Rural communities are not monolithic. Each has its own strengths and unique qualities that add to its rural character that make it a desirable place to live. Each also has its own challenges to overcome. Similarly, natural disasters come in different types and sizes. While some types tend to occur regionally, like wildfires in the west, floods can occur anywhere. Natural disasters can cause damage to communities’ infrastructure and even community members’ mental health.
Rural communities often confront disasters with limited resources, expertise, and capacity. They may have little ability to prepare formally for natural disasters and lack sufficient affordable housing inventory or basic infrastructure to recover. Many rural areas are resilient in spirit and local effort, but focusing on this resilience can overlook the persistent disaster needs of these communities.
Rural areas also have unique economic challenges in the face of disasters. A higher incidence of persistent poverty in rural areas manifests as a higher incidence of manufactured homes, concentrating the problems that come along with them. After a disaster, these homes are more likely to be damaged and not salvageable, putting vulnerable populations at risk. Low-income owners may not have access to their titles or registration and might have trouble proving residence in a disaster-declared area.
Researchers note that the fiscal health of a town or region is often a good indicator of how impactful a disaster will be on the local economy and how quickly the community will recover. For rural towns who often lack the resources of their urban counterparts, this is an indicator of their increased need for disaster preparedness and support during recovery. For example, small family farms tend to be less financially secure before and suffer higher financial losses after a natural disaster. This is due to an inability to afford costly crop insurance payments and the imbalanced distribution of crop subsidies following a disaster.
Natural disasters are also more detrimental to rural households’ food access. Floods, droughts, and other natural disasters have a significant impact on the food security of rural communities by limiting the among of safe, healthy food available to already food-insecure rural households. Disasters also disrupt the supply chain of rural farmworkers, creating food insecurities in other parts of the country that depend on rural farmworkers for produce.
Conversely, while disasters can pose a challenge to rural food access and security, rural communities also can be uniquely situated for providing food to other communities experiencing a natural disaster. When the president issues a major disaster declaration, the USDA mobilizes a national network of organizations including the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that can distribute the foodstuffs produced by rural businesses and farmworkers.