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Pathway Toward Equitable Disaster Management

May 18, 2021

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Last week was National Hurricane Preparedness Week, followed by this week’s heavy storms. Are you prepared for this season? Though the National Weather Service maintains that June 1 is the start of hurricane season, they have extended the time within which they will issue weather advisories – now starting May 1. The lesson we’ve all learned after four 100-year floods in five years, the slow burn of COVID-19, and most recently our region’s winter freeze – disaster management is a permanent state.   

Disaster management includes preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. What has been made clear in this new reality is that though water, COVID, and freezes do not discriminate, the impact on individuals is far from equal. In fact, it has been documented that as damages increase from a disaster, so does wealth inequality – particularly along lines of race, education, and homeownership.   

These truths drove HILSC to develop our Immigrant Disaster Equity Program, and we’ve learned some important lessons since Hurricane Harvey that can reduce the harmful impact on those who are most vulnerable:  

  1. Immigrant and disaster management expertise must be bridged. HILSC has made great strides in developing relationships with disaster managers and connecting them with our immigrant-serving partners. These partnerships must continue to develop and grow. In the Houston Metropolitan Area, unauthorized immigrants make up 30% of the population. Including their needs in planning, response, recovery, and mitigation will only alleviate the burden on our first responders and disaster managers in times of crisis.
  2. Vulnerable populations, including immigrants, must be centered in policy and program planning. When plans are designed to reach the most vulnerable, they reach everyone. Specifically: 
    • Language justice means not just translations, but common vernacular targeting low-literacy levels. This includes webpages, call-in numbers, text and email notices, and most importantly public facing employees. All budgets must include translation and interpretation from local community members. Some community-based organizations can be employed for this! 
    • Eligibility and ID requirements must be clearly stated upfront in all materials. 
    • There must be better opportunities for people without transportation, people with disabilities, and seniors. Whether services are offered via drive through or walk up, they must be designed to serve all. 
    • Community-based organizations are effective partners in policy and program design and implementation. They are trusted partners to community members and can build bridges with government and larger service agencies.
  3. Issue-focused staff puts agencies light years ahead. Having disaster-focused staff at non-profits and immigrant/equity-focused staff at emergency management agencies puts them light years ahead. The agencies that meet this criterion have been the most successful in addressing immigrant equity through disasters. While this may seem obvious, there are very few agencies within either area of expertise that have staff focused on the other. Budgets must accommodate this.
  4. Government policies must protect all, government programs are intended to serve as a social safety net. With the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines, our government agencies were called on to hold mass events to serve as many as possible. This again left immigrants behind. While hospital systems, which received the lion’s share of vaccines, called their patients for appointments, other well-resourced folks were working the public system. Registration systems at first did not provide for people not fluent in English or technology, or unable to spend hours tracking when, where, and how to register. Again, vulnerable populations must be centered in policy and program design from the beginning.
  5. The opportunities to impact disaster management change between active response/recovery and “blue skies.” It is clear that the work changes depending on context. During ‘blue skies’ there is more room for strategic planning, but less urgency. Harvey, Imelda and other flooding events require very different responses than our current pandemic. But the pandemic has brought us incredible learnings on how to increase that can be applied to other disasters. We need to document and use these lessons well. 

HILSC, the Immigrant Disaster Equity Workgroup, and other HILSC workgroups will continue to serve as trusted partners and build and grow relationships. We will continue to disseminate timely information, target resources to immigrant-serving agencies, and advocate to remove barriers to immigrants benefiting from disaster mitigation policies and programs. Let us know how we can work together towards equitable disaster outcomes for immigrants in the Greater Houston region and beyond, that are better for all. 


Katy Atkiss
Immigrant Disaster Equity Program Manager 


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