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Vulnerabilities before, during, and after emergencies are firmly rooted in established structural and systemic barriers. Because emergencies create an environment in which material and physical resources are stretched thin, crisis exacerbates the damaging effects of these preexisting factors. Those that need the most help, the most vulnerable, are often the ones who fall through gaps in access to information, services, and resources.

The Vulnerable Populations Steering Committee defines a vulnerable population as:

Any individual, group, or community whose circumstances present barriers to obtaining or understanding information, and/or to access and use the resources offered before, during and after a disaster event. Circumstances that may present barriers include, but are not limited to age; physical, mental, emotional, or cognitive status; culture; ethnicity; religion; language; citizenship; location; or socioeconomic status.

The following are population segments identified by Public Health – Seattle & King County, and adopted by the VP Steering Committee to be disproportionately at-risk in an emergency:

  • Blind: range includes: low vision, night blindness, color blindness, impaired depth perception, etc.

  • Clients of Criminal Justice System: ex-convicts, parolees, people under house arrest, registered sex offenders

  • Chemically Dependent: includes substance abusers, other who would experience withdrawal, sickness or other symptoms due to lack of access—i.e., methadone users

  • Children: anyone below age of majority separated from parents/guardians—child care, Head Start, before/after-school programs, latch-key kids, those in school, foster care, truancy, juvenile justice system 

  • Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Hard of Hearing: latent deaf, situational loss of hearing, limited-range hearing 

  • Developmentally Disabled: unable to safely survive independently, attend to personal care, etc.

  • Homeless and Shelter Dependent: includes persons in shelters, on the streets or temporarily housed -- transitional, safe houses for women and minors.
    Disaster Planning for People Experiencing Homelessness

  • Immigrant Communities: persons who may have difficulty accessing information or services because of cultural differences

  • Impoverished: person with extremely low income, without resources or political voice, limited access to services, limited ability to address own needs Emerging or Transient Special Needs: needs/conditions due to emergency, temporary conditions—i.e., loss of glasses, broken leg, tourists/visitors needing care

  • Limited English or Non-English Proficient: includes persons with limited ability to speak, read, write or fully understand English.
  • Medically Dependent, Medically Compromised: dependent on medications to sustain life or control conditions for quality of life -- i.e., diabetic; weakened immune systems, those who cannot be in/use public accommodations

  • Mentally Ill: serious and persistent illness; includes being a danger to themselves or others

  • Physically Disabled: full-time attendant care required for activities of daily living and/or instrumental activities of daily living

  • Seniors: frail elderly, people who have age-related limitations/needs, includes those in nursing home or assisted-living care or living alone and not connected socially or to service providers

  • Undocumented Persons: persons distrusting authorities, political dissidents and others who will not use government or other traditional service providers

Future work will include helpful emergency management tools and information specific to each of these populations as well as potentially updated definitions.

Social Vulnerability Index Maps:

What is Social Vulnerability?

Every community must prepare for and respond to hazardous events, whether a natural disaster like a tornado or a disease outbreak, or an anthropogenic event such as a harmful chemical spill. The degree to which a community exhibits certain social conditions, including its poverty, car ownership, or number of persons in households, may affect that community's ability to prevent human suffering and financial loss in the event of disaster. These factors describe a community's social vulnerability.

How can the SVI help communities be better prepared for hazardous events?

The SVI provides specific socially and spatially relevant information to help public health officials and local planners better prepare communities to respond to emergency events such as severe weather, floods, disease outbreaks, or chemical exposure.

The Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) helps state, local, and federal planning officials identify the locations of their most vulnerable populations. This work builds on research that examines vulnerability as a social condition, or a measure of the resilience of population groups when confronted by disaster. The SVI includes sociodemographic attributes, such as age, race, and economic status, to identify the relative social vulnerability of populations to the effects of natural or anthropogenic disasters.