Welcome to the June 2016 Issue of the Natural Hazards Observer, dedicated to Culture, Community, and Disaster.

Communities that experience large-scale disasters can be further traumatized when outside organizations responding to the event fail to consider local culture, expertise, and capacity. Enrico Quarantelli identified this problem as early as 1988 and called for more understanding of the differences in communities to encourage collaboration. He observed that local emergency management groups are as diverse as their communities and because of this, imposing standardized response models from federal or state entities was doomed.

More recently, Katherine Browne (2015), who studied recovery after Hurricane Katrina, came to a similar conclusion. She found that following Katrina, federal authorities arrived in Louisiana with a template or a set of preconceived notions of how recovery would unfold without taking into account culture and capacity. Browne noted that these “outsider” decisions, forms, and actions left survivors with “no sense of participation in the process and no way to refine the template to match realities of their lives.”

In response to this and numerous other instances where standardized response models failed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published a report titled “Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathway for Action” (2011). The report acknowledges that FEMA should be doing more to increase community engagement and be more aware of local community structures and culture.

“We must do a better job of providing services for the entire community, regardless of their background demographics, or challenges,” the report states. “This means planning for the actual makeup of a community, making sure we meet the needs of every disaster survivor regardless of age, economics, or accessibility requirements.”

According to the report, these ambitious goals can be achieved when communities as a whole are involved in disaster planning, response, and recovery. To guide such efforts, the report provided an overview of key themes, possible action plans, and an overview of core principles. It was a promising starting point that was soon to be put to the test when Superstorm Sandy struck less than a year later.

This issue of the Observer examines several instances of disaster response since FEMA issued this advice.

In her article, author Rachael Piltch-Loeb, examines recovery in New Jersey and the use of political capital—the capacity to mobilize, acquire, or exchange critical resources after a disaster—by local communities after Sandy. She describes a new and promising type of community-based organization called Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRGs). In New Jersey, these county-based groups were formed in the immediate aftermath of Sandy and quickly became key players in leveraging post-disaster resources for affected residents. LTRGs—consisting of representatives from local businesses, faith-based organizations, community nonprofits, government agencies, and unaffiliated citizens—differed from other response organizations because they were able to turn local volunteers into advocates. As such these very successful groups illustrate the whole community approach and, according to Piltch-Loeb, can serve as an example for other communities across the nation.

In neighboring Staten Island, the recovery experience after Sandy was very different, writes author Alexa Dietrich. Her article, examines the underlying culture of this New York City borough, which is characterized by a somewhat insular, blue collar, and do-it-yourself attitude. Dietrich found that this culture, combined with response organizations lack of understanding, impeded recovery. Her research also shows that recovery agencies didn’t take advantage of the positive cultural factors in Staten Island because they were, in part, hampered by their own cultural biases.

This isn’t entirely unusual. A similar situation was found in Colorado mountain communities affected by the 2013 floods. Author Nnenia Campbell, describes the experiences of several small and geographically isolated communities in Boulder County, Colorado, following the floods. Her respondents were self-reliant, highly resilient, and very knowledgeable about the unforgiving environment they inhabit. However, according to Campbell, outside emergency response organizations did not tap into this wealth of knowledge and as a result, recovery was slow and locals felt undermined and excluded.

Inclusion can only occur when a community and its specific needs are acknowledged. Laura Stough and Donghyun Kang’s article discusses how the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction 2015-2030, unlike its predecessors, explicitly mentions people with disabilities and their needs and experiences in disaster. The authors explore three concepts—universal design, inclusion, and accessibility—that are deeply rooted in the history of disability studies and were included in the Framework. The emergence of these concepts, according to the authors, is acknowledgement by the world community that persons with disabilities are worthy of consideration in disaster situations.

While it’s important to be inclusive of everyone in a community, it’s also just as important to realize the range of needs that community members have—and they aren’t purely physical. In the rush to rebuild and “return to normal,” it can be easy to forget community members are grieving and need an outlet for the pain and confusion caused by their loss. Elaine Enarson writes of one such effort in the form of disaster quilting. She explores both the importance of quilts to those affected by disaster, as well as the catharsis and bonding the act of quilting creates for fellow survivors.

The international emergency response and disaster risk reduction community is beginning to understand that inclusion and more culturally responsive disaster management should be part of their agenda, however, as this Observer’s articles underscore, they are clearly struggling with how to do so consistently and effectively.