Women in the Face of Disaster: Incorporating Gender Perspectives into Disaster Policy
Publication Date: 2014
The purpose of this study is to examine women’s vulnerability and resilience to disasters in the context of the 2013 Colorado floods. The study used a qualitative methodology and explores the opinions and experiences of community leaders and local officials in terms of identifying how women in their communities were particularly vulnerable or resilient to the floods. The results demonstrate that gender was not the focus of either group, and that the question of gender in terms of vulnerability and resilience to disasters was not a topic widely discussed in practice. Although gender had not been a topic of discussion, it was clear from the interviews that there is significant interest in determining how the disaster and emergency management cycle can be modified to include the perspectives of women, as well as other minority groups, to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience. The conclusion of this report details several suggestions and recommendations that can be used across the county to accomplish this goal.
Introduction: The 2013 Colorado Floods
The 2013 Colorado Floods caused severe damage throughout the state, affecting both the private and public sectors. Heavy rain began to fall on September 11, according to the Colorado Climate Center (2013)1. In Boulder County, this Boulder Creek began to rise; in Loveland, the Big Thompson River began to rise. On September 12, flash flooding started in Aurora, as well as in Boulder and Estes Park, followed by flooding in Four Mile Canyon. On September 13, the town of Lyons was inaccessible; and Greeley and Evans, in Weld County, began to flood. At 4:00 p.m. on September 13, 2013, the governor declared a disaster for 14 Colorado counties.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared 18 counties eligible for public assistance, and served approximately 21,500 survivors at Disaster Recovery Centers. In terms of those who applied for assistance, 28,348 residents were registered. In terms of monetary assistance, “…more than $204 million has gone to individuals and households in recovery assistance, flood insurance payments and low-interest disaster loans. In addition, more than $28 million has been obligated to begin to repair and rebuild critical infrastructure and restore vital services.” (FEMA 2013) 2
The purpose of this study is to examine the vulnerability and resilience of women in the context of the 2013 Colorado Flood. The study was conducted November 8, 2013 through November 17, 2013 in Boulder, Larimer, Weld, and Denver Counties. This study is significant based on its focus on gendered vulnerability and resilience to disasters. The literature demonstrates that women are vulnerable and resilient in different ways in the context of disaster. Furthermore, several international agencies have recognized gender as a critical focal point, but also understand that it is difficult obstacle to overcome governmental resistance to this concept (UNISDR, 2012)3. Based on the literature, I have identified five areas of vulnerability that are related to gender and disasters: built environment, political, holistic, socioeconomic, and geographic.
Significant research has been completed regarding women's vulnerability to disasters. However, additional research is needed to be able to make recommendations that result in policies that decrease vulnerability and enhance resilience. This study is significant in that it helps identify how community leaders and political officials view gender in the context of disaster and what strategies they may be using to incorporate a gendered perspective in their disaster planning, response, and recovery processes.
The study presented an excellent opportunity to collect information related to gender immediately post-disaster. The goal of the study was to add additional justification for the need to incorporate a gendered-perspective of disasters. The study sought to answer the following research questions:
- What are the factors that contribute to the vulnerability of women in terms of preparing for, responding to, and early recovery from the floods?
- What are the factors that contribute to the resilience of women in terms of preparing for, responding to, and early recovery from the floods?
The methods for the study included interviews (n=12), participant observation, and an analysis of secondary data sources to answer the above questions. This report is organized as follows: a brief review of the literature on gendered vulnerability, followed by a discussion of the study's methodology, and concluding with an overview of the results and recommendations gleaned from the research conducted.
Based on the FEMA damage data, I chose to examine Weld, Boulder, and Larimer Counties due to the extensive loss of housing and damage. In addition to these three counties, Denver County was included to gain access to public officials in this area. The data collection methods used were interviews (in-person and telephone), participant observation, and analysis of secondary sources.
Interviews. In-person interviews were conducted in Larimer, Boulder, Weld, and Denver Counties. The two groups interviewed were public officials and leaders of local community organizations. Public officials consisted of both appointed (e.g. emergency managers, county managers, urban planners) and elected local and state officials, as well as NGO officials. After review of the contents, several themes emerged. In addition to the 5 categories comprising vulnerability, themes including response, resilience (women and community), recovery, preparedness, mitigation, flood insurance, and government-specific response and recovery measures were identified. The interviews were recorded with permission of the interviewees, transcribed verbatim, and analyzed using NVivo 10.
Interview sample size and characteristics. The final sample consisted of 12 interviews with local officials and leaders of community organizations (six for each group, respectively). The sample participants were identified first via an internet search (i.e. government websites, press releases, and newspaper articles) and then continued via snowball sampling. The distribution of the sample was: three community leaders and one public office in Boulder, one community leader and one public official in Weld, one community leader and three public officials in Larimer, and two public officials in Denver. The demographics of the sample are as follows. Community leaders accounted for 50% of the sample; 83% of the community officials were over 41; 66% had at least a bachelor’s degree; 5 were female; and 5 were white, non-Hispanic. Two of the community leaders had over 12 years of experience, with the other 4 ranging from 1-6 years of experience. The public officials were 83% female; all were over the age of 31, white, and non-Hispanic; and 5 out of 6 completed at least a bachelor’s degree. In terms of experience, 4 out of 6 had at least 6-12 years of experience.
Interviews ranged in time from 17 to 73 minutes. The questions for political officials focused on disaster policies currently in effect, in addition to their perceived notion of the vulnerabilities and resilience of specific groups. Community leaders were asked their opinion on their experience working with women in the disaster context as well as their perspective about what makes women particularly vulnerable or resilient during a disaster.
Participant observation. Participant observation was performed at FEMA/SBA disaster locations and at two community locations (i.e., distribution centers) designed to provide disaster survivors with supplies. In order to gain access, the role of complete observer was assumed.
Secondary sources. Secondary sources were reviewed and analyzed to help place the interviews into context; these secondary sources include: newspaper articles, disaster management plans, FEMA damage assessments, and government notices.
The following word cloud demonstrates the words most often used during the interviews. It is clear that the response to the interviews were centered on the impact that the disasters had on individuals and communities. One of the most interesting findings was that gender was most often not considered as part of the emergency management process. Although the main purpose of this study was to examine the vulnerability and resilience of women in the context of the floods, the lack of information able to be collected on this topic sheds light on why this area of research is important and needs to be expanded on. Thus, the results discussed here will focus on gender as much as possible, but also focus on vulnerability and resilience as a whole for various populations. The discussion of the results is organized according to the identified themes after analysis.
Mitigation. Public officials in both Larimer and Weld Counties attributed a significant amount of credit to their city and county mitigation strategies. Although not directly related to gender, mitigation is a critical aspect of the disaster cycle to ensure that the city and community are prepared before a disaster hits. One example was the extensive reclassification of the 50-, 100-, and 500-year flood zones after the Big Thompson Flood in 1976. One of the respondents mentioned how the zoning really helped the city avoid a catastrophe like the 1976 flood, which claimed more than 144 lives:
“...some of those activities really helped in making this most current event a lot less damaging that what it could have been had certain zoning codes not been stepped up...We also did the same kind of planning efforts within the city of [redacted], the flood plain management, through the [redacted] corridor was very progressive and very active in making sure that homes would never be allowed to be built within an active flood plain, especially anything that was less than a 100 year flood plain.”
Preparedness. In terms of preparedness, common themes throughout the interviews were education, adequate planning, and the establishment of public-private partnerships. Again, although most information was not gender specific, preparedness is an aspect of the disaster cycle that must be in place to decrease vulnerability and enhance resilience. In terms of education, community leaders and public officials indicated that they work specifically with businesses to plan for post-disaster operations. One public official mentioned that in the disaster education classes they offer to the public, he saw definite gender alignment.
“We do a lot of outreach and we have a lot more women coming to classes than we do men and I think it’s because they want to make sure they are prepared that they can take care of themselves and of their families in that process.”
Another aspect that was important for preparedness was the creation of public private partnerships, whether formally or informally. Where these partnerships were put into place, communities were extremely prepared to get the items they needed during the response and recovery phases and were thus more resilient. Response. My information on the theme of response was gleaned from both interviews and participant observation. At two of the interview sites, which served as distribution centers for goods that survivors needed, I was able to remain at the site and observe. In addition, I also performed observations at the FEMA/SBA operations center. There were several observations that I made. First, the survivors of the floods were extremely resilient and determined to get their life back on track and move forward as quickly as possible. In terms of gender, at one of the locations, a father came in to shop for goods. At the point of checkout, the community leader asked him about his children and wife's needs, to which he responded “she will need to take care of that.” I think that this demonstrates what we have seen in the literature in terms of women taking the major responsibility for caretaking and family wellness post-disaster, while the father helps get the home/infrastructure back together. This story was corroborated by discussions I had with the leaders of the community groups. It is important to note that this is not always the case, as many single and not-single fathers are active in family wellness activities; however, this seems to be a common pattern.
In addition to this observation, there were a lot of excellent stories in terms of how quick cities were to respond to the disaster. At one location, the Disaster Assistance Center (DAC) was up and running in record time, thanks in great part to a sense of community service, established public-private partnerships, and excellent leadership. In terms of government response, one interviewee praised the quick action of the bi-partisan legislature to work together and expediently to make sure funding was available and people could get the help they needed.
Another interesting comment made in relation to gender was in regards to the volunteers. Several interviewees mentioned to excellent service the female volunteers provided. One volunteer group was primarily women, who worked tirelessly at the DAC. In addition to the gendered aspect of volunteering, several comments were made in regards to the effective use of volunteers. It was critical to make sure that everyone knew their role and was trained appropriately, otherwise, as one respondent said, “One of the big liabilities with volunteers especially after a disaster is that well-meaning hearts are actually the second the disaster.”
My overall impression with the response of each county was the overwhelming sense of community support and action. There were stories of employees working for weeks on end, mayors and city commissioners showing up to help in any way they could, and excellent collaboration efforts between all sectors of the community. Although the floods posed a significant threat and caused great damage, I believe that the sense of community throughout each of these three counties contributed greatly to the quick response and excellent recovery efforts made.
Recovery. At the time of the interviews, the recovery phase of the disaster cycle was just beginning, and several interviewees recognized that the recovery phase would last for at least 3-5 years. In terms of how the counties were dealing with recovery, there were several funds that were set up to help both businesses and individuals. As another example of the strength of community, a city that experienced extensive damage began their fund based on a significant contribution from a local community member. Since then, several fundraisers and other events have been set up and contributed to in order to help the city rebuild and thrive post-disaster.
According to the interviews, the overwhelming response to the question of “what does vulnerability mean to you,” revolved around lack of preparedness, planning and education. More specifically, a population is vulnerable if they are susceptible to a certain risk.
Built environment. In terms of built environment vulnerability, the most common reference was made to mobile home parks. It is important to note that references to the built environment overlapped significantly with geographic vulnerability due to their location within the flood plains. The discussion in the literature regarding land in these areas being cheaper was corroborated in several interviews. Information regarding the gender of those living in mobile homes was unavailable. However, one population that was identified as living primarily in these areas was the immigrant population, a population that is vulnerable for many of the same reasons as women in terms of access and socioeconomic factors, in addition to often having to overcome language barriers.
Political. Political vulnerability was mentioned exclusively in one interview with a community leader. She states:
Those [vulnerable] people usually live in communities where their voices haven’t been heard, so the government, be it in a city or county or state level…So it takes something like these floods to bring the community together, to have Boulder County wake up and help those families who are entirely dependent on the system to help them since they were already dependent.
Several other interviewees mentioned the difficulty of the homeless and immigrant populations gaining access to services after the disaster. This was clearly much more detrimental to the immigrant populations due to concerns with legal status within the United States. However, there are several programs that were established to ensure that all survivors could receive help without worrying about immigration issues.
Holistic. In terms of holistic vulnerability, the most common groups associated were single mothers, the elderly, those with functional/access needs, and children. In addition, the psychological factor and impact of the disaster was also mentioned. The elderly and those who require special needs were mentioned most often. In terms of gender, many interviewees agreed that single mothers may have more difficulty, but were unable to speak to the prevalence of this in their community.
Socioeconomic. The groups most associated with socioeconomic vulnerability were those from low-income families, the homeless, and the immigrant population. One of the most interesting statements regarding socioeconomic vulnerability was from a community leader. As she addressed the issue, she stated:
I think it’s probably the underserved, lower income demographic for a lot of reasons. There are language barriers; it’s not a message that the populations go after unfortunately. Emergency preparedness, it’s a very anglicized program, so unless you are really reaching out into those communities, it’s hard to get messages out sometimes…it’s definitely a big impact of those people who are not Anglo, not connected, some of them are probably first-generation here, it just, it’s not something they’re used to even hearing about, it’s totally foreign to them.
Her concern is valid and links back to education and preparedness strategies. How can emergency managers ensure that their message is getting out to those that may not be aware of disaster danger or have access to information in a way that they can understand?
Geographic. Geographic vulnerability was most often attributed to “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” As stated before, some people were extra vulnerable because of the type of housing that they lived in (i.e., mobile homes). Other residents, however, such as those who lived in the canyon, may have had adequate structures, but their proximity to the river was what made them vulnerable. In terms of people choosing to build in floodplains or other hazardous areas, one interviewee stated:
I think people should have never built in the floodplain, if you look and the damage and the FEMA maps that were drawn 5-6 years ago, the maps were right on…and that’s one of the reasons we didn’t have the damage that we had...I think that says a lot. I met with the county director of planning today, and they will probably not allow people to rebuild their homes that are in the flood way or flood plain. They may buy the land from the people so they can go get a fresh start; they are not going to take donations of land, because they think they need to make people as whole as they can make them.
When asked to define what resilience meant to them, the majority of the interviewees used a phrase similar to “the ability to bounce back” to a new normal. The interviewees attributed resilience to the strength of human character and related the concept to the importance of preparedness.
Resilience was a topic of great joy to the interviewees. Many were eager to share stories of how their community came together in order to help one another out and move forward. Of particular interest is the immigrant population. Although they are more vulnerable for a variety of ways, more than one interviewee mentioned that their often tight-knit way of living was positive for their resilience. In this instance, we see that there are “balancing factors” that make some populations both vulnerable and resilient in unique ways. Furthermore, the culture of Colorado seems to be geared towards coming together and overcoming obstacles, as one respondent said:
One thing northern Colorado has going for it is philanthropic [activities], we have a huge philanthropic community...taking care of our own and we give, a lot of giving folks here, and we really saw that a lot. This sentiment was echoed throughout the interviews. In tightknit, small, close communities, the level of resiliency was expected to be much higher. In terms of gender, specifically, many attributed community cohesion and the ability to organize and focus to the women of the community. According to one community leader:
What I found was that during the flood and after, it seemed that women were the ones who were comforting people, feeding and clothing people, making sure that people were OK. It was almost as if we were the moms to these individuals, people were relying on us: children, husbands, coworkers and friends. Women were really solid, they got it, they understood that we needed to go into crisis mode...women are so good at that because in society we are the caretakers, we are the ones people come to when they have problems and these women in [redacted] just gathered together and did it. I was extremely proud, the women came together and just said we'll worry about ourselves later and we are going to help people and help them get through this.
Overall, the results indicate that there was not significant knowledge regarding gender in terms of preparedness, response, or recovery; however, there were some observations in terms of the positive effect that women can have on resiliency. This lack of knowledge, however, demonstrates that gender is not currently of focus in terms of emergency management planning. One of the most positive results from the study was the dialogue that it created it terms of introducing the concept of gender to both the public officials and leaders of local community organizations. Each interviewee was intrigued by the literature on the topic and looked forward to the final report detailing others’ experiences and the list of recommendations to both decrease the vulnerability of women and enhance their resilience, as well as that of the entire community. The following section highlights several recommendations that were taken from both the interviews and broader literature on gender in the context of disasters.
Recommendations and Conclusions
The recommendations made in this section will focus on gender and other relevant and important ideas that can help decrease vulnerability and increase resilience for any area in terms of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Public officials were specifically asked their opinions about the recommendations they would make for improving the vulnerability and resilience of women in the context of disasters.
One of the most often cited recommendations was a call for more specific community outreach. Many public officials mentioned that if they wanted to target a specific group, in this case women, they would reach out to civic groups, church groups, and school parent-teacher associations. As one respondent stated:
I am going to look at where can I do the most good with the message… so if I am looking at developing something specifically for reaching women, I am going to look at everything from reaching out to women-only organizations, or women’s interests groups, I am going to look at putting information in publications that women are interested in… so I would do some specific marketing.
Thus, understanding your target audience and developing an appropriate "marketing" strategy is of utmost importance. A critical part of this strategy is to convince the audience of why this is important to them and why they should participate in trainings or educational sessions. They need to feel that this is a very real threat that they should be prepared for the best protect their family and investments. Tied in with a strategic marketing campaign is the opportunity to offer education to these specific groups. Several interviewees mentioned a variety of different ways to get the community educated. One of the most interesting suggestions, based on the high level of immigration in certain areas of Colorado, was that the children in the schools should be targeted. As in the “stop-drop-roll” campaign for fires or the DARE program for drug awareness, educating children can serve as an excellent way to deliver disaster-preparedness information to their parents.
Another interesting recommendation related to women was in regards to fostering the creation of peer-to-peer networks. This aligns with literature on the positive effect that social capital can have on community resilience. She states:
The thing that would be most successful would simply be to pull together groups of women in some way in some form, and to know that there’s an organization out there dedicated to women, so perhaps looking at groups like that, neighborhoods and communities, where there may be a significant number of single females or single mothers, something like that where there’s a peer group that could be connected with these individuals and have them rally around and be more prepared so more resilient.
Additional recommendations included implementing a more specific vulnerable resident registry that accounted for discussed gender vulnerabilities (i.e., mobility, child care, etc.). Furthermore, one of the public officials made note of the importance of taking into account what families may need when given canned goods, for example can openers, to demonstrate that there may be obvious necessities that weren't thought of ahead of time. In addition, there was significant discussion about both the lack of knowledge and purchase of renter's insurance. Several interviewees recommended that renter's insurance be required as to protect these populations in case of disaster. This is especially important because the homeowner will be able to collect their own insurance, but they do not have an obligation to assist the renter with any possessions they may have lost. This is a prime example of another educational opportunity within the community.
A last recommendation that will contribute to more research on the differences between men and women in terms of vulnerability and resilience would be to encourage data collection that records gender. Gender specific data can provide a rich narrative regarding an area's demographic needs in terms of disaster vulnerability and resilience.
Overall, there are several ways that emergency managers and public officials can begin to move towards adopting a more gendered perspective in the context of disasters. The coordination of public and private organizations is imperative to reach out to different segments of the population. To best tailor a training or educational strategy, community leaders and public officials should work together to identify vulnerable populations in their community and understand what these communities currently struggle with and how this will impact them in the case of a disaster. Once this has been determined, the appropriate marketing strategy and training opportunities can be developed to maximize resiliency.
Colorado Climate Center. (2013). Colorado flood 2013. Retrieved from http://coflood2013.colostate.edu/timeline_impacts.html ↩
Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2013, December 20). Colorado flooding – 100 days later. Retrieved from http://www.fema.gov/news-release/2013/12/20/colorado-flooding-100-days-later ↩
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, (2012).United States of America: National progress report on the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action(2011-2013) – Interim. Retrieved from PreventionWeb website: http://preventionweb.net/go/28816 ↩