Before the Lightning Strikes
Anthropogenic climate change will push 100 million of the world’s population into poverty in the next decade, and worsen economic, food, and housing insecurity. Natural disasters are some of the most manifest markers of climate change impacts, set to become more intense and frequent as a result of the climate crisis. The brunt of these stressors falls disproportionately on the most marginalized populations across the world - women, children, people with disabilities, and older adults, among other disadvantaged groups. Despite a surge of interest in scholarship on disasters and their unequal impacts, studies on preventative strategies and action have been relatively fewer even though it is widely agreed that post-disaster recovery is enhanced when coupled with pre-disaster readiness and planning. There are multiple empirical and theoretical unknowns around factors promoting or hindering preparedness at micro, mezzo, and macro levels, which are all critical avenues for interventions. This three-paper dissertation addresses this gap in the context of the United States to understand individual and household capacities in dealing with natural disasters. The human capabilities approach helps to frame the overall dissertation examining the associations of social and structural vulnerabilities, self-efficacy, disaster experience, disaster-related information, and participation in social welfare policy with household disaster readiness. The individual papers are further informed by self-efficacy theory and concepts spanning Vulnerability, Absorptive Capacity, and Resilience. Three aims guide this research resulting in three separate papers: Paper 1 examined associations between social vulnerabilities, disaster self-efficacy, and preparedness using nationally representative data from Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Household Surveys 2018. Disaster preparedness was found to vary across self-efficacy and social vulnerability. The confidence in one’s abilities to carry out necessary preparatory action and socioeconomic status were consistently associated with higher preparedness controlling for social vulnerability indicators. Paper 2 assessed the role of social and structural (housing and neighborhood) vulnerabilities in disaster risk reduction employing household-level data from nationally representative American Housing Survey (AHS) 2017. Results suggested that housing insecurity and social vulnerability concurrently were associated with disaster readiness. Further, this paper examined if the association of social vulnerability with disaster preparedness varied by housing insecurity among households in the U.S. Results suggested that housing insecurity moderated the association between minimal preparedness and socioeconomic status, sex of the householder, marital status, and presence of older adults in the house. Paper 3 probed the effects of social vulnerability and welfare policy participation on disaster readiness in U.S. households using the AHS 2017 data. Further, the paper examined the direct and indirect effects of household demographics and participation in social safety net programs (TANF, SSI, SNAP, Housing Vouchers) on household disaster preparedness and found that income, education, race, and having a person with disability at home were statistically mediated at least partially by welfare recipiency. This dissertation examined fissures between intent, capacities, and disaster preparedness with implications for vulnerable communities in the U.S. Results from this three-paper dissertation offer multiple takeaways and intervention points at individual and household levels for social work scholarship, education, and policy. In probing factors that enable or prevent households from taking steps to safeguard themselves against future threats, this dissertation helps inform and affirm values of human dignity and human rights, particularly among vulnerable groups. Overall, the dissertation extends the conversations around individual, contextual, and policy interventions needed to assist vulnerable populations in absorbing and overcoming the multitude of shocks they face. Social and structural barriers to improved household capacities to deal with disasters and other shocks can be addressed through effective policy interventions and a robust safety net. This dissertation examines these elements separately and offers key considerations for research, practice, and policy.