As Hurricane Michael moves inland, public data can help the most vulnerable

August 8, 2019

This piece was originally published on October 11, 2018 in The Hill

As Hurricane Michael moves further inland, bringing torrential rains and high winds with it, those who were most vulnerable before the storm are going to need the most assistance in its aftermath. This is a mantra that is relevant to hurricanes and other disasters. This is also well-described in research focusing on disproportional impact and recovery of vulnerable populations. But to really have that principle influence and improve disaster planning and response, we need a richer understanding of these vulnerabilities and better tools to incorporate them into the planning process.

There is clearly a range of conditions that exacerbate vulnerability, including proximity to environmental hazards that may become disrupted by a major disaster leading to long-term contamination of soil or drinking water. This can be the result of toxins that escape from superfund sites as well as agricultural and energy production byproducts. Industrial facilities, chemical warehouses, and even a large concentration of cars and heavy equipment can leach petrochemicals in flooded areas.

Social factors are also significant determinants of vulnerability. People living in poverty do not have the same resources to prepare, evacuate, and recover from a disaster as those with more resources. Their ability to withstand financial disruption is limited and they ultimately pay what is often characterized as the “poverty penalty”.

Other factors for recovery include the availability of affordable housing stock, and public assistance programs. Areas that have a shortage of healthcare services and healthcare professionals before a disaster strikes are at an even greater disadvantage after a disaster.

There are populations that have unique needs, like children, that can be disproportionately affected by disasters with long-term effects on health and mental health. The elderly are also more vulnerable and are more likely to be isolated socially, leaving them without the benefit of friends and family that can be the difference between life and death. Loss of electrical power for people who depend on mechanical ventilator support or kidney dialysis are at high risk during and after a disaster.

Catastrophic events also frequently disrupt supply chains for vital medications, a major challenge for people with serious chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease and the like. Nearly 60 percent of Americansadults have at least one chronic condition, and nearly a third have three or more. Many Americans have disabilities that affect daily functionality or mobility; these individuals, too, need special attention in disaster planning and response.

There is no perfect solution to meeting this complex array of needs, but there are ways to do it better. While limited access to real-time data is a perceived barrier to meeting the needs of vulnerable populations, there is much that can be done with existing data sets currently available to assist responders, emergency managers and non-profits engaged in disaster relief. Analysis based on better questions will also help to develop the right collection of information rather than staring blindly at a bunch of charts, graphs, and maps

To this point, the locations of superfund sites are publicly available, and industry data is often available from regional economic development councils. U.S. Census data and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, can provide quick insights into areas that are more likely to have high concentrations of vulnerable populations.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response provides data on those with medical dependencies through their EmPOWER dataset that has publicly available data at the county level and more detailed information for public health agencies.

Creating mapping tools that integrate these data sets will enhance planners’ ability to identify those communities most at risk. This information, in turn, will help improve decision-making regarding pre-deployment of resources and help prioritize early assessment and assistance needs as the full impact comes into focus.

For example, a new NCDP GIS-based mapping tool provides useful information about the communities impacted by the storm, including identifying vulnerable populations, the prevalence of chronic disease and poverty, and the number and location of child serving institutions, Superfund toxic sites, and power plants. The NCDP map also provides real-time information about FEMA shelters and weather.

Of course data won’t solve everything. Individual vulnerability covers a wide spectrum of predisposing risk factors that may or may not be reflected by overall community vulnerability. The essential point is that improved utilization of existing data can provide valuable strategic tools for disaster planners and responders to ensure that the most vulnerable communities get the timely help they need when disaster strikes.