Ghosts of Old Vulnerability

by Douglas K. McDaniel

There are few conversations today capable of surfacing guttural emotional responses quite like a discussion related to bias and inequalities. The challenge is clear. From the most elementary perspective, if the existence of bias and/or inequalities is acknowledged, it is illogical to then ignore the possibility that adverse impacts are possible as well.

Douglas K. McDaniel headshotThe mere suggestion that bias and/or inequalities exist may also require – from a social responsibility perspective, and certainly for emergency managers – that an examination occur and the issue be addressed. The issue that must be realized is that a close companion of inequality before, during, and after disasters is vulnerability.

Vulnerable Segments of Society

“Vulnerability” as a term has myriad definitions depending on how it is applied to people or groups that lack the ability to mitigate a specific challenge or group of challenges. Whether vulnerability resides in a group’s inability to acquire the necessary financial resources to address everyday household needs, or in instances where the elderly are unable to manage the physical demands of life, many people or groups can be assessed as vulnerable. Sometimes this results from a lack of power and not being part of the decision making process.

In a “post-racial society,” concerns about vulnerable populations still exist. This correlates with emergency management because vulnerability is not simply an inability of impacted groups to cope with an emergency and can frequently be the inescapable capacity of an individual or group to resist and recover from mitigation decisions of others. For the emergency manager, planning must begin with a whole community perspective that provides for the entire population. Although a number of factors affect individuals and groups during emergencies, issues such as sociological, economic, gender, political, and ethnic limitations increase the adverse impact of disasters.

Each of the previously listed categories is noteworthy, and any two or more in concert may significantly influence vulnerability. It is hypothesized that all groups have a reasonable expectation of preparedness and safety before, during, and after a disaster. However, the various factors can adversely create a disenfranchisement of sorts that may limit preparedness. Just-world theory, system justification, and systematic ignorance must not be an explanation for planning failures.

Social Justice

Victim Blaming & Self-Preservation

There are tangible examples of victim blaming when planning fails to provide the mitigation strategies proposed to protect the population. However, perspectives that default to expectancies in vulnerability related to social representation and judgment must be avoided at all costs.

Although there seems to be a significant amount of research that focuses on personal preparedness related to sociological factors, research that identifies the vulnerabilities in planning and response are limited. In certain instances, planning can be as much a contributing factor as a natural or manmade hazard, or an unprepared community. In system justification theory, system-justifying mechanisms such as victim blaming and defending the system at all costs are needed to achieve this end.

Conscious or unconscious protectionism can be a vehicle used to perpetuate and defend features of the existing structural and/or social arrangements.  In these instances, the real root causes of vulnerability may be glossed over for more acceptable and easily digestible explanations. It is critical that emergency managers and other community leaders ensure everyone in the community is prepared.

Leadership & Social Equality

How governments prioritize may not be the result of the social groups that are impacted the most. From a social perspective, the struggle for all groups is to fight for better positions within the cultures where they live. However, because of previous inequalities, biases, or even discrimination, this battle can be difficult, yet not impossible. In essence, the battle for improved preparedness is not wholly on the socially disenfranchised groups to fight for improvement alone through self-determination and sheer willpower. There is also a requirement for the education of politicians and governments to ensure they understand not only the limitations inherent to the disenfranchised group(s), but also the additional limitations that may be imposed on the group(s) by their decisions.

Potential failings of the political/government establishment to vulnerable groups during times of great change can exacerbate the impact on these groups. Avoiding these hard conversations all together and offering reactionary affirmative responses without examination would cause mitigation strategies to be reactionary and superficial as well.

Ultimately, open communication and education about social inequalities that exist before a disaster – and how these factors can affect the mitigation, response, and recovery efforts when a disaster strikes – are necessary in order to protect all vulnerable groups within communities. Emergency management is and should remain grounded in whole community preparedness.

Douglas McDaniel brings 18 years of leadership, management, and public service experience to his role as Assistant Director of Emergency Management. In this position, he serves as program manager for the development and maintenance of all George Mason University emergency plans, procedures, and related university policies. Douglas joined George Mason from Frederick Community College (FCC), where he served as Academic Program Manager for Emergency Management Programs. As part of his responsibilities, Douglas oversaw the management of emergency management degree programs and provided expertise in the development of college emergency preparedness plans. Douglas holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from South University and a Master of Arts in Emergency and Disaster Management from the American Military University. He is also International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Certified Emergency Manager (CEM).