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Disaster management: Looking through different filters 

Truly committing to equity and inclusivity means providing disaster managers with the flexibility to behave in ways that are respectful of cultural differences across geographical settings, says Nnenia Campbell in a paper first published in Natural Hazards Observer 


Lyons, Colorado, two months after the flood, taken along the newly-reopened US-36 on November 16, 2013 (Kent Kanouse)

For decades, disaster researchers have attempted to call attention to the problematic outcomes of disaster response organisations’ tendency to discount local expertise, culture, and capacity in the interest of efficiency and standardization (Quarantelli 1988, Dynes 1994; Drabek and McEntire 2003; Schneider 1992; Takeda and Helms 2006). These outside groups are tasked with restoring order in communities whose basic functions have been paralysed by crisis, and there is generally some truth to their assumptions of local paralysis. Most scholars agree that a defining characteristic of disasters is the disruption of a community’s essential functions (Fritz 1961; Alexander 2005; Perry 2007). People’s daily lives cease to operate normally because the systems that support them have been overwhelmed by the event.

Yet, in an effort to restore a sense of normality, outside disaster response groups often take over entirely, despite knowing little about the local setting.

This command-and-control approach has created conflict in disaster-stricken communities, hindered the effectiveness of local disaster-relief activities, and introduced additional delays into the disaster-recovery process. Further, such practices have in some cases eroded local autonomy and suppressed officials’ ability to approach solutions in ways that are appropriate for their community’s needs.

The experience of several small mountain communities in Boulder County, Colorado, USA, following the 2013 flood disaster, provides an apt case study of how command and control policies have played out, and how organizational practices need to be adapted to reduce risk of secondary trauma and other unintended consequences that often harm communities in the aftermath of disaster. Residents in these mountain communities tend to maintain values of self-reliance, autonomy, and shared identity to a far greater extent than those in nearby urban environments. The unforgiving landscapes tend to attract people who seek to embody such values, as geographic isolation and omnipresent environmental hazards require residents to be resilient. For example, dizzyingly winding roads become treacherous in icy winter conditions, so mountain communities cannot depend on the conveniences of the flatlands. Wildfire threats require further vigilance and readiness. In fact, actual wildfires in the region have caused devastating destruction that has lingered in the collective memory. Yet this remote environment has held a certain appeal for people looking to escape the crowds and consumerism of the cities. Over time, residents of these isolated communities have developed a sense of strength and resolve.

This work has been informed by a variety of data sources. These include in-depth interviews with 40 residents and 30 community stakeholders and analysis of more than 100 documentary sources conducted as part of a separate research project (1). In seeking to specifically focus in on the ways in which cultural dynamics shaped locals’ interactions with outside agencies in the aftermath of the 2013 floods, I collaborated with a community representative to gather insights from 13 individuals in the western mountains of Boulder County. These stakeholders responded to the floods in a variety of different capacities. They ranged from emergency management personnel to representatives of local and national non-profit organisations, government officials, and recovery workers in addition to residents themselves. (2) While the experiences detailed below highlight issues unique to the cultural landscape of this region, the lessons drawn from them provide a useful lens to help us better understand issues that hamper disaster recovery across geographies and events.

Collaborating with outsiders: The role of culture in flood recovery

During the 2013 floods, mountain areas suffered massive infrastructure loss and were largely overwhelmed by the disaster’s severity and scale. The towns of Jamestown and Lyons (3) required near-total evacuation because their water systems were crippled. Washed-out roadways completely cut off some areas from external access. Given the magnitude of destruction, many in the mountain communities were grateful for assistance from large national organizations. For instance, Team Rubicon, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and other technical assistance organisations were among the first to bring support through fearlessly mucking out drowned homes and floodways. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross helped provide crucial assistance in Lyons by feeding residents, responders and volunteers. These and other non-profit groups provided badly needed resources.


Aftermath of flooding in Lyons, Colorado (Ed Ogle)

In the first few months, financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) served as a critical lifeline for displaced residents, many of who had been forced to leave abruptly with limited financial resources.

However, this assistance also created challenges and, in some cases, entirely new problems. Locals’ concerns became particularly pronounced as the immediate emergency phase transitioned into recovery. As I describe further below, ‘culture clash’ between locals and outsiders shaped the ways in which recovery-related challenges played out.

In the following section I describe difficulties that mountain residents experienced with navigating disaster assistance programmes. I then discuss the community-level effects of restrictions on local autonomy imposed by complex and inflexible bureaucratic systems. Finally, I provide recommendations for introducing greater cultural responsiveness and inclusivity into emergency management practice.

Residents’ Struggles with Disaster Assistance Programmes

For many residents along Colorado’s Front Range in 2013, the very act of pursuing government assistance was difficult to reconcile with values of self-sufficiency. Madeline, a county flood recovery worker and mountain resident, reflected: “It was hard to convince mountain people to apply for [FEMA’s] Individual Assistance Programme. They always say other people are worse off and they don’t want to be on the dole.” Moreover, the ways in which federal disaster assistance programmes characterised those seeking aid further conflicted with these values and reinforced negative associations among applicants. Jack, a canyon community leader, summarised how he saw residents respond to these labels: “You get a higher vulnerability score [for FEMA fund eligibility] if you are elderly and frail, but elders here, out wielding axes, chainsaws and backhoes, would be insulted to be in that category.”

Despite the fact that older adults and others in the mountains nonetheless did often experience the challenges that such designations were intended to address, the assumptions of feebleness and dependence described above discouraged them from seeking help.

Federal assistance programmes also conflicted with values of privacy and isolation. Many residents had chosen to live in remote locations specifically to avoid interactions with what they viewed as intrusive and untrustworthy government overreach. Thus, detailed aid applications felt deeply invasive to them. Responding to repetitive requests for information and documentation made these tasks more painful and onerous.(4) Helen, a flood- recovery worker and long-time resident of an unincorporated Boulder County mountain community, observed: “The biggest load of FEMA money is coming in now...people who desperately need it aren’t applying. They often don’t respond when case managers call for one more piece of documentation. They are just frazzled.” Although need for these funds was great and some faced financial ruin without them, a number of residents were simply too overwhelmed to continue with the process, leaving them even more vulnerable to future shocks. For these reasons and others, the flood relief bureaucracy has been referred to locally as “the disaster after the disaster,” or a secondary source of trauma.

These experiences were not universal. It must be noted that some residents were satisfied with the help they received and experienced little distress as a result of these interactions. Yet these challenges are in many ways consistent with those reported in other disaster-affected communities in which residents struggled under the weight of poorly designed disaster relief systems (Adams 2013). Although local culture shaped residents’ responses to these experiences, it is equally important to highlight how bureaucratic processes associated with disaster assistance can produce individual and collective trauma across diverse settings.

Command-and-control clashes with (local) culture

Concerns about inequities in decision-making power, lack of inclusion, and the discounting of local knowledge often emerge in the context of disaster recovery. Berke and Campanella (2006:200) have observed that pre-disaster recovery planning activities that fail to seek local involvement result in plans that: “May be inconsistent with local values, needs, and customs,” thereby igniting local opposition. Recovery planning in post-disaster environments raises similar issues. Sensationalised media representations characterised Colorado’s disaster-stricken communities as broken entities waiting for outside experts to “save” them. Depictions such as these can burden recovery efforts by leading outsiders to assume that locals are inept and incapable (Kato, and Passidomo 2015). Federal agencies have attempted to alleviate concerns about local involvement by incorporating requirements for stakeholder engagement into programmes and protocols. For example, in a philosophical acknowledgement of these issues, FEMA has integrated the empowerment of local action in disaster management into its “whole community” approach (FEMA 2011).

Despite policies intended to ensure local involvement in decision-making, elected officials and informal leaders in Boulder County’s small mountain communities saw many of the same problems that have emerged in other disasters. Outsiders imposed pre-established models that created new tears in the social fabric. For instance, an official in Lyons described how his town was forced to adopt a new governance structure as prescribed in FEMA’s local action plan model, despite the fact that the town already had a similar structure with expert committees in place. This requirement created a confusing, awkward duplication of efforts that caused tensions between locals who populated both networks. Federal and state policies that seemed to discount local skills and knowledge also contributed to secondary trauma in communities which had, for generations, prided themselves on being self-reliant, resourceful, and resilient. Being forced to depend on external assistance owing to the widespread destruction, further reinforced concerns about bureaucratic constraints and a loss of local autonomy.

In some cases, non-profit groups took a similarly inflexible approach. For example, some organisations ignored community leaders’ requests that they utilise local ‘cultural brokers’ to assist with their efforts. Rather than drawing on local expertise to design their outreach efforts and service offerings in ways that were sensitive to residents’ needs, some took a one size fits all approach. In one such situation, a non-profit agency’s door-knocking campaign, which was intended to deliver mental health services, triggered distrust and harmed its reputation in ways that discouraged residents from utilising this assistance.


Colorado National Guardsmen assist Boulder County authorities transport evacuated residents of Lyons on September 13, 2013, using Light Medium Tactical Vehicles. The LMTVs are capable of transporting approximately 16 passengers with luggage and can navigate through rubble and flooded areas that cannot be reached by rescue personnel. (Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida)

Residents also found certain post-flood economic policies counterproductive. For instance, town administrators expressed frustration with policies that restricted them from directly hiring local flood recovery staff. Mandates in the Stafford Act of 1988 require that post-disaster recovery contracts give preference to local, small, and minority-owned businesses, and myriad research reports underscore the need for such hiring practices (Holzer and Lerman 2006; Nelson, Ehrenfeucht, and Laska 2007; Browne 2015). Yet community leaders reported that they were prohibited from those very pursuits. An elected official from Lyons explained that while the town’s leadership had pushed to hire local workers who were attuned and responsive to community members’ concerns, the state’s top-down policies prohibited them from hiring candidates who would be well versed in these matters. Instead, state officials working out of south Denver, a sprawling metropolis 50 miles away that was even farther removed from a cultural perspective, took control of hiring flood managers for this and other towns without local input. Practices such as these eroded residents’ confidence that their needs would be properly understood and addressed.

Another challenge many community residents faced was that representatives from federal, state, and national non-profit agencies failed to assess needs or existing resources before determining how to respond to the floods. As a result, the service models that outsiders brought in were sometimes redundant, inefficient, or simply inappropriate for the local environment. These oversights were concerning because Boulder County’s mountain communities collectively possessed a high degree of skill and technical expertise, particularly in light of prior experience with other disasters. In some cases, employees of national organisations came to recognise the incompatibility between institutional protocol and local needs or abilities, but they were still unable to modify their unwieldy bureaucratic systems.

A representative of an international non-profit agency recalled: “During the flood, my organisation brought in experts from other parts of the country who were instantly in command and very pushy. They didn’t know the local capacity and didn’t even ask for situational awareness from the local reps in our own organisation who knew the mountain topography and people.”

Toward culturally responsive disaster-management

When asked for their perspectives on how to address the challenges resulting from their collaboration with outside organisations, some members of mountain communities emphasised the need for dedicated personnel who could, over the course of at least a couple of years, work with local leaders. They cited instances in which they could reliably access a known point of contact as successful connections. The process of building rapport with an accountable individual was more in line with local values and created space for creative problem solving, thereby producing better outcomes. Liz, a mountain community leader, summarised this perspective as follows: “The large organisations always say ‘it’s always about money.’ It’s not always about money. In large part it’s about relationships. That’s free!”

Community representatives emphasised that being able to develop relationships with individuals, as opposed to interactions with organisational roles, fostered solutions to challenges that extended beyond financial transactions.

Expanding the scope beyond Boulder County’s mountain communities, the perspectives shared here speak to a broader need for culturally responsive disaster management practices. Although matters of cultural sensitivity are frequently discussed in the international human-assistance arena, they receive far less attention domestically within the United States (Anderson, Brown, and Jean 2012; Turner 2015). Yet, as sociologists admonish: “culture is everywhere,” (Vaisey 2008). It is embedded in social relations, shared histories, mores, and beliefs. Thus, there is little reason to expect that rigid systems will translate successfully from one community to the next, even with the same region. Truly committing to equity and inclusivity means providing disaster managers with the flexibility to behave in ways that are respectful of cultural differences across geographical settings.

Although matters of cultural sensitivity are frequently discussed in the international human-assistance arena, they receive far less attention domestically within the United States

Taking an inclusive stance in disaster relief and recovery work requires that organisational representatives seek to understand and be respectful of local culture rather than assuming that a standardised set of practices will automatically suit a community. This more conscientious approach means identifying cultural brokers, engaging diverse stakeholders, and inquiring about needs and capacities. Rather than seeking to “impose order,” organisations should emphasise the development of relationships and collaboration with locals to find creative solutions. This would help to ensure that when agency representatives leave, instead of having exacerbated trauma and disruption, they will have supported behavioural health among residents and truly facilitated community recovery.


  • Adams, Vincanne. 2013. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina, Durham and London: Duke University Press Books;
  • Alexander, David. 2005. An Interpretation of Disaster In Terms of Changes In Culture, Society, and International Relations. Pp. 25-38 in Ronald W. Perry and E.L. Quarantelli (eds.) What Is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris;
  • Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Isabella Jean. 2012. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects;
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(1) In order to preserve anonymity, respondents were given pseudonyms. 

(2) It is important to note that there is significant variation between these communities, including differences in infrastructure, governance, social networks, and subcultures. For example, some are statutory towns and thus have more-or-less formal government structures, including a capacity for collective representation, internal cohesion, and local infrastructure. However, others are unincorporated. Thus, lacking jurisdictional linkages to municipalities, residents in these areas pursue collective organization dynamically through local leaders as needs emerge. In this article I focus primarily on the experiences of communities that are historical towns, regardless of legal status. 

(3) While Lyons proper is not located in the mountains, this small community, known by its nickname as the “Gateway to the Rockies,” was among the heaviest-hit by the 2013 floods. The town’s leadership had been an integral part of mountain community emergency planning and networking activities prior to this disaster. 

(4) In some instances, information had to be provided to multiple organizations that could not share client data. However, in other cases, representatives from the same agency would request information repeatedly due to lost paperwork or incomplete files. 

About the Author 

Nnenia Campbell is a research associate at the Natural Hazards Center.  She holds BA and MA degrees in sociology from the University of Central Florida, and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research interests centre on the social elements of disasters, particularly social capital, advanced age, and the intersection of vulnerability and resilience.

Campbell’s dissertation research focused on disaster impacts and recovery among community-dwelling older adults. Using in-depth, qualitative interviews with elders affected by the 2013 Colorado floods and representatives of senior-serving organisations, her work explored the role of social capital, community context, and organizational capacity in shaping disaster outcomes in later stages of the life course. This article was first printed in Natural Hazards Observer, published by the Natural Hazards Center, Colorado, USA. Sign up here to receive the Natural Hazards Observer

Thumbnail picture: Soldiers and airmen with the Colorado National Guard respond to floods in Boulder County, Colorado, on September 12, 2013. The Colorado National Guard was activated to provide assistance to people affected by massive flooding along Colorado's Front Range (US Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida) 

Nnenia Campbell, 16/08/2016
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