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Averting Disaster

  • Organization: National Council of La Raza
  • Author: Sara Benitez
  • Document Type: Article/News
  • Creation Date: Wednesday, July 29, 2009
  • Submitted: Wednesday, July 29, 2009
  • Attachment(s): PDF


In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
shined a national spotlight on the
differential response of our public and
private relief agencies to racial and
ethnic communities. A number of reports
from advocacy organizations, think tanks,
and philanthropic groups found that the
nation's emergency management system
was, in effect, "culturally incompetent" in
addressing the needs of an increasingly
diverse population. NCLR was one
of the organizations that documented
severe inequities in the nation's disaster
relief system; this was essential work
that I hoped might contribute in a small
way to system-wide improvements.
Two years later, in the fall of 2007,
wildfires swept through Southern
California, a region where a third of
the population is of Hispanic origin,
located within the first "majority minority"
state in the nation. One might have
expected that here, of all places, the
lessons learned in Katrina and Rita-and
previously in California's 2003 wildfires
and the Loma Prieta earthquake
of 1989-would have been applied
efficiently and inclusively.
Instead, within days press reports and
advocacy organizations documented
problems distressingly similar to those
exposed by previous emergencies-poor
outreach, lack of sufficient bilingualbicultural
staff, racial profiling and
civil rights violations, and inequitable
access to relief services-which
disproportionately affected the
region's Latino community. Later
surveys by independent researchers
found that, while three-quarters of the
overall population believed that the
government's response in 2007 was
better than in 2003, this view was shared
by less than 40% of the region's Latinos.
Unlike the Katrina-Rita disaster, this
couldn't be attributable to lack of
diversity in the government overall, or
in the emergency response system in
particular. Nor could it be explained as
a one-time unexpected catastrophe,
since the region had experienced a
similar episode barely four years before,
and in the context of rapid development
and climate change experts had been
predicting continuing wildfire outbreaks
for the foreseeable future. Lack of
information wasn't the problem-over the
2003-2007 period there was arguably
a greater focus on the intersection of
diversity and disaster than at any other
time in our history.
No, we had to look elsewhere to answer
the key question: Why, in a foreseeable
and predictable disaster in the most
diverse state in our nation, in the wake
of numerous reports filled with useful
recommendations to improve our
response to minority populations, is
our emergency management system
still "culturally incompetent"? The easy
answer for advocates is to blame the
lack of political will, reflecting both
personal and institutional bias toward
minority populations. And surely there is
no lack of evidence that this may have
been the case here.

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