social relationships. The accumulation of these crises cause stress on the body, known as allostatic load (PDF), which can manifest as physical and mental health problems. Studies after Hurricane Maria suggest mental health problems are worse for households who experience disasters (PDF) because of associated trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic is another crisis this group must confront, which could exacerbate their allostatic load.

Households facing both a past disaster and the current pandemic can get stuck in a downward spiral of poverty, isolation, and expanding vulnerability.

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Households facing both a past disaster and the current pandemic can get stuck in a downward spiral of poverty, isolation, and expanding vulnerability. As lawmakers debate the second coronavirus relief package, they could reconsider how the country's emergency management framework responds to the effects of simultaneous hazards on individual-assistance and community-recovery programs.

Resources, knowledge, and program flexibility could be critical for preventing this spiraling crisis (PDF). Three strategies could help.

  1. Extending application timelines and flexibility. Households currently receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency Individual Assistance from past events, households who qualify for other federal funding (such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery), or households who might qualify because of a new event this summer may need special flexibility and extensions as they suffer the pandemic's consequences. This could mean providing alternative, pandemic-appropriate processes for applying and receiving assistance and keeping applications open for longer.
  2. Accommodating multiple emergencies—and compounding needs—within caps for disaster relief. The need for all kinds of services, from financial to counseling, will be much greater now, so federal policymakers could reconsider the “duplication of benefit” rules to accommodate increased demand from accumulating shocks. Households suffering from the pandemic's economic effects will need assistance. But, disaster relief and recovery assistance should not be interpreted as duplicating that aid. It builds off of it to ensure resources reflect the multiple crises the households have suffered.
  3. Providing longer-term aid. Disaster recovery does not typically happen over the course of days or weeks, but years and decades. Though immediate relief support can slow the slide into poverty, long-term support in the form of affordable housing and health care access help people become less vulnerable to the growing number and types of shocks they face and escape poverty. Temporary aid likely will not address the unmet needs and ongoing stressors in disaster-affected households. The likely devastating effects of limited aid in the current pandemic reflect how ending assistance before needs are met will likely create worse and sustained economic, social, and health outcomes. The amount and timing of assistance should match the need—and multiple emergencies compound that need.

The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities many disaster-affected households face. Without concerted efforts, these vulnerabilities may not go away, particularly if aid is insufficient.


Carlos Martín is a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is a social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This post originally appeared on Urban Wire, the blog of the Urban Institute.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.