Disaster events produce novel, acute resource deficits—particularly among those who are already chronically under-resourced. Social responses to these deficits (i.e., “disaster aid”) occur in culturally specific ways (Oliver-Smith, 1996). American disaster aid is characterized by relatively heavy reliance on charitable donations and volunteer labor—a significant portion of disaster aid occurs as voluntary, non-reciprocal transfers, or “gifts,” to those in need. This raises questions about who receives aid, how they are recognized as deserving, and what (if any) power they have in the aid distribution process. The environmental justice literature has examined how the politics of recognition shapes who is burdened with chronic environmental issues (Walker, 2009; Holifield, 2012). Here we extend that discussion to the acute context of a disaster relief.
Methods: An interdisciplinary team including a geographer, an anthropologist/social work scholar, and an urban planner conducted a total of 220 hours of ethnographic fieldwork over multiple visits to a tornado-impacted community in rural Alabama. The fieldsite was selected using statistical modeling that identified this community as having unusually high casualty rates. Fieldwork included interviews in both individual and group settings (N=35), tours of impacted areas with diverse community members, and participant observation at key community events such as a survivors’ support group, a training of volunteer firefighters, and church services. Fieldnotes and transcripts were coded in multiple passes to identify and draw relationships between themes.
Results: Consistent with broader patterns in the US, disaster aid was broadly enacted by service providers, church leaders, and impacted residents as a process of charitable, non-reciprocal giving. While some community members considered this mode of exchange to be consistent with local values, many also expressed reluctance to be recipients of such aid “gifts.” This tension became particularly salient during the filming of a Hallmark documentary about the disaster that explicitly performed disaster aid as a ritual of Christmas gift-giving. Within such ritual structures, community members had to present themselves as particular kinds of recipients—for example, as eager children overawed by the generosity of donors. Some resisted by seeking to enact aid as a community-driven process, but exchange of resources between community members often took on similar structures and meanins of “gift-giving.” These performances of disaster aid obscured how the social impacts of the tornado were shaped by—and tended to perpetuate—existing, chronic inequities.
Implications: Enacting disaster aid as gift-giving may draw attention away from inequities in the recovery process. Environmental justice scholarship has drawn attention to similar concerns in other human-environment relations. This paper shows how this analysis can be extended to disaster aid and makes recommendations for policy and practice that can contribute to more.