Bring vulnerable groups into disaster planning

January 10, 2014
Stephanie Harrington
Emily Kydd studied how vulnerable groups in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside would cope during a disaster. Credit: yaokcool, Flickr, Creative Commons license.

Emily Kydd wants women living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to be safe.

The city’s oldest neighbourhood is well-known for crime and poverty. Kydd, who worked at the Salvation Army Vancouver Harbour Light detoxification centre, knows the Downtown Eastside better than most.

It was while working there the Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management alumna decided to study how one of the neighbourhood’s most disadvantaged groups, aboriginal women, would cope during a disaster.

“I had been working for a year and a half with a very vulnerable neighbourhood sitting right in front of me,” Kydd says. "I wanted to look at how to keep people safe after a disaster.”

Kydd recently presented her paper, Social Vulnerability of Aboriginal Women: The Situation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, at the British Columbia Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity Conference in Vancouver. Her research painted a stark picture: most of the 32 aboriginal women who took part in the study relied heavily on social service organizations for food, clothing and medical services, with many using these services weekly.

Some 40 per cent of the women surveyed said health issues such as mental illness, disabilities and disease affected their lives daily. And 25 per cent said they did not feel completely safe in their homes, while nine per cent did not feel safe at all.

“Most of these women are extremely low income,” Kydd says. “Most are just surviving off social welfare or illegal income, maybe trafficking or prostitution. They do not have a 72 hour emergency kit. They’re definitely not going to hoard canned food and water in their homes.”

Yet Kydd also found that the women were resilient. If they needed help, many turned to their neighbours and friends in the Downtown Eastside.

“There’s a lot more capacity in the Downtown Eastside, especially among aboriginal women, than people give it credit for,” she says. “If you don’t know it, you think of a disenfranchised, marginalized area filled with people who do drugs and that’s not true. Many people are doing the best they can to make a life for themselves.”

Kydd says an inclusive, bottom-up approach to disaster planning is critical to avoid crises such as Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005, which turned a natural disaster into a social one.

“The Downtown Eastside isn’t this burden Vancouver has to bear,” Kydd says. “It’s bringing these people into the mix and including them in disaster planning instead of planning for them that’s important.”

Associate Professor Robin Cox, from RRU’s School of Humanitarian Studies, says Kydd’s research highlighted an important issue for the emergency management community.

“Her findings clearly demonstrate how a lack of engagement is heightening disaster risks in that already vulnerable community. At the same time, her findings underscore the real potential for capacity building and risk reduction that could occur,” Cox says.

“The women in Emily's study have much to teach us about resilience, community building, and compassion and Emily has done a commendable job with an important and meaningful research project.”

Kydd, who joins the Peace Corp in April on a two-year contract in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, says Royal Roads gave her the chance to focus on an issue that mattered to her.

“Every person in my class took a different direction when it came to their major research project,” she says. “I was really glad to have the freedom to dedicate an entire year of my study to look at this issue.”