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How do communities respond to frequent, recurring natural disasters?

a katz /

When natural disasters strike, onlookers often see the immediate impacts as the extent of the catastrophe. However, the aftermath can be just as pertinent, if not more. 

For Florida native Ian Seavey, the lasting impacts of hurricanes have not only been an experience but a key component of his doctoral research. After graduating from the University of Tampa, Seavey left his coastal hometown to pursue a doctorate in history at Texas A&M University. 

Seavey’s research focuses on U.S. disaster relief in Puerto Rico. While politics and economics play a key role in this field, Seavey finds the cultural implications of disasters crucial as well. 

“In communities where there’s frequent disasters, there’s often a before-and-after effect. You know, people remember where they were, people create art from the destruction — it becomes a part of the culture and folklore of the area,” Seavey noted.

Relief efforts, both locally and federally, play instrumental roles in shaping these oftentimes catastrophic shared experiences.

Seavey is working on an article that traces U.S. disaster relief over the years, surveys the current state of the field, and provides insight for where the field should go in the future.

President Truman’s Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 gave the federal government a “beeline to provide relief,” as Seavey described it.  The act allowed states and territories to request aid from the federal government, which the president has the power to approve or override. In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency became the entity responsible for deploying this aid to areas declared a disaster.

Seavey added that after the widespread criticisms of federal relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government and FEMA created the National Disaster Recovery Framework, which serves as a guiding document for FEMA’s responses to catastrophic disasters. The framework includes locally responsive procedures that recognize underserved communities and communities that are historically Black or Hispanic. 

“At least on paper things have gotten better, but there’s still a lot to be desired with FEMA. We still see in 2017, with Harvey, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as well, FEMA was not responding to the underserved communities well. Specifically, we found in our research over at The Bush School, the Vietnamese fishing communities on the coast of Texas received hardly any relief at all. We see the same thing with Puerto Rico, in general,” Seavey shared.

What is the ideal disaster relief? According to Seavey, the general perspective toward disasters is what calls for adjustment. 

“The lack of planning, the lack of relief efforts — those are what actually make the disaster a disaster,” Seavey said.

Rather than viewing hurricanes as one-off disruptions, Seavey sees them as inevitable occurrences that require long term and locally specific planning, especially in coastal areas where hurricanes are a part of the geographic culture.

“It’s difficult because FEMA is kind of like a ‘rainy day’ organization, but structural changes are key — investing in sustainable energy, sustainable infrastructure, things like that,” Seavey said.