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Why We’ve Stopped Saying ‘Natural Disaster’ and You Should Too

Thursday, August 1, 2019

By Alan Kwok, Disaster Resilience Director, Northern California Grantmakers

Not so long ago, I used the term "natural disaster" in a manuscript for a publication. My PhD supervisor shot back, “There's nothing natural about disasters.” Decades of hazard research and our frontline communities are concluding the same thing: the ever-growing frequency of natural hazards don’t need to become disasters.

Locally, intense natural hazards are on the rise from wildfiresto heatwaves, and earthquakes


Source: California Volunteers and Monitor Institute by Deloitte. 2019.


What turns a hazard into a disaster? The answer, is us.

A disaster occurs when people and their communities are unable to secure the resources to overcome the impacts unleashed by such events. Our communities who are the furthest from the centers of power– the poor, communities of color, the elderly, non-English speakers, people with functional and access needs, and rural communities – are hit the hardest. In some instances, we – in the public and private sectors – have created higher risk conditions. For instance, housing is increasing along the wildland urban interface which is placing more Californians in the line of wildfires. 


In 1995, Chicago experienced a record heatwave. While we frequently experience heatwaves as an inconvenience, the Chicago heatwave was deadly. Over 739 people lost their lives; most were low-income elderly Black folks. Fear of crime prevented them from opening their windows or sleeping outside. These residents were trapped as the heat turned their homes into ovens. This disaster was further exacerbated by the lack of resources and preparedness by the government. (A new documentary Cooked tells the story about how race and privilege dictated survival rates of this heatwave.)

Fast forward to 2017, when the North Bay fires revealed how undocumented immigrant communities in the wine country were disproportionately affected by the fire. A majority of these communities did not access evacuation shelters for fear of deportation by ICE. Many in our community also learned for the first time that people who are undocumented are not eligible for federal disaster aid. 

Under-resourced communities

The further a Community is from the center of power before a natural hazard, the greater their risk afterward: 

  • Knowledge of hazards. Blacks and Hispanics, as compared to Whites and Asians, are less likely to know about the presence of natural hazards and the risks these hazards pose to them. 

    • A statewide survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that while only one in three Californians say they are very knowledgeable about the steps that they can take to prepare for a disaster, Whites (46%) are more than twice as likely as Latinos (21%) to say they are very knowledgeable. Asians (53%) and Whites (48%) are more likely than Blacks (39%) and Latinos (36%) to have a disaster plan.

  • Location of residence. Communities of color are more exposed to natural hazards. We saw this in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck and in Houston when Hurricane Harvey bore through the city and surrounding communities. 

    • Historical racial segregation has pushed communities of color to the places most at risk to natural hazards. During Hurricane Sandy, Black New Yorkers and poor Blacks were more likely to live in flooded areas

    • Already, we are seeing climate gentrification due to the effects of sea-level rise and floods in Miami pushing low-income families to places more exposed to natural hazards. 

    • The recent Fourth National Climate Assessment affirmed that the poorest (and oftentimes communities of color) will be most at risk from the effects of climate change. 

  • Housing. Having a roof does not mean a person is safe from the impacts of natural hazards. Low income people are more likely to live in homes that are more vulnerable to the impacts of hazards than their wealthier counterparts. They are more likely to live in homes with lower quality construction, older homes, or mobile homes. 

    • During the 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in California’s history, most of the deaths at a mobile park were low-income seniors. Compounding this is the lack of urgency for renters and owners of rental housing to upgrade properties. 

    • Renters are more likely to be low-income people and people of color who are less likely and financially able to be prepared and will experience higher financial losses and housing instability. Owners of rental housing have little motivation to invest reducing natural hazard risks as the cost of upgrades may not justify the rent.

The "north stars" philanthropy seeks to reach - housing affordability, health equity, racial and gender equity, ecosystem conservation, economic vitality – could be derailed by the growing intensity and impacts of natural hazards. Studies and experience have shown, disasters exacerbate communities’ pre-existing conditions.

We often hear, “Natural disasters don’t discriminate, but recovery does.” This is only partially true. It neglects the pre-existing day-to-day conditions that cause greater risk to natural hazards in the first place.

If philanthropy supports people who are building their own power by investing in mitigation, preparedness, and long-term recovery, together we can get rid of disasters.

Interested in learning more? Philanthropy California will host a webinar on August 21, 2019 at 11:00 am (PST) that will feature Junia Howell, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She will discuss how racial, gender, and wealth inequalities get exacerbated overtime because of recurring and episodic natural hazards.