Abstract: Social and Structural Vulnerabilities and Disaster Preparedness: Implications for Social Work (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Social and Structural Vulnerabilities and Disaster Preparedness: Implications for Social Work

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Liberty Ballroom K, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Smitha Rao, PhD, MSW, MSc, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, OH
Large-scale disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, and the California wildfires are etched in public memory for the destruction they wrought and for the inequities they drew to the surface. Federal agencies in the U.S. began focusing on community preparedness after such successive tragedies to help groups sustain in the period before outside help arrived in the event of natural calamities and hazards. Ability to plan for a disaster is associated with a range of contextual factors and often traverses several sites of inequalities, including socio-demographic and institutional disparities. While multiple studies have investigated the relationship of housing insecurity with a range of adverse outcomes after a natural disaster, fewer studies have examined how housing insecurity is associated with disaster preparedness. In this paper, social and structural vulnerabilities are hypothesized to be directly associated with preparedness. Housing insecurity is posited to have both direct and multiplicative effects with social vulnerability on the dependent variable.

The paper uses nationally representative data from the 2017 American Housing Surveys. Univariate statistics characterize the study sample, and a series of regression models test the hypotheses. Disaster preparedness is conceptualized in two ways: an unweighted cumulative score across nine items, and as an indicator variable measuring preparedness for food,water, funds, and access to transportation. Model 1 tested the main effects of the covariates on cumulative preparedness using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression. Model 2 used the logistic regression function to regress the dependent variable, minimal preparedness (Yes=1 and No=0), on the independent variables. The final weighted study sample consisted of 29,070 housing units with 52% male and 48% female householders. The mean preparedness score among the sample was just over five. Fifty-seven percent of the population was not minimally prepared. Housing security and quality emerged as vital conditions for households being better prepared across both conceptualizations of preparedness. For instance, being housing insecure significantly lowered the odds of being minimally prepared by 21%.

Housing insecurity is a key social justice issue and is severely threatened by climate uncertainty and associated environmental impacts. Further, housing insecurity aggravated the relationship between some vulnerability factors and preparedness. The effect of socioeconomic status was moderated by housing insecurity across both conceptualizations of disaster preparedness. Women householders were less prepared overall, and this effect was exacerbated when they were also housing insecure. The relationship between presence of older adults and preparedness also differed by housing insecurity. While older adults have specific vulnerabilities when it comes to natural disasters they can also be potential resources in enhancing preparedness owing to their existing networks, and reciprocal relationships in community as suggested by previous research. The study offers implications for social workers in identifying where to target resources and research funds to reduce multidimensional vulnerabilities before a disaster. A basic human right, safe and affordable housing is also central to climate and environmental justice. For social work education, policy, and practice, integrating disaster readiness, response, and climate action into their agenda is vital in the coming years.