In the aftermath of natural disasters, community organizations with broad social ties improve economic and social outcomes for recovering communities, according to new research.
Communities recovering from natural disasters often see an increase in the number of businesses and nonprofits that develop in the wake of the cleanup. But that apparent growth doesn’t necessarily counterweigh the accompanying rise in poverty levels in areas that events such as storms, earthquakes, and wildfires transform.
These emerging businesses can improve the economic well-being of post-disaster communities, but what’s true for businesses is not always the case for other types of community organizations, according to the results of the study.
“We found that community organizations, like churches, that are focused on their own needs during disasters do not block out the increase in poverty rates,” says the study’s lead author Kevin Smiley, an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo. “These organizations are an important part of the recovery and are effective on a small scale, but counties with increasing numbers of advocacy organizations, such as local environmental groups, political organizations, and human-rights groups, tend to have a better recovery in terms of economic inequality.”
The findings suggest that the most equitable recoveries are in those places with community organizations that have a broad, crosscutting presence. Smiley says that in order to encourage a wide economic recovery, communities should think about activating advocacy organizations that reach across diverse populations.
“Communities come together following a disaster, but it’s a lot to ask of a small isolated organization like a local church when a government already has that megaphone.”
“In California, after the last of the fires has been put out, and the affected communities come together in their recovery, these broad-based organizations can help in a more equitable disaster recovery—it’s not just the economic; it’s the social,” says Smiley. “Governments are uniquely positioned to help accomplish this. These organizations represent the democratic possibility; they are the institutions in which we imbue our collective spirit and they have the best opportunity to reach people.
“Communities come together following a disaster, but it’s a lot to ask of a small isolated organization like a local church when a government already has that megaphone,” says Smiley.
Lessons for all counties
One of the curiosities of this research is that every community in the United States can learn from its findings—well, almost every community.
Natural hazards accompanied by property damage—not just headline-grabbers like hurricanes and floods, but events such as hail, winter weather, or severe thunderstorms—have occurred in all but one of the nation’s 3,137 counties. Only rural Lyman County in South Dakota did not experienced a damaging event between 1998 and 2015, the timeframe Smiley and his colleagues examined for the study, which appears in the journal Population and Environment.
“These events are happening nearly everywhere in the country,” says Smiley. “Given that prevalence, it’s important to understand what’s happening long-term and how to help communities recover.”
“…all places—not just those hit by mega disasters—are being affected by natural hazards and how organizations respond to them.”
The research team took inspiration from how people come together after disasters to rebuild and how disasters have uneven effects, like rising social, income, and neighborhood inequalities.
“In the time span we studied, the average US county experienced a total of $100 million in property damage from natural hazards,” says James Elliott, a sociology professor at Rice University. “This means the growing frequency and severity of natural hazards is an issue that every local community must consider.”
The analysis relies on data from the Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database, a county-level collection of information on damages in the US from natural hazards.
“By looking at all counties in the United States across an 18-year period, this study is able to demonstrate how all places—not just those hit by mega disasters—are being affected by natural hazards and how organizations respond to them,” says Smiley.
An additional study coauthor is from the University of Pittsburgh.
Source: University at Buffalo