This paper presents initial results of a qualitative study of how nonprofit social service organizations (NSSOs) mark and make sense of boundaries between disasters and chronic inequality in the US. Social processes produce differential vulnerabilities that make environmental events disastrous for some and not for others (Sørensen & Albris, 2015). As such, the period of intense need known as “disaster” cannot be separated from the long-durée perpetuation of chronic inequality (Blair, Lovecraft, & Hum, 2018; Oliver-Smith, 1999). NSSOs offer a valuable vantage point for studying the relation between disaster and chronic inequality in the US. While disaster management is not a primary mission of most US NSSOs, disaster events can push these organizations into response and recovery work (DeVita, 2006; Flatt and Stys, 2013; Simo and Bies, 2007). As such, they must navigate transitions between disaster aid and normal social service provision. This study focuses on post-disaster transitions, asking how NSSOs downshift from the moral urgency of disaster aid back to their roles in addressing everyday conditions of inequality in the US. By looking more closely at how NSSO staff wrestle with this transition, the study aims to offer a fresh perspective on what holds US inequality in place, both as an economic relation and as a set of cultural values and assumptions about “normal” social conditions.
The paper presents results from a qualitative pilot study of NSSO staff in Tallahassee, Florida, who had recently completed a post-hurricane transition back to “normal” and were anticipating another such transition following the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with directors of local NSSOs (N=12) as well as client-facing staff in the same organizations (N=15), supplementing this data with participant observation and document analysis. Data analysis began during data collection and oscillated between phases of induction and deduction in order to uncover and test patterns in the data, using NVivo QDA software to code and track emergent interpretations across multiple data sources (Reichertz, 2014; Hennink et al., 2020).
Staff at Tallahassee NSSOs described disaster aid as a period of both heightened need and resource abundance, while “normal” social service provision was characterized by constant resource shortfalls. While they experienced the termination of disaster aid as beyond their control, dictated by funders and the media, they nonetheless tried to make sense of this transition for themselves and their clients. Conceptualizing these meaning-making efforts as “rituals of return,” the paper shows how social service providers used diverse symbolic strategies to naturalize the distinction between disaster aid and everyday social services and, thereby, between acts of God and ordinary poverty. Simultaneously, they also sought to carry over the urgency of disaster aid into their everyday work.
By clarifying how chronic inequality is “put back into place” after disaster, this pilot study also offers glimpses of possibilities for change. The paper recommends that improved feedback loops between NSSOs and state and federal disaster management agencies could contribute to re-imagining how the “end” of disaster is managed for chronically under-resourced populations.