harvey-elderlywoman
An elderly woman in a wheelchair is rescued from the flood waters of tropical storm Harvey in east Houston, Texas. Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

We seem to live in a world intent on encouraging divisions. We receive daily reminders of our differences – race, language, country of origin, and income, to name only a few. Natural disasters, however, know no boundaries. Hurricanes and floods and tornadoes don’t neatly follow political jurisdictions. Or even political parties for that matter. They don’t discriminate between rich and poor, between white, brown or black, or male and female.

Disasters can also bring us together. They unite us in rescuing our fellow human beings from danger and providing them with the basics—food, clothing, and shelter. Disasters bring out our amazing generosity, with impressive donations of money and time. We rush to help even before we know what to do.

But don’t mistake the fact that natural disasters strike everyone lead you to conclude that the consequences of natural disasters are the same. They most definitely are not.

Natural disasters wreak a disproportionate amount of pain and suffering on our most vulnerable populations—the young, the aged, the disabled, and the unemployed. Disasters leave chaos in their wake and disrupt the normal flow of life. Helpless babies and young children are particularly at risk since they depend on adult attention for their very survival.

Vulnerable populations are by definition, already living on the edge—even before disaster strikes. Their housing is below standard or in neighborhoods prone to flooding or environmental catastrophes. They may lack a savings account to hold them over until order can be restored. They may not have insurance to help rebuild their home or business. They may lack transportation necessary to purchase medical supplies or food. They may not have the skills to tackle the paperwork necessary to apply for assistance. And many just don’t have the fortitude it takes to hold on for months and months until life slowly goes back to normal.

There are two bedrock principles that guide all of our CDP Disaster Recovery Funds. First, most money will be allocated to mid- and long-term disaster recovery, since we know recovery takes a long time and not all needs are readily apparent. Second, we will focus our grantmaking on those who need our help the most.

Natural disasters have another feature we sometimes forget. They rip away the thin veneer that barely conceals the challenges all of our communities face. Disasters force us to confront the fact that we have neglected populations that require our attention and extra support. In that way, disasters have the potential to be a bridge builder, uniting our communities around common causes that benefit everyone. Natural disasters don’t create vulnerable populations, they remind us that they exist.