Van Zandt Talks Social Vulnerability at W&M Guest Lecture

 On January 30, 2014, Dr. Shannon Van Zandt of Texas A&M University visited the College of William and Mary to discuss her research on disaster recovery on Galveston Island, TX after Hurricane Ike, especially as it pertains to socially vulnerable populations.

Van Zandt began her research presentation by identifying the difference between a hazard and a crisis; namely, a hazard only becomes a crisis when it comes into contact with a population. Van Zandt then tied this definition of a crisis to social vulnerability by defining social vulnerability as “the characteristics of a person or group in terms of their ability to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural disaster.”

Van Zandt identified vulnerable populations as those that sit at the intersection of hazard exposure, social vulnerability, and physical vulnerability – in her words, “Low-income households live in low-quality homes in low-lying areas.” Van Zandt noted that consideration of these three characteristics is critical to effective resilience planning before a crisis, as well as efficient response efforts following a crisis. The distribution of socially vulnerable populations in relatively predictable patterns generally places these populations at greater risk during natural disasters, but such disasters provide a window of opportunity for policymakers to disrupt these potentially harmful settlement patterns.

Van Zandt cited particular practices as major contributors to the continued vulnerability found in populations. One primary element is the lack of guidance in infrastructure, zoning, and ordinances – guidance that could ease the burden on those who are susceptible to the dangerous intersection of vulnerability. High opportunity for economic growth in urban areas conflicts with voluntary inclusion housing policies in Texas. This means that cities are not required to zone for affordable multi-family housing; they typically opt for construction of single-family homes and other types of housing properties that happen to be out of price range for many low-income families.

Another point of interest described by Van Zandt in determining vulnerability is the use of structural mitigation techniques in planning. Many communities continue to construct housing in unsuitable areas, as indicated by numerous flood plain maps. Coupled with weak building codes, the construction of low-quality homes in potentially sensitive locations exacerbates the magnitude of damage inflicted on the socially and physically vulnerable.

In the case of Galveston, Van Zandt noted that the municipal government refused federal aid for rebuilding, and formed a committee of citizens (noted by Van Zandt as being mostly representative of the entire population) to develop a plan of action. However, due to the political processes and changes within the local government, the recovery plan has not seen much in the way of progress. Most notably, public housing units have not been reconstructed on Galveston Island, forcing many to be displaced from their long-time homes.

Van Zandt discussed a number of policy recommendations borne of her work in Galveston, including a renewed focus at the state and local level on crisis mitigation through tailored land development and zoning policies. Van Zandt also stressed that post-crisis governmental responses must target socially vulnerable populations when distributing recovery resources. Similarly, Van Zandt recommended that state and local governments create programs designed to assist socially vulnerable populations with the loan application process for residents who suffer property loss and damage.

Van Zandt closed her talk by emphasizing that “Vulnerability is not the inverse of resilience.” While social vulnerability is relatively identifiable through data on income level, education level, and other assorted demographic characteristics, resilience is far more difficult to quantify, but is just as essential to understanding the post-crisis response and rebuilding process. Statistically vulnerable populations in the area devastated by Hurricane Ike, as well as vulnerable populations along the rural Virginia coast, have displayed marked community strength by sharing resources.

Many opposed to taking precautions by way of modified building codes and careful zoning cite a perceived lack of climate change as reason for persistent lack of preparedness. Regardless of stance on climate change, Van Zandt’s research and recommendations can render populations far better equipped to recover from disasters, and can transform struggling communities into sustainable successes.

Five years after Hurricane Ike, the socially vulnerable populations of Galveston Island are still rebuilding, but hopefully the research of Van Zandt and others will motivate policy changes that better prepare vulnerable populations for future natural disasters, and speed up the post-crisis recovery process.

Dr. Van Zandt’s talk was jointly sponsored by the Virginia Sea Grant, the VIMS School of Marine Science, and the W&M Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy.

Angel Aymond is an M.P.P. candidate at William and Mary. She graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a minor in Urban Affairs & Public Policy.  

Emily Wavering is an M.P.P. candidate at the College of William and Mary who graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in June 2009 with a B.A. in economics. 

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