HBCUs Should Lead the Way in Disaster Preparedness in Their Communities

Goulda Downer, an associate professor in the College of Medicine at Howard University in Washington D.C., is an expert in emergency management. She holds both master’s and doctoral degrees from Howard University and did postdoctoral research at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In the following commentary, Dr. Downer urges HBCUs to take the lead in preparing disaster plans for their communities which often are in harm’s way.

Most of the nation’s 104 historically Black colleges and universities are in southern states, and many of the HBCUs in these states are located in, or close to, poor-resourced communities with high housing density. These locations are prone to intense flooding, hurricanes, drought, and other natural disasters, like COVID-19. They are often adjacent to railway tracks, municipal sewer systems, power plants, and other less than desirable sites, all of which expose residents to a wide range of serious health risks. Additionally, certain environmental factors that prevail in these communities, for example, overcrowded living quarters, food deserts, or substandard housing, can constrain residents’ ability to practice effective prevention behaviors and increase their risk during public health crises, such as COVID-19.

Measures to flatten the COVID-19 curve by adhering to safe practices – including hand hygiene and using masks in public spaces – are proving to be effective. So are social distancing and physical isolation. However, as noted earlier, the undesirable milieu of most HBCUs place residents, particularly those in the “vulnerable” category, at heightened risk. In addition, it has been acknowledged that it is difficult to practice social distancing and physical isolation in poorer communities.

The National Preparedness Goal (NPG) outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is intended to engage and encourage all sectors of a community to be prepared for all types of disasters and emergencies. The NPG’s purpose is to provide: “a secure and resilient nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risks.”

The planning framework to achieve the NPG is referred to as the “Whole Community Approach” (WCA). The WCA posits that complex and far-reaching threats and hazards require the engagement of individuals, families, communities, private and nonprofit sectors, faith-based organizations, and all levels of government. A National Preparedness System (the System) was designed to implement the WCA and to build, sustain, and deliver its core capacity. The objective of the System is to “facilitate an integrated, whole community, risk-informed, capabilities-based approach to preparedness.”

A team of scientists at Pennsylvania State’s Earth System Science Center predicts that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season – which started on June 1 and ends on November 30 – will be a record one. Earthquakes, floods and wildfires are always a threat, but this will be exacerbated by the combination of predicted second wave of COVID-19 and the 2020 hurricane season. The threat will be most impactful on communities of color that have historically fared worse than other communities during natural disasters and that, based on current trends, are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in terms of morbidity and mortality.

Much has been published about the COVID-19 disparity observed within communities of color. Preliminary findings from a Johns Hopkins University and American Community Survey indicate that currently, for 131 predominantly Black counties in the United States, the COVID-19 infection rate is 137.5/100 000 and the death rate is 6.3/100 000. The infection rate is more than three times that of predominantly White counties. The death rate is six times higher than in predominantly White counties. Since the science specific to COVID-19 transmission vectors and risk factors is still developing, for racial/ethnic minorities, the best defense against threats like the virus that affect them disproportionately, is to remain abreast of the latest scientific discoveries relative to the threat and adopt preventive behaviors accordingly.

As part of our preparation for disasters and public health threats, we must not only grapple with how our most vulnerable communities will be protected, but how to provide that protection in a culturally competent manner. Who will these communities trust to help sort fact from fiction? The HBCUs, with a community of educated volunteers, many of whom are adept at creating and consuming multiple types of media, are uniquely qualified to take on this task.

However, typically, HBCUs are either minimally involved (or not involved at all) in creating disaster-resilient campuses and communities. This represents a major gap in our nation’s ability to effectively respond to disasters and makes a sham of the intent of the National Preparedness Goal. The hazards and disaster workforce pipeline lack diversity. This situation could be mitigated by increasing the uptake of FEMA-led Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) at HBCUs.

CERT is a free, national program, that is designed to: (a) educate the public about disaster preparedness and the hazards that may impact their schools and communities; and (b) educate and train them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. CERT offers a consistent, nationwide approach to volunteer training and organization. CERT members also are encouraged to support emergency response agencies by taking a more active role in emergency preparedness projects in their communities. This allows professional first responders to focus on more complex tasks. The presence of CERT members in a community enhances overall community capacity at all levels to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

The HBCU Emergency Management Consortium was formed by committed professionals from Howard University, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2018. The purpose of the Consortium is to: (a) inform and educate HBCUs regarding the importance of having an emergency disaster management program on their campuses; (b) to help diversify the emergency management profession, and (c) to grow a culturally competent professional pipeline in emergency management.

Since the formation of the Consortium, other organizations, including FEMA, HBCUs located in the southern states, and the HBCU Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators have joined the collaborative. The Consortium’s efforts began with a nationwide needs assessment to which 27 percent of HBCUs responded over a three-month period. Of these, only two – Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Tennessee State University – reported having a CERT program on their campuses. The others were unaware of CERT. However, on learning of CERT, 92 percent expressed an interest in having the program on their campuses. The Consortium provided information necessary for the establishment of a CERT program and information regarding the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projected growth in the emergency management field.

In March 2020, the Consortium followed up on the initial survey to reassess the breath of CERT programs on the campuses of 104 HBCUs. Forty-nine HBCUs responded. Twenty-nine reported not having a CERT program. Twelve had programs that had been in existence from 1 to 12 years, with an average lifespan of 5 years. We believe the high rate of response to the March 2020 survey was due to the heightened awareness of HBCU leaders of their campuses’ vulnerabilities to disasters, and the resulting threat to their institutional viability.

Despite the nation’s “whole community” approach, and FEMA’s increased emphasis on diversity in its 2018-2022 strategic plan, difficulties still abound with respect to communities of color in the five areas of the National Goal: Prevention; Protection; Mitigation; Response; Recovery. HBCUs could play an important role in the achievement of these goals, and they can do so in a culturally competent manner. Disasters and emergencies usually result in rapid assignment and temporary deployment of staff who must meet multiple demands and work in marginal conditions and in unfamiliar settings. This makes cultural competence a challenge.

It is therefore important to increase our awareness of the importance of cultural competency before emergencies arise and ensure that this concept is integrated in all aspects of disaster prevention and response. Doing so will ensure that disaster preparedness and emergency management services do not consciously reflect prejudices and preconceptions that lead to biased policy and programming and inequitable outcomes. HBCUs with their decades of experience promoting the health and wellbeing of marginalized communities are well positioned to lead discussions on culturally responsive disaster prevention and relief in the time of natural disasters and/or public health crises. HBCUs offer a rich community with networks of leaders. They are often the gatekeepers and trusted voices in their communities. They can serve as the starting point from which information about NPG and “whole community” preparedness can flow. Consequently, the engagement of HBCUs as strategic partners to FEMA’s disaster programs is key to improving the nation’s responsiveness to disasters in diverse communities.

Natural disasters are expected to cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in the next decade. This presents both a financial, regional, and national security dilemma. Keeping the “whole community” prepared is more than a goal; it is a moral imperative. To be honest, resilience is not just about bouncing back; it is about being able to thrive in the long term.

Those HBCUs already taking important steps to safeguard their campuses should be applauded! COVID-19 is a wake-up call to all HBCUs to identify ways to sustain all vital campus activities, including emergency and disaster management. The cost of inaction will serve to erode the gains made during our lifetime.


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