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Plan to help vulnerable Oregonians in disasters.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Kathy Lynn For The Register-Guard

The 2005 hurricane season has opened a window of opportunity for Oregon. We have a chance to build on lessons learned elsewhere to direct resources toward reducing future losses from disasters. We also have a chance to look critically at poverty and vulnerability in America, in Oregon and in our own communities.

Hurricane Katrina has highlighted the disproportionate impacts of natural disasters on the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the underserved. Poverty exacerbates vulnerability: The poor are more vulnerable to disaster, and are less able to prepare for it. People in poverty may lack the means to evacuate and may not have insurance to assist in recovery.

The expense of preparing for disasters - such as flood-proofing a home, changing a wood roof to something fire-resistant, or even attending a meeting on disaster preparedness - may be beyond the means of people struggling to meet their basic needs.

Poverty and disasters are global issues. From 1990 to 1998, according to the World Bank, 97 percent of deaths related to natural disasters occurred in developing countries. A report by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in 2004 showed an increase over the last three decades in the number of natural hazard events and an increase in the number of people affected. As the world population continues to grow and develop in areas exposed to natural hazards (such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires and earthquakes), so does the risk of potential loss of life, property and natural and cultural resources.

These problems may seem distant, yet the lesson of Katrina is simple: As the outpouring of support has shown, we palpably feel the human toll and share in the financial burden of severe disasters. And if we do not act and help those with the greatest need, then the cycle of poverty will continue. Fortunately, we can begin to break the cycle of poverty and vulnerability by building a safety net that is far better prepared for disaster.

Oregon has almost 400,000 people living below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of poor people live in rural areas. Northwest Environment Watch's 2005 Cascadia Scorecard indicated that in 2003, Oregon's child poverty rate exceeded 20 percent, and the state's unemployment rate was one of the highest in the nation. The potential for catastrophic disasters is significant in Oregon - floods, earthquakes, severe storms, wildfire and drought have resulted in fatalities, economic losses and environmental devastation over the past several decades. This means that Oregon has a responsibility to develop an integrated response to poverty and natural disasters.

Josephine County has shown that poverty and the risk of wildfire can be addressed simultaneously. The county has one of Oregon's highest levels of poverty, and more than half of the population lives in rural areas exposed to wildfire risk. After the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which burned more than 500,000 acres and cost more than $150 million, the county developed a fire plan to address emergency management, hazardous fuels reduction and education.

Through this planning effort, public agencies worked hand-in-hand with community and social service organizations to develop evacuation plans and education programs specifically designed for residents with special needs. The county is also administering a grant to help low-income, elderly and disabled citizens make their homes safe from fire. In responding to lessons learned from a disaster three years ago, Josephine County has been working to reduce risk among its own citizens with special needs.

Many communities in Oregon have identified their risk to natural hazards and taken significant steps to plan for disasters through emergency management and hazard mitigation plans. However, we must remember that underserved populations may be at greater risk to disasters because of poverty, disability or geographic isolation. It is critical that policies for emergency management, disaster preparedness, and community protection address the needs of the underserved.

The window of opportunity is open to learn from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but it won't stay open forever. While we react intensely to such events, we quickly forget the deeper lessons if we do not set a long-term course of action right away. And we all have an opportunity to be proactive in working in our communities to identify and assist the people who may have the greatest need during a disaster.

Kathy Lynn is associate director of Resource Innovations, a program within the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon that is focused on helping rural and low-income communities become resilient to wildfire and other disasters. For more information, visit
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 4, 2005
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