Importance of Cultural Competency in Disaster Management

Cultural Competency in Disaster Recovery: Lessons Learned from the Hurricane Katrina Experience for Better Serving Marginalized Communities


The awareness of federal, state and local governments of the potential for levees in New Orleans to fail and decimate poor neighborhoods of the city was widely reported following the hurricane Katrina disaster. Demographics in the areas likely to incur the most severe damage were known to be neighborhoods of predominately poor, black residents. In addition to understanding the likely geographical impact of the impending disaster, the federal government was aware of the extensive social science and legal challenges detailing the likelihood of minority citizens to experience the worst consequences and slowest recovery from natural disasters. Studies dating back to the 1950s and numerous reports of the Red Cross support this conclusion. FEMA itself was sued in federal court for its inadequate response to marginalized communities during hurricane Andrew in 1992. While the federal government may not be held legally responsible for its discretionary policies within the disaster relief context, the horror of hurricane Katrina surely calls for a long overdue re-thinking of the federal approach to assisting marginalized communities in disaster recovery. Social science, the practical problems raised within legal challenges, as well as successful strategies from other disasters and even within the Katrina tragedy offer numerous opportunities for such reform.

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Resource Details

UC Berkeley, School of Law


30 pages

Cultural Competency

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Problem
    1. Cultural Difference in the Disaster Context: Perspectives from the Social Sciences
  3. The Long Road to Recovery: Marginalized Groups Fall Further Behind
    1. On the Ground: Practical Middle Class Solutions Fail Marginalized Communities
    2. Maneuvering a Disastrous Bureaucracy: the Importance of Information and Appropriate Financial Assistance mechanisms
  4. Responding to Crisis: Examples and Opportunities for Reform
    1. A Problem the Courts cannot solve
    2. Structural reforms will better address the needs of marginalized communities
      1. Federally managed charitable operations: Coordination and the Red Cross
      2. The local NGO approach to disaster recovery: “Our long-term goal is raise the family above prior conditions and not rebuild poverty.”
      3. Recommendations for Creating Cultural Competency
        1. Structural Reforms
          1. Contracting with local Non-Profit Organizations
          2. Drawing from internal strengths
          3. Pre-planning with community leaders
        2. The missing role of the advocate
    3. Serving the community: reforming behavior to attack cultural incompetence
  5. Conclusion: Legal Issues raised by Proposals for Reform

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