Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Equitable Disaster Preparedness, Response & Recovery


A blue shelter is the only remaining undamaged structure in a field in Puerto Rico where surrounding homes have been destroyed.
Aerial view of damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (2017).
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most apparent consequences of climate change is the increase in the frequency and intensity of severe weather-related and disaster events that have already posed — and will continue to pose — significant threats to the health and safety of people and to communities.See footnote 1 According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a disaster event can include natural catastrophes, technological accidents, or human-caused events that have resulted in severe property damage, deaths, and/or multiple injuries. In the case of severe weather events, more and more disasters are no longer just “natural” given anthropogenic influences. Examples of these severe weather events that have been, or are expected to be, exacerbated by climate change include heat waves, hurricane intensity, floods, wildfires, and droughts.

Low-income, underserved communities with multiple socioeconomic challenges, often communities of color, are more likely to bear the disproportionate risk of physical harm caused by weather events and are more likely to face challenges in accessing the resources necessary to adequately prepare for these events and to recover physically, mentally, and economically after the event. Whether evidenced by the way the Lower Ninth Ward fell victim to failing levees when Hurricane Katrina hit; or how Southside Chicago residents perished in droves compared to their neighbors on the Northside during the 1995 Heat Wave; or the amount of time it took residents in Puerto Rico to receive aid following Hurricane Maria, the disparities between those with and without access to resources is an indicator of who is more likely to suffer negatively as a result of severe weather impacts. Adaptation planning professionals can prioritize equity as a fundamental objective of emergency preparedness by directing resources to those who face disproportionate risks of harm to achieve more equitable outcomes.

Three men stand among piles of wood and debris inside the Princeville town museum following Hurricane Matthew.
Town officials in Princeville, North Carolina examine damage to the town museum following Hurricane Matthew (2016).
(Credit: Jessica Southwell for the Coastal Resilience Center)

In a world where disasters have been shown to widen equity gaps, responses to both the climate crisis and the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, equity-based approaches to disaster planning can help ensure that all residents, regardless of socioeconomic factors, can prepare for and recover from disasters. Policymakers now have an opportunity to build equity-based policy strategies through comprehensive planning initiatives and partnerships with community-based organizations and members. The unique insights and perspectives gained through collaboration can provide a mutually beneficial forum where communities can inform policy and policymakers can develop tools informed by community input. These partnerships can provide a framework for responding to climate-related disaster risks while supporting community responses to other disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collaborative community engagement at every stage of the adaptation planning and implementation process is an effective way to ensure that projects and policies create greater health, economic, and housing resilience within a community that is aligned with the values, needs, and experiences of the community. Partnerships with communities that are on the frontlines of climate impacts and social inequities and are also on the frontline of health-related disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, can provide critical insights about the kinds of disaster response strategies and projects that are more likely to offer multiple co-benefits for the community. A commitment to equity-based disaster preparedness, response, and recovery strategies creates an opportunity to consider those directly and most severely affected by climate change impacts and develop policies and projects that will yield the greatest benefits from implemented solutions. 

Goals for Equitable Disaster Preparedness, Response & Recovery

This chapter describes equitable approaches to enhancing disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, including approaches designed to accomplish the following goals:

  • Involve frontline community members in decisionmaking regarding how to develop and implement disaster preparedness strategies that are aligned with the needs and values of the communityPolicymakers should ensure that frontline communities have access to, and are benefiting from, disaster preparations and that the community is involved in the planning and implementation of resilience initiatives. Community leaders in neighborhoods on the frontlines of climate change often know what problems are specific to their communities, and what types of programs or initiatives may or may not work. Policymakers hoping to develop a successful disaster preparedness, response, or recovery plan would do well to involve community leaders early and often throughout the creation and execution of the program. Doing so will not only help to encourage trust and transparency in the process but will result in a plan that will best help the community during a disaster event. 
  • Minimize the consequences of major disasters for low-income communitiesSince low-income communities are often hit worst, successful disaster preparedness, response, and recovery planning must emphasize mitigating the consequences of major disasters for these neighborhoods. Depending upon the plan and the climate-related events a community may face, minimizing consequences for these communities may include: financial preparedness programs; planting trees or gardens in neighborhoods historically lacking in open spaces and parks; training community leaders on disaster response techniques; educating community members on programs and resources, and more. 
  • Ensure that these communities have access to the resources that allow for a just recoveryCommunities that historically have been hit worst by climate disasters are often those that historically do not have access to the resources that are necessary to recover from a climate disaster. Reasons for disparate impacts on community recovery include lack of political clout and access to information and outreach regarding recovery programs, lack of financial resources, and more. To ensure that frontline communities have access to solutions and resources that assist with recovery, government programs and staff should conduct significant outreach to inform community leaders about the opportunities for recovery assistance. Such programs should also work to ensure that available funding for recovery and rebuilding is sufficient to address the needs of entire communities and that those most in need of assistance can benefit.

This chapter provides case study examples of how cities are advancing equitable disaster preparedness, response, and recovery solutions, including legal and policy considerations that decisionmakers may need to address as they work to advance solutions on the ground. While equity considerations are important to both process and outcomes, climate adaptation solutions do not always follow equitable principles of community engagement. Even in some of the substantive equitable examples cited in this chapter, community engagement is not always as deep or meaningful as it could be. Where possible, this chapter highlights case studies that have adhered to strong community engagement principles or makes suggestions on how a case study could be replicated in a slightly different way to deepen community engagement.


Temperatures are becoming more extreme, precipitation patterns are shifting, and more climate-related disasters like deadly heatwaves and intense hurricanes are becoming more frequent and more intense. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events have changed the lives of many Americans, and a majority of the population has experienced one form or another of these events directly. Due to the sudden disruption and at times lethal consequences of these disasters local, state, and federal governments across agencies have the opportunity to develop and support ways to prepare to mitigate disaster risk, support response efforts, and promote expedient recovery. It must be considered that traditionally, disaster response and recovery measures flow from the federal and state level down to hard-hit communities.

Extreme weather impacts to one system or sector can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, and housing.See footnote 2 Impacts on these varied systems have an even more detrimental cumulative effect on communities that are already overburdened with social and economic challenges that can reinforce inequalities among vulnerable communities. As cities experience more climate impacts, equity centered decisionmaking processes are more likely to yield effective approaches to disaster resilience while creating the co-benefits of enhancing overall physical, social, economic, and environmental resilience. 

Governments and communities need ways to respond, recover, and prepare to mitigate future risk. Historically, disaster preparedness and response actions have been divided into three main categories or types of actions: 

  • Preparation for and reduction of risks to impacts of disasters; 
  • Containment of the impacts of an event that has occurred to prevent any further loss of life and property and to restore order in its immediate aftermath. The first and immediate response to a disaster is called an emergency response; and
  • Reestablishing normality through reconstruction and rehabilitation beginning shortly thereafter.See footnote 3 

Creating a more resilient community in the face of climate disasters will present legal considerations that must be navigated to ultimately lead to more equitable outcomes. With the effects of disasters being widespread, a key consideration is who has the legal authority to implement disaster response and recovery actions? Given that the nation’s legal system is highly centralized in the federal and state government, local governments and communities should evaluate ways to either work within or across existing systems, or seek to ensure that laws regarding disaster preparedness, response, and recovery are drafted or amended in a way that is more responsive to local, and potentially cross-jurisdictional cooperation needs and priorities. In addition to engaging with community members, policymakers should evaluate opportunities to enhance private sector participation in the planning, funding, and design of resilience projects and policies. The private sector has a key role to play in implementing equitable disaster preparedness and response by creating climate preparedness plans to keep businesses running and stimulating the economy as well as supporting their communities and providing services for disaster preparation and response. Also, the private sector needs to address its own vulnerability and capacity for sustained disaster resiliency in the preparation, response, and recovery stages of disaster events. Last but not least, individuals should also create their own disaster preparedness plans for themselves and their families. Coordinating with neighbors can help create a community-wide plan, which can grow to be both wide-reaching and specific.

Key Players

Enhancing community resilience before, during, and after a disaster event requires significant coordination across jurisdictions, agencies, and levels of government to ensure that resilience projects are implemented at the scale needed to reduce risks effectively. Robust and continuing public participation and engagement can enhance the equitable design of solutions and develop community advocates for resilience initiatives and projects, leading to more robust and enduring outcomes. 

  • Federal government: Disaster response and recovery funding and technical support often flow from the federal level, but local governments are often making on the ground decisions. Among other duties, FEMA is the federal coordinator for operational and logistical disaster response. The agency not only helps communities and officials develop disaster response and hazard mitigation plans but also offers funding for emergency and non-emergency projects.See footnote 4 FEMA provides these types of assistance “to help save and sustain lives, minimize suffering, and protect property in a timely and effective manner in communities that become overwhelmed by disasters.” Other agencies, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), can be deployed to facilitate different duties related to a disaster, including providing other forms of on-the-ground response support for states and communities and awarding post-disaster recovery funding that can supplement potential funds from FEMA.
  • State hazard mitigation program (State Hazard Mitigation Officer): State hazard mitigation programs, which are led by a state-designated Hazard Mitigation Officer or “SHMO,” are the lead state agency for coordinating disaster-related activities, including the approval of hazard mitigation plans and applications for pre- and post-disaster funding. Much of this funding comes from Federal programs but is administered by the state (or in some cases, such as HUD’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery program, by municipalities). 
  • Local governments: With the support of the federal and state government, local governments are often making on the ground decisions in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Local governments are much closer to the public and to the issues frontline communities face when climate disasters occur. They also have a better sense of the community leaders who should be involved in the development of disaster preparedness, response, or recovery plans that are tailored to the local community’s circumstances and immediate needs. State and federal programs are often focused on longer-term, more comprehensive projects.
  • Local businesses: Climate-related disaster events can substantially reduce economic activity and when local businesses are shut down or suffering due to a disaster, it is harder for a community to recover. Additionally, local business owners are often community leaders who can have a significant impact on how the community responds to disasters because they are known and trusted within the community and are more likely to know exactly what those experiencing the disaster first-hand need. As a result, it is crucial to involve local business owners in the planning process for a disaster preparedness, recovery, or response program. Local businesses may also represent a private funding resource for disaster preparedness or response and recovery projects. Another angle is that investment in disaster preparation and response can be directed to community businesses, which can strengthen them. Ultimately, local community leads, specifically business leaders, can be critical in creating a “culture of resilience” at the community level.
  • Nonprofits and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): Nonprofits often represent a great source of funding and other support for communities looking to implement recovery or resilience/preparedness projects. Additionally, nonprofits can offer insight into the community and its needs. When disasters strike, local churches or other places of worship are among the first groups of people on the ground helping communities. And long after disaster relief agencies and organizations leave, these places of worship and other community groups often play a critical role in helping to address their community’s needs through food banks, emergency assistance associations, or providing meeting places. In addition to local nonprofits, national NGOs typically provide funding and technical support to address a social or political issue in a community. Policymakers can partner with nonprofits that focus on addressing and correcting historical inequities, help to fund disaster recovery or the development of disaster plans and provide other resources that are necessary to create equitable preparedness, response, and recovery plans.
  • Community-based organizations and community members: These are the groups and individuals on the ground who know the most about the specific problems each frontline community faces when a disaster hits. They will also be well-versed on what community members will need to prepare, respond, and recover from local disasters. In many instances, government agencies are not highly trusted in the communities where assistance is needed the most. Community-based organizations and community leaders can act as intermediaries between the community and the government, and ensure that transparency exists in the creation and implementation of any project or plan.

Policy Considerations and Tools

This chapter explores the following policy considerations and tools that cities are using to enhance disaster resilience and equity by engaging their communities and sharing control with community stakeholders in these decisionmaking processes:

  • Planning ToolsAs frontline communities are usually hardest hit by climate impacts, creating proactive disaster preparedness plans — with input from the community — can help mitigate at least some adverse consequences. The scale and scope of planning tools or resources can vary at the state or regional or community-specific levels. 
  • Equitable Opportunities for Relocation in Response to DisastersProactive planning for the potential outcome of displacement after a disaster can lead to more favorable and equitable outcomes for communities involved. Relocation initiatives can include government-funded buyouts, relocation assistance, and more. Regardless of what relocation tool is used, those implementing the program must collaborate directly with community members and ensure transparency and public engagement throughout the process. 
  • Supporting the Development of Resilience Hubs Clean-energy powered “Resilience Hubs” with battery storage can provide critical emergency response services in areas with higher socioeconomic risk, while also providing broader grid modernization benefits. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) defines resilience hubs as “community-serving facilities augmented to support residents and coordinate resource distribution and services before, during, or after a natural hazard event” and has stated that they are designed to “reduce the burden on local emergency response teams, improve access to emergency services, foster greater community cohesion, and increase the effectiveness of community-centered institutions and programs.”See footnote 5
  • Equitable Disaster Recovery ToolsResponse, recovery, and rebuilding efforts centered on frontline communities after climate-accelerated disasters. When there is a climate disaster, equitable disaster recovery tools support climate-vulnerable communities to rebuild around the visions and needs of the most severely affected, while increasing agency and governance so that they can be better positioned than they were before the disaster. 
  • Funding Tools: Sustainable Sources and Increased AccessThe tools outlined above require funding for their development and implementation. Funding can come from many sources, including federal grants, state and local investments, private and nonprofit programs, and more. Additionally, other programs exist that can help individuals financially prepare for disaster events so that they are better situated to recover quickly after an event occurs.



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