Vulnerable Populations

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One measure of the strength of a community’s response and recovery system is its attentiveness to its most vulnerable citizens–children, the frail elderly, the disabled, and the impoverished and disenfranchised. It is a cruel fact: disasters discriminate. NCDP research focuses on populations that are most likely to be seriously affected by disasters, and least able to recover without support.

Haiti : earthquake kills thousands and causes devastationIn a disaster, we must take into account the special needs of vulnerable populations. Defining vulnerability, though, poses a challenge. Vulnerability is not a fixed characteristic of an individual or a group. Rather, it is a fluid state defined by timing, the hazard at hand, circumstances, and access to different types of capital. Someone who is “mobility impaired” – for example, an individual with a broken leg – may be vulnerable to not getting out of harm’s way of an encroaching flood, but may be well-equipped to find stable housing and economic security in the flood’s wake. In this case, the vulnerability is associated with a temporary lack of physical capital, whereas her resilience is associated with access to economic capital.

Certainly there are some individuals and groups who are highly and permanently vulnerable to many hazards, and to many consequences. This includes the frail elderly; people living with chronic sensory, mobility, or cognitive impairments; and individuals dependent upon assistive devices or complex medical regimens in order to survive. NCDP has focused attention on understanding what makes certain individuals and groups vulnerable, considering how vulnerability varies by the disaster’s phase and by social circumstances, and exploring the relationship between vulnerability and recovery.


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