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Reframing Disasters: Decreasing Natural Hazard Risks through Vulnerability Reduction Efforts

Monday, October 5, 2020

By Alan Kwok, Director of Disaster Resilience at Philanthropy California

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use this moment of focused attention and commitment to social justice and invest in communities hit hardest by the triple crises of racism, COVID-19, and California's wildfires. In conjunction with the governor's office, philanthropy's nimble capital can prevent nature's hazards from becoming human disasters. 


Natural Hazards vs. Human Disasters

Wildfires, viruses, and other natural hazards do not cause disasters. Natural hazards have long been here. We – individuals, organizations, governments – have made decisions that put specific communities in vulnerable conditions where they cannot adequately prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural hazards. For instance, COVID-19 is a natural hazard but the socio-economic and public health crises that followed are a disaster created by decision-makers long before the pandemic. Decades of under-investment in communities of color in health, housing, educational, and workforce access have created the conditions that make Black and Brown folks more susceptible to contracting, spreading, and suffering from the disease. 

The U.S. philanthropic sector spends two-thirds of its total disaster grantmaking to support disaster relief. Currently, significant charitable dollars are going to emergency relief for COVID-19 and wildfire relief. However, investing solely in disaster relief preserves power in the hands of the funder. Disaster relief doesn't address or resolve the root causes of vulnerability, such as racial, gender, and economic inequities. Disaster relief generally reinforces the imbalances that preserve wealth in the hands of people with the most significant protection from harm and leaves communities of color to cope with disaster without proper resources. Philanthropy can do better. Even as we rise to meet these immediate challenges, we must shift our funding to center people closest to the harm to prevent wildfires and other natural hazards from becoming disasters.


Rethinking Disaster Investments

Natural hazards in California will continue for years to come. As a sector, our role in tackling vulnerabilities and hazards-induced racial inequities requires us to rethink how we invest in climate change and disasters. We must increase our investments upstream – before a disaster – through vulnerability reduction efforts and reducing natural hazard risks.  

Building power to advance economic justice 

Our existing economic policies are stacked against people of color. Decades of divestments in communities of color mean zip codes determine the ability to attain financial security. Turning policies around that truly advance economic justice requires philanthropic support to build community power. Power building is about shifting influence and resources to those who are most at risk of natural and other types of hazards. It is about ensuring decisions that impact communities have their best interest. It is about making governments accountable to them. People of color need to be at the decision-making table and have connections to those with power. Research shows that building community power leads to long-term policy and structural changes that are accountable to the communities most at risk of and affected by any hazards, whether it is a financial downturn or a wildfire. Every foundation can build community power through supporting advocacy efforts and building the capacity of POC-led organizations.

Reducing natural hazard risks

Wildfires have affected over two dozens of counties and millions of people across the state. Philanthropy California and our partners at the Moore Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Resources Legacy Fund, Vibrant Planet, and Smart Growth California recently hosted the Building Wildfire Resilience series of programs to educate funders building wildfire resiliency in the West. The programs identified several key investment streams: 

  • Building diverse state- and federal-level coalitions for a policy change that centers on prescribed fire, tribal leadership, land use planning for WUI (wildland-urban interface) community resilience, and wildfire prevention funding.
  • Advancing technological solutions through early fire detection, evacuation planning, alert systems, real-time air quality monitoring, smart grid, etc.
  • Ensuring land use planning and building retrofits support reduces wildfire threats to existing communities and directs development pressure toward less risky environments. 
  • Implementing solutions to address long-standing social inequities, including vulnerabilities to wildfire smoke, access to health care, access to home hardening resources, access to community-based electricity, and more.
  • Harnessing market mechanisms in building wildfire resilience such as forest restoration bonds and opportunities to influence the insurance industry so that wildfire risks are pre-written into development costs.
  • Creating workforce and economic transition opportunities for job creation that pay well and that are sustainable. 


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