Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. Across the country, August has been a disastrous month.
Speaker 1: If you live in Haywood County, there is a state of emergency that's been declared. We have Transylvania County and now Haywood County under a state of emergency.
Speaker 2: At least 10 people are dead, and 31 are still missing after torrential flooding in Middle Tennessee.
Speaker 3: Right now, there are 12 large wildfires burning across California.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These weather events have killed dozens, displaced thousands, and destroyed millions in property, but even as we respond to these moments, it is imperative to ask, just what is disaster? Listen, stick with me for a second. Because I want us to challenge the unspoken assumptions at the root of how we tend to understand the very idea of disaster. Let's do it by asking some questions.
What if we thought of weather events like floods, fires, and quakes, not as disasters, but as shocks? Somewhat unpredictable, these shocks focus our attention, and allow us to see the real disasters. Disasters that exist long before a storm gathers on the horizon.
Now, this would allow us to define disaster as the deeply rooted social and structural problems that lead to unequal distribution of risk, vulnerability, and resources. It is these social problems which are truly disastrous. Think of the winter storm that hit Texas earlier this year. That was a shock, and it revealed a real disaster. The state's inadequate power grid.
Speaker 4: Texans are still reeling from the power outage crisis earlier this year.
Speaker 5: All the suffering and the terrible experience that people have is heart-wrenching, and we never want this to happen again.
Speaker 4: Many experts see what happened as a sign of things to come, and not just in Texas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If we think this way, how would it alter our ideas about preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery? If disasters are social, structural, and long-term, then we're going to need more than bottled water and batteries to prepare, and rebuilding the bonds of civic trust. Knowing our neighbors, investing in reliable public transportation, and modern infrastructure, these may be much better disaster mitigation strategies than even the very best packed GoBag.
For more, I'm joined now by Chauncia Willis, Co-Founder and CEO of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, who has been a certified emergency manager for more than 20 years. Chauncia, welcome.
Chauncia Willis: Thank you. How are you doing?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Good. I can't wait to dig into this, and we're going to be joined also here by Jacob Remes, a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU, where he focuses on urban disasters, working-class organizations, and migration. He's also the director of the initiative for Critical Disaster Studies. Jacob, welcome.
Jacob Remes: Thanks very much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say, Jacob, in the fall of 2020, I did teach a course on disaster, race, and American politics. I put both of you all on my syllabus. Jacob, let me start with you. Talk a little bit about how inequities impact the things that we typically define as a disaster?
Jacob Remes: Inequity builds in disaster in several ways, before, during, and after. If you think about before, the questions you can ask are, why do some people live in places that are going to flood, or that are likely to burn down? We know, in this country, that people of color are much more likely to live in areas prone to flooding. We know that people with less money are more likely to live in places that are likely to be hit by tornadoes.
Then there's questions about during the event or during the disaster, people whose houses are less likely to stand up to the hazard, to the flood, to the earthquake, to the tornado. We can, again, see how the inequity is in American society and in societies around the world get built into, literally, built into the structures where we live and work.
Then, there's access to resources after the disaster. Who can pressure their representatives for more aid? Who has access to more informal aid? Who can go to their friends, neighbors? Whose relatives are more likely to have extra guest rooms if your house gets destroyed? Obviously, we know that the people who have more money, that their friends and relatives are also more likely to have more money, and therefore, more likely to have space, and more likely to have help to aid people.
In all of these ways, all of the inequalities and inequities in our society, and then that's replicated on a global scale also get built into how we experience disaster.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate sort of walking us through the before, the during, and the after. The mitigation, and the response, and the recovery. Chauncia, I'm interested here, because your background is in emergency management, and I've always preferred the word emergency to disaster for exactly the reasons that I was starting with, but talk to me about, in that work around emergency management, what you have seen as gaps or voids.
Chauncia Willis: Emergency management has typically been about doing the most for the most. When we do the most for the most, we leave out those who are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, America, like many countries around the world, has a problem. That problem leaps over into emergency management, and to all phases of emergency management.
We see that it becomes evident during times of disaster and really it's discrimination in all of its ugly forms. It's anti-poverty prejudice. It's structural racism. Our country is really built on systems. Those systems, particularly the racial hierarchy, undergirds every aspect of our society, and it influences the policies and practices that have been created to uphold that system.
Emergency management began as civil defense. The entire foundation really has a lot of elements of assumptions about who is a priority and who is not? Who can be considered an acceptable loss, and who needs to recover after a disaster?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me understand what doing the most for the most means. Put that down where the goats can get it for me. Help me understand what that means if you're actually doing the work of emergency management in that moment.
Chauncia Willis: In that moment, you're giving everything you have towards an equality-based approach. What that means is, if you are going into a site, and many times as an emergency manager, I've been deployed to different locations. We're taught to give everyone the same thing. Throw as many resources at that flood or tornado or hurricane. In the recovery process, we want to make sure that, if we're providing individual assistance to those impacted groups, we give everyone the same amount. We do the same thing for everyone, whether they need it or whether or not they really don't need it, and they could do without.
If you think about a flood situation, where one family might have flood insurance, the other one may not, we know that essentially if they both applied, they'll get pretty much the same amount. One family might need $4,000, one family might only need $100, but we come in and we say, "We want to do the most for the most people. We want to make sure that the majority of people receive assistance."
What happens is those who are most vulnerable. Those who may not be able to fill out the applications properly. Those who represent lower-income, historically marginalized groups, immigrants, and other groups. Those are considered acceptable losses, so they fall into the gap.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I got it. That makes sense to me. If there's already a pre-existing inequality, then you have an emergency, and then you give everyone equally, which sounds fair. Everybody gets a sandwich, but if I started out with two sandwiches and I lost one, I may only need one more to be made whole. If I started out with only one sandwich and I lost that one, I might need two to be made whole.
It's helpful to see how what feels like a fair decision, give everyone the same thing, could actually reproduce an inequity. Jacob, I want to come to you on that because consistently, in living through disasters, whether it was after the levee failure in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Whether it's been what we've seen in Houston after the ice storms. So frequently during the reporting, during the emergency, you'll hear things like, "This is our opportunity to rebuild in a completely different way." To do something that is more equitable, but so often if you come back 5, 10, 15 years later, the inequities actually get reproduced. Why do you think that is?
Jacob Remes: That's a really good question and one that I grapple with a lot too, because, as you say, in the immediate aftermath, there's often this conversation about doing better or being more equitable. There's authentic moves to that because in the immediate aftermath of disaster, you often see the survivors organizing and developing new types of politics and building what previous scholars have called a democracy of sufferers, but as you say, that very rarely carries forward.
I think a lot of it is built into the idea of disaster or built into the idea of emergency that what you want to build into the idea of disaster or recovery is that we should be going back to whatever existed before. The goal of disaster response, very often, is to restore the status quo ante, which is to say whatever the conditions were that produced the disaster, to begin with, let's go back to that. There was a shock. We've got to go back to what it was the day before the storm.
Of course, what that means is, it's great for the people who had good lives before the storm because they get to go back to having their good life. If what you had before the storm was already a crisis of affordable housing or a crisis of environmental racism, then going back to what existed the day before the storm isn't so great. In fact, it's just setting us up for the next disaster.
I think built into the very idea that disasters are unusual, that they are times from which to recover, gets us to that problem that we are recovering back to whatever it was that created the disaster, to begin with.
You really see that in the phrase "to restore order". This is one of the very first things that we hear about. Obviously, restoring order usually is done by armed men who bring violence. That was just to say the police, but even the phrase "restoring order" while the order that you're restoring benefited some people, harmed others. That's manifestly true even if you support the order. Restoring order becomes this political decision. "Well, let's go back to the system that benefited some and harmed others."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chauncia, I want to want to come back to something that Jacob said earlier, where he suggested, why do folks live-- We need to understand the inequities built in our vulnerability, our kind of residential vulnerability. I got to say, these days, it feels like everybody lives in a flood plain. That with climate change, there are none of us that can build our houses on a hill high enough to be away from the possibility of critical weather events. Talk to me about continuing inequities within the context of climate change.
Chauncia Willis: Yes. Oh, that's a great question. We're essentially in the midst of a climate crisis and there's an urgency of now, and the climate crisis that we are experiencing impacts us every day in several ways, whether it's increased temperatures, heatwaves, more frequent and larger and more intense and more impactful hurricanes, wildfires, even pandemics.
Those who are most vulnerable to risk will be most impacted by this ongoing climate crisis. We know that eventually, those who are in positions of authority now, as we've seen with the last census, may soon become a part of those who are experiencing the climate crisis and are being deemed more vulnerable.
Our world today really is changing and we're all going to be experiencing some form of disaster. Eventually, I believe we're going to start seeing global resource shortages, and with scarcity comes an added layer of vulnerability.
I think right now we have to focus on equity. Equity is the word of the day. Diversity, equity, and inclusion will allow us to effectively manage the multitude of disasters that are occurring every day, but that are coming. We just have to be realistic about that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jacob, I want to build on that insight around an inclusive and equitable way of preparing and mitigating, and also go back to your insight around a community of sufferers. I'm wondering that even as we may be pushing for structural change in the way that emergency management happens, are there other ways that we can begin to maybe rethink what disaster preparedness looks like in our own communities?
Instead of-- We're going to talk a little later in the show about actually household preparedness, but are there ways that whole communities can prepare, like knowing our neighbors and figuring out whether or not the elderly on our block or in our building have a way out? What are the things that we can start doing now that can build those more equitable approaches?
Jacob Remes: Yes. In fact, I would say that the only way we can prepare for disaster is with other people, because disaster is necessarily a social event. My NYU colleague, Eric Klinenberg, years ago wrote a really important book about the Chicago heatwave of 1996, where he found that not only is the people who die in heatwaves, of which there are more and more each year, not only are those people who died elderly, isolated people.
That it's not just built into the individuals, that it's built into the neighborhoods, and it's built into the lives that people have lived. The way that masculinity and white supremacy work in this country is that older Black men are more likely to be socially isolated and therefore at risk of death in heatwaves than other similar people.
That in neighborhoods in which there is a little street life or many stores, the housing stock is falling apart. There's high crime, so elderly people are afraid to leave the house where there's perception of high crime. Those are places where people are much more likely to die from heatwaves than bustling neighborhoods, places where there are street life, places where there is an active civil society, where there are stores where people can go, where there's less crime and people are less afraid.
The way we need to be preparing for the ever-increasing extreme weather events that will come with climate change is to build those communities that happily we want to live in even if the heatwave never comes. We all want to live in a neighborhood that is safer, that is more bustling, that has more to do, that has closer and tighter social connections.
That's also what protects us in disasters. You talk about building the going and checking on your elderly neighbors and that's certainly true, but I would say it's even more than that. It's building the organizations and the communities so that people aren't isolated, to begin with. In my life, that means organizing a union. That means being part of political movements. It means talking to one's neighbors and building relationships with one's neighbors a year or two years, three years before the hurricane watch.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chauncia, I'm wondering as you work with policymakers, with other folks who are tasked with emergency management, if some of what we're hearing from Jacob here, there's like long-term planning, which is really about community building and people power building, is there a way to infuse into policymaker training that kind of insight?
Chauncia Willis: Well, sure. As an emergency manager, we've been doing long-term planning for a long time. The communal approach to preparedness has always been seen as a strength. For those emergency managers that have the influence, they're leaders, they're senior officials of their jurisdiction, it is important to focus on communal preparedness and to focus on cultural competence and understand that it really does take a village to be resilient.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chauncia Willis is Co-Founder and CEO of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. Jacob Remes is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU. Thank you both for joining us today.
Jacob Remes: Thanks for having us.
Chauncia Willis: Thank you.
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