Webinar Recap: Disaster Resilience for All

The world is waking up to the devastating impacts of climate change and its increasingly prevalent disasters: the world’s seven warmest years have occurred since 2014; in 2020, there were 22 disasters in the U.S. alone costing over $1 billion each, the most on record and over triple the annual average since 1980; over 93% of the Western U.S. is in drought, which hasn’t happened since record-keeping began 126 years ago. Building resilience to disasters must be central to our climate policy, and doing so in an equitable manner is essential.

For this month’s webinar, we were joined by four amazing speakers to discuss the importance of equitable and effective disaster resilience and share best practices. Katie Spidalieri, Senior Associate at Georgetown Climate Center, dove into how states are tackling climate adaptation and hazard mitigation in an equitable way. Dr. Samantha Montano, author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis, expanded on the need for emergency management reform given increasing disaster risk. Ben Smilowitz, Founder and Executive Director of Disaster Accountability Project & SmartResponse.org, spoke on his experiences reporting on transparency and accountability within disaster recovery projects. And Justice Shorter, Disaster Protection Advisor at the National Disability Rights Network, explored the critical intersection of disability justice and disaster resilience.

Dr. Samantha Montano: An Introduction to Disaster Resilience 

To open the conversation, Dr. Montano engaged in a brief conversation on the word ‘resilience.’ In relation to disasters, the word is used when discussing what we can do to make communities better at withstanding and recovering from the impacts of disasters. However, ‘resilience’ has a complicated history, with different definitions across disciplines and important power dynamics at play. Disaster survivors often ask why they are always asked to be resilient, and Dr. Montano urged us to always question who is asking for resilience and who is being asked to be resilient. In the context of this webinar, she notes that we are using a definition of resilience centered on disasters, specifically how equitable and effective climate adaptation can be implemented.

Katie Spidalieri, Georgetown Climate Center

Katie Spidalieri discussed lessons learned from her work with the Georgetown Climate Center (GCC), a nonprofit, non-advocacy organization based out of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. that serves as a climate law and policy resource for climate mitigation and adaptation issues. Katie discussed the four major ways states are integrating adaptation,resilience, and hazard mitigation together at the state level — through governance, planning, funding, and support for local communities — with examples of how equity and environmental justice are a key part of these programs, plans, and policies across states. 

The first key way states are working in this space is through governance, or how states structure their climate and hazard mitigation programs. The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) provides an amazing example of how this mechanism functions. NCORR coordinates the State Disaster Recovery Task Force, which brings together experts from organizations in and outside of the government to advise state agencies on how they can address long-term needs regarding recovery and resilience. The Task Force also provides assistance to communities and local governments on how they can operationalize these different principles or support project implementation. Both NCORR and the Task Force are separate from North Carolina’s Climate Change Interagency Council, which is used as a mechanism to coordinate the state’s more broad mitigation and adaptation efforts, helping to prevent climate work from becoming siloed. 

The second major way for states to tackle these issues is through planning, such as hazard mitigation plans, where states develop strategies to protect people and property from future disaster events, and climate adaptation plans, which outline or direct how governments prepare for forecasted climate impacts. An example of how these two types of plans can be combined is through Massachusetts’ 2018 Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan, called for by an Executive Order. This plan integrated climate change assessments and planning, looking at how natural hazards were intensified by including climate change in their analysis. It outlines climate change impacts and adaptation strategies for five key sectors: populations, government, built environment, natural resources and the environment, and economy. They also included equity in this analysis; for each of the hazards evaluated, the state looked at which populations were at risk and found that some of the most at risk areas were overburdened and underserved populations. Another great example of planning is the 2019 Minnesota State Hazard Mitigation Plan, which shows that if your state isn’t able to combine these plans, they can at least integrate climate change into existing plans or updates. This plan used a social vulnerability index to evaluate different hazard and climate impacts on at-risk populations and proposed local mitigation options to aid communities. 

The third mechanism for states is funding, incorporating climate and resilience considerations into federal disaster recovery grant applications and project implementation. Louisiana has great examples in this arena, including the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (SAFE). This followed Hurricane Isaac in 2012, when the state used HUD funding for a community development block grant to support disaster recovery efforts in coastal communities. SAFE was a planning and capital investment process designed to address coastal impacts and other community needs like affordable housing and transportation, and is a great example of developing equitable processes. Another example in Louisiana is the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, which came out of major flooding in 2016. The Initiative provides funding for flood mitigation projects in each watershed region of the state and aims to create regional governance structures, encouraging Louisianans to think beyond coastal flooding and into flooding at watershed scale to increase statewide flood resilience. This was also funded by a community development block grant from HUD for disaster mitigation. In general, FEMA and HUD are the leading federal funding bodies for state, tribal, and local government disaster recovery efforts.

The last key way for states to act in this space is through support for local governments and communities. This means mitigating hazards in a number of ways, including providing technical assistance and support, providing template planning resources and guidance, offering local governments and communities grants, and supporting communities through different convening opportunities by bringing different experts and residents to the table. This is extremely important when thinking about equitable implementation, and is especially critical as local governments are the first responders during and after disasters and are the best-positioned governmental entity to work with frontline communities in a way that addresses community needs and takes into account local cultures, histories, and contexts. Florida provides a great example of this in their release of the 2011 Post-Disaster Redevelopment Planning document, aiming to help local governments develop post-disaster redevelopment plans to help build back better and more resiliently in the face of disasters like hurricanes. Colorado is another example of providing local government support, through their 2020 online tool, the Future Avoided Cost Explorer. This tool helps local governments quantify the cost of future risks from flooding, drought, and wildfire, which are included in the state’s hazard mitigation plan, and can be evaluated across seven different economic sectors and different climate and population projections between today and 2050. Since data is key to starting the decision-making process for local governments, these tools are extremely useful. 

If you’re interested in more resources on what states or local governments or others are doing in this space, check out GCC’s many resources, including their Adaptation Clearinghouse, a one-stop-shop for adaptation resources across all levels of government and outside of government, with laws, plans, policies, and case studies. You might also be interested in the State Adaptation Progress Tracker, a map serving as a snapshot of how states are adapting to climate change. GCC also has toolkits for states and communities, such as their Equitable Adaptation Legal and Policy Toolkit and Managed Retreat Toolkit. These serve as coastal adaptation strategies that coastal communities and states are considering to prohibit development on coastal areas and provide equitable transitions for people and ecosystems. 

Dr. Samantha Montano, Disasterology: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis

Dr. Montano joined the discussion to explore the intersection of emergency management, disaster resilience, and climate change. She first explains what encompasses the field of emergency management. Emergency managers do much more than response and recovery work — they work throughout the entire disaster life cycle. Disaster response includes the measures taken to save lives, property, and the environment, and recovery is the restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping of what was impacted. But the life cycle also includes mitigation, which is the sustained actions to prevent or reduce the impacts of a hazard, and preparedness, when we ready ourselves for response and recovery. Within emergency management, there are a vast array of stakeholders — not just ‘emergency managers’ but also governments, nonprofits, businesses, media, and individuals. Emergency management works within all hazards, including natural hazards, chemical hazards, radiological and nuclear hazards, computer failures and cybersecurity, and mass violence and terrorism. When creating climate-resilient communities, acknowledging these other hazards and including these risks in climate adaptation plans is extremely important. 

She notes that while there is a close relationship between hazard mitigation and climate adaptation, we should always be aware of what policies and programs already exist under the purview of emergency management, and to ensure that no duplicative efforts are occurring with the creation of new climate adaptation plans. 

The emergency management system operates across sectors and is currently strained across the country. Climate change impacts all aspects of emergency management. At the same time, emergency management is a frontline system that has to scale up efforts. We need to invest in and update this system so that it can operate functionally, especially in the face of climate change. Dr. Montano highlights that climate change:

  • Increases the urgency for hazard mitigation by altering our risk assessments; we must efficiently and equitably implement mitigation measures. 
  • Requires us to grow our capacity within the emergency management system. To prepare for response and recovery and support the implementation of mitigation, we must invest in local emergency management, not only at the federal level. 
  • Demands a just recovery. When rebuilding communities in the wake of a disaster, we must create a recovery approach that is efficient and equitable. 
  • Dictates that emergency management must be incorporated into climate change discussions, and especially climate policy, in a meaningful and collaborative way. Comprehensive emergency management reform is a precursor to disaster resilience and climate justice. 

You can find Dr. Montano on Twitter at @samLmontano and on her website, www.disaster-ology.com

Ben Smilowitz, Disaster Accountability Project & SmartResponse.org

Ben joined to discuss lessons from his work reporting on the transparency and accountability of disaster response efforts. He started the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) after Hurricane Katrina, holding nonprofits and government agencies accountable. After Hurricane Sandy, DAP worked with the Red Cross and the Attorney General to release millions of dollars for survivors who had lost their homes that was held up by the mismanagement of funds; after Haiti and Nepal earthquakes, DAP released transparency reports on billions of dollars of aid; DAP’s investigations of public health emergency planning in Florida and Louisiana helped inform specific improvements at the state level. 

Natural and humanitarian disasters are increasingly prevalent, and although there are thousands of aid organizations to respond to these events, aid is not reaching communities. DAP reports on aid and relief after disasters and between disasters to improve the accountability of these organizations. SmartResponse.org, launched by DAP, incentivizes transparency through the requirement that organizations share information in order to get listed. About 97% of SmartResponse donations can reach local efforts, and there are nearly 600 organizations registered. 

Justice Shorter, National Disability Rights Network

Justice rounded out our presentations with a discussion on disaster justice, exploring why centering people of color with disabilities throughout emergencies is essential for true equity. She started by noting the relevance of focusing on people with disabilities; people with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die or sustain a critical injury during a disaster than those without disabilities, and one in four Americans with disabilities have complex access requirements and functional needs during times of natural disaster. Risks increase due to evacuating without assistance, accessing lifesaving medical equipment during power outages, and accessing accurate emergency information and effective emergency services. Disability intersects with race as well, as the CDC reports that 30 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native adults have a disability and 25 percent of Black adults have a disability, as compared to 20 percent of White adults. A new EPA report reveals various statistics on race, health, and climate, finding that Black folks are 40 percent more likely than other groups to live in places where extreme temperatures will cause more deaths. Black people 65 and older are 41 to 60 percent more likely to die from pollution that worsens as temperatures rise. Hispanics and Latinos have high participation in weather-exposed industries which are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures. Environmental inequities intersect in this space, as pollution, food swamps, toxic dump sites, and other environmental hazards can be both a cause and a contributor to disability, and these harms are much more likely to occur in communities of color. 

Disaster justice requires disability justice — and if you’re unfamiliar with ‘disability justice’, Justice recommends you check out Sins Invalid, a performance arts group of primarily women of color, who have created 10 principles of disability justice. There is collective trauma and harm to marginalized communities in current emergency response practices that must be addressed at systemic levels. Multiple tools and tactics are necessary to help these communities; justice is not always achieved through legal and legislative systems and not everyone has equal access to legal support. Disability justice moves beyond disability rights enshrined in law and focuses on dismantling systemic oppression. 

This justice requires the hiring and leadership of diverse emergency managers with disabilities (although representation does not equal power, as Rashaad Robinson reminds us); it requires acknowledgement, public apologies, and organizational accountability; and it requires a reorientation of our understanding of resilience, moving past placing the onus on the individual but recognizing that the existing structures, environmental and otherwise, must be resilient in the first place. It requires challenging the conventions of recovery efforts, asking who decides the metrics of success and who deems who and what is an ‘acceptable loss.’ It also requires a focus on redress and meaningful change, acknowledging that policy change without programmatic, practical, and behavioral change is not equity but rather an empty promise. 

You can find Justice on Twitter at @JusticeShorter1 to continue the conversation at the intersection of race and disability and the ways we can dream and build and bridge beyond our current circumstances. 


The umbrella of disaster resilience includes various spheres, experts, and organizations, but one thing is sure: without equitable disaster resilience included in our climate policy, we cannot fight the climate crisis effectively. Across all sectors, it is clear that collaboration is needed for true equity, whether it be state and local governments, climate agencies and emergency managers, aid organizations and on-the-ground communities, or disaster recovery organizations and people with disabilities. All climate policy stakeholders, from legislators to advocates to researchers and beyond, must reimagine the way we structure climate action, especially around disaster resilience, and the first step must be toward collaboration, community, and equity.