Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Policies Need Critical Updates

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This is the second in a two-part series on federal and state disaster relief policies, written by OneAmerica Policy Intern Emily Nagler. Click here to read part one.

In a former blog post, I described injustices that community members have brought to the attention of OneAmerica; natural disasters continue to strike, and immigrants and refugees continue to be given different treatment than their neighbors. Recently, Public News Service echoed those concerns in a radio piece on how Washington's immigrant population is often left behind when disaster strikes. We have seen these problems through many different disasters and studies on disaster impacts. Since current structures exist to best serve English-speaking, white and middle-class communities, diverse communities face greater challenges surviving and recovering from disasters.

The most urgent and inequitable disaster policy issues that impact immigrant and refugee communities in Eastern and Central Washington that we’ve identified are:

  • Lack of inclusion in emergency planning
  • Language barriers
    • Lack of translated/low-literacy preparedness materials; failure to inform immigrants of their right to disaster aid
    • Lack of translated emergency alerts
    • Inadequate translated signage and inadequate interpretation services in places providing assistance
  • Lack of cultural competency by service providers
    • Failure to address fears of deportation and immigration status concerns
    • Discrimination, racial profiling and inappropriate questions about immigration status by service providers
  • Failure to acknowledge structural inequities and different social structures in diverse, rural communities.

As a result of climate change, Washington will likely suffer from longer, harsher wildfire seasons in the future. Demographic trends indicate that Eastern and Central Washington’s populations are growing and becoming increasingly linguistically and culturally diverse. Current emergency preparedness and disaster relief policies do not account for these future projections. However, some new initiatives at the local, city, county and state levels have been launched to specifically prepare for wildfires and address concerns of diverse communities in Washington State and throughout the US. We have looked to these models and successes to identify programs and legislation that can be replicated or expanded across Washington, and written a policy recommendation paper that legislators and local leaders must consider.

Our recommendations include:

  • Community asset mapping
  • Employing community outreach workers to actively inform immigrants of their rights and improve preparedness
  • Improving language access (translated preparedness materials, emergency alerts, and signage; more interpreters)
  • Inclusively developing comprehensive emergency plans
    • Enforcing mandates for accessible emergency plans in temporary worker housing
  • Improving cultural competence and relations between law enforcement, non-profits, and diverse communities (through feedback, allowing non-citizen LPRs to serve in all law enforcement roles, stress-free interactions, and community liaisons)
  • Ensuring that service providers do not request ID/documentation
  • Banning immigrant detention in the wake of disasters

We strongly urge our leaders and policy architects to thoughtfully implement these recommendations. They must broaden their mindsets beyond an English-only norm, tear down structural hurdles, and make deliberate decisions to protect all residents of Washington State. By failing to serve the unique needs of immigrant and refugee communities, our government is inadvertently choosing to discriminate against a vital population. We recommend that policymakers urgently address these shortcomings, make meaningful investments in preparedness and service for all, and work toward equitable outcomes.

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