Rethinking the Unthinkable

Social science has helped to create the Social Vulnerability Index, which provides a new way to plan and respond to natural disasters.

RALEIGH — Think back to the last time a major natural disaster hit: a tornado slams into a small town, a major flood swamps a community, a hurricane strikes a coastal resort.

The images of devastation are broadcast on the evening news and streamed over news websites. You don’t have to watch for long to understand that when disaster strikes, everyone in the affected area will be touched in some way. It’s also clear that if the unthinkable happens everyone will need help.

But social scientists have created a way to rethink the unthinkable. It’s called the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). The idea behind the SVI is that while there may be communities that are the same physically, with the same elevation in a flood or the same exposure to the ocean in a storm, they have a different degree of disaster based on the makeup of the community.

“The most common example of this is income,” explains Alex Renaud, a Master’s student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who works with the SVI. “If you have a community of rich people they might have more resources and be better be able to deal with losses in an event. If there are more older folks, they might be more difficult to evacuate due to medical reasons; or if there is a high percentage of non-English speakers, they might not get all of the announcements related to recovery or preparation for the storm. All these factors change how a disaster affects a community.”

The SVI essentially refers to the social circumstances that place an individual or a group of people at heightened risk. Vulnerability is related to risk for loss, something that depends on social circumstances. Those social circumstances are determined by analyzing, interpreting and applying the mounds of data found in the U.S. Census, including income, age, education, and ethnicity.

Various forms of the SVI have been discussed for years. But it was Hurricane Katrina that began to change the focus from simply repairing buildings and addressing the physical impact of a storm to taking into account the people who are affected by an event and restoring the fabric of neighborhoods. That event began a shift in local governments to look at how best to allocate resources to restore the basic elements of food and shelter as well as social and cultural resources.

In North Carolina, that shift is most evident in coastal communities, which constantly face the hazards of hurricanes, storm surge and severe ocean storms. While no county or community has fully adopted the SVI, officials are studying how best to incorporate parts of the index into their planning.

Jessica Whitehead, Coastal Communities Adaptation Specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant, is working with communities across North Carolina to understand the SVI and learn to use it.

“It depends on the needs of the individual community," says Whitehead. “If you are a large urban area, you might want to figure out neighborhood by neighborhood, when a storm occurs, who has less access to evacuation, or fewer funds available to recover structures that have been damaged. It’s really a tool to decide how best to deploy your resources across the community.”

While it is easy to understand how a severe storm can be considered a hazard, the SVI can be applied to any issue in which a community sees itself as vulnerable.

“One of the trends we are seeing is that local governments are interested in mapping their local risk to anything they deem a hazard,” says Lisa Schiavinato, a specialist in law, policy and community development with North Carolina Sea Grant. “It doesn’t have to be limited to extreme weather, because there are concerns about sea level rise, and even droughts and heat waves. So they want to get localized information and develop local maps so they can use that information to make adjustments to land use plans and disaster plans."

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