Natural Disasters and Rurality: Challenges and What Can Be Done

Guest post by Jori Hamilton

Living in a rural area has its fair share of benefits. The wide expanses of land, fresh and clean air, and lack of crowds are just some of the allures. However, when natural disasters occur, living in rurality can be very cumbersome. As the consequences of climate change and global warming make themselves known, there has been a massive increase in natural disasters. For those living in rural areas, this poses a serious problem. 

Challenges Faced by Rural Communities 

Consider this study by UCF’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Management that explores how rural communities deal with natural disasters. The study looks at how rural communities across 11 counties in Central Florida cope with all aspects of disaster management, from preparing for a disaster to responding to and recovering from one. According to Naim Kapucu, the study lead and director of the center and associate professor of public administration, “Rural communities face unique challenges in dealing with disasters. They’re spread out and not heavily populated, making communication more difficult. They also tend to have limited resources.”


While resource limitations tend to be one of the major problems rural communities face when dealing with a natural disaster, there are other challenges that need to be taken into account, too. For instance, rural areas are often more remote and are far from ideally located in terms of geography. This results in limited access to local, state, and federal services like specialty healthcare and other social services. 


Unreliable transportation and long commutes make getting such services even more difficult. Unfortunately, during and after a natural disaster, quick access to healthcare facilities can be the difference between life and death. While rural public health departments do exist, they often face their own financial constraints. Thus, as a result, the Rural Health Information (RHI) Hub explains that, “Rural local public health departments and hospitals may lack the capabilities to respond adequately to emergencies, leaving communities vulnerable.” 


Similarly, rural communities have little access to social support services. Statistics show that there are about 650,000 social workers in the United States. However, 80% of these are located in cities, leaving those in non-urban areas completely uncovered in terms of social support. In fact, rural communities have 140% more health professional shortage areas than urban cities. These figures are shocking even in terms of everyday scenarios; so when faced with a natural disaster, one can only imagine the myriad of difficulties rural communities face. 

What Can Be Done

Sharon Anarde — vice president of Rural LISC, a national community development financial institution — is a strong advocate for the correction of this disparity between rural and urban emergency management. In her article on Shelterforce, Anarde argues that, “federal recovery grants and loans—from FEMA, the Small Business Administration (SBA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program (USDA RD), the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program (CBDG-DR), and others—need to come with resources to augment rural communities’ readiness to apply for and deploy those dollars on the ground.” 


Grants and loans alone are not enough to help those in rurality deal with a natural disaster, especially after the fact. Material resources, social support, and guidance from relevant professionals are all necessary to supplement monetary aid, and allow these funds to make the maximum possible impact. 


Anarde and Rural LISC have tons of experience in responding to natural disasters in rural communities. Based on this, recommendations to prepare for a natural disaster specific to rural communities include: 


  • Establishing low-interest revolving loan funds: Establishing these sorts of loan options act as a dedicated resource for residents in rural counties. There are many different kinds of loans that are viable options for those looking to rebuild their homes after a natural disaster. Additionally, rural communities can work together to access funds from federal resources like HUD’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program, CDBG, USDA Housing Preservation Grants. In this way, when a natural disaster hits, individuals in rural communities will have enough local resources to turn to when it comes to recuperation efforts.  
  • Building relationships: According to Anarde, one of the most important things rural communities can do to prepare for disasters is to build relationships with local and national disaster partners. She states, “Being tied into the right people, who will then include you at the table from the beginning, is one of the most important preparation steps any community can take to avoid being left behind or caught unawares.”


Obviously, general disaster preparedness guidelines apply to rural communities too. From safe-zoning one’s home to having an emergency contingency plan, individuals in rural communities should stay abreast of general emergency management principles. However, it must be noted that beyond these general principles, rural communities need to go above and beyond to prepare for disasters, by undertaking steps such as the ones described above. 


Ultimately, rural communities do face a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dealing with a natural disaster. However, with specific preparation efforts as well as support from state and federal organizations, individuals in rural communities can significantly decrease their innate vulnerability.


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2 Responses to Natural Disasters and Rurality: Challenges and What Can Be Done

  1. Pingback: I Get By With a Little Help With My Friends: Recovering from a Disaster as a Community | The Preparedness Podcast

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