University of Delaware Disaster Research Center gets $16.5 million to study equity in disaster recovery

The University of Delaware campus in Newark.

File photo: The University of Delaware campus in Newark. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The National Science Foundation awarded $16.5 million to the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center for a five year project to study the challenges in disaster planning and recovery with a major focus on equity.

Researchers at the center are working to develop tools to better understand how people and agencies interact during catastrophes to enable coastal communications to stay resilient amid a changing climate.

Currently, 40% of the nation’s population live in coastal areas, according to the Office for Coastal Management of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s over 128 million people.

The coastal population continues to grow.

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Coastal regions are more diverse than non-coastal locations, according to the 2019 United  States Census. About 40% of Americans living in coastal areas are made up of the elderly, households where English is not the predominant language, and those living in poverty.

“Equity is a major focus of this grant,” said Sarah DeYoung, a core DRC faculty member and associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.

Low-income communities, communities of color, and the indigenous population are also more likely to experience natural hazard events.

Historic housing discrimination and redlining still exist in communites of color where some were forcefully placed in unsafe, flooding-prone, or other hazard-prone areas. With the housing affordability crisis, researchers like DeYoung say “people are running out of options for safe and affordable housing, and this is just going to become more severe if there aren’t some real solutions that are put forth.”

She said most disaster research is focused on monetary loss. Their research will focus on how to quantify other types of losses for those displaced by disasters.

There has also been more study done on the impacts faced by homeowners, and much less study on renters. She said renters are more at risk of being displaced and experiencing injustices like mold and dangerous living conditions.

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For example, renters were among the most harmed by flooding around 11th Street in Wilmington after the flooding caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Researchers hope to influence policy makers with their study, too. DeYoung said prioritizing wealthier areas in the recovery process because they are more likely to have many homes, while single homeowners and renters experience disastrous catastrophes as well, is unjust.

There needs to be more equity for socially vulnerable people who have less capacity to recover from disasters, said Shangjia Dong, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a core faculty member at DRC.

“For a wealthy family, a flooding…it’s probably less impactful because they might have all the food storage, they have generators,” Dong said. “But for a socially vulnerable neighborhood, they just have less resources.”

“We’re looking at the most marginalized people in communities that get exposed to hurricanes and the damage that hurricanes cause,” said DeYoung.

“The core focus of our research is being able to connect some of those variables with the economic prosperity that those communities might achieve or might not achieve, and why that changed through ordinances or failed mitigation or other plans that were cross-cutting across all of those areas,” she added.

While the DRC is focusing on equity in its research, they’re also working to ensure even the processes of recruiting graduate students is fair and equitable. In addition to what’s happening at UD, 11 other universities are collaborating in the research, including Eastern Carolina University, Cornell University, and Texas A&M University.

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