Whether its statistical data or operational expertise, the U.S. Census Bureau can assist federal and local partners with emergency preparedness. Our data and services are more important to our nation than ever before – especially as images of tornadoes in the South and disastrous flooding in California, caused by record rains and snowfall, filled recent newscasts. And now, as the 2023 hurricane season quickly approaches, federal, state, and local officials will use our data and tools to help communities prepare, respond, and recover.
Disasters, environmental hazards, and climate change are increasingly important factors affecting the people and businesses across the nation. At the Census Bureau, we are working to provide the best information about the exposure, vulnerability and resilience of U.S. businesses and people.
The Census Bureau provides timely, reliable information to guide effective emergency preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery operations, and we are working together with federal partners to share our operational expertise. We are working to tie data together in ways that help communities gauge their ability to respond to extreme events such as floods, heat, hurricanes, wildfires and pandemics. Our Environment, Natural Disasters and Energy Research Group (ENERG) coordinates and conducts research and development that leads to new data products that provide information on community resilience and exposure.
To help communities prepare for disasters, we provide data on where vulnerable populations live via our Community Resilience Estimates. Once an event occurs, we combine housing, population and business data generated by the Census Bureau with data from other government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Economic Development Administration (EDA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others to understand the demographic and economic characteristics of hard-hit areas to help ensure more targeted and equitable response and recovery efforts. Our My Community Explorer (MCE) product provides data on people and businesses impacted by disaster events and our OnTheMap for Emergency Management includes data on workers affected. If you’re not already familiar with these innovative and useful data products, let me briefly introduce you to them and provide links for you to learn more. A great place to start is our Emergency Management page where you can access all the tools described here, as well as a host of other resources such as current disaster events and news and America Counts stories related to past events.
In the wake of Hurricane Fiona’s destruction in Puerto Rico, the Census Bureau provided ranked estimates of the most socially vulnerable areas in the commonwealth based on the methodology from the Census Bureau's Community Resilience Estimates (CRE) program – these scores helped FEMA prioritize the most vulnerable areas to aid in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Building off this experience, as well as the experience of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau has broadened its offerings to produce more information and insights to respond to disasters. An important part of disaster preparation and risk mitigation is building resilient communities. Community resilience is a measure of the capacity of individuals and households within a community to absorb, endure and recover from the external stresses of a disaster. And research shows that resilience can be predicted by individual and household characteristics.
The COVID-19 pandemic strongly demonstrated the need for timely, accurate and customizable information about community resilience. Many groups reached out to the Census Bureau for data about how people and communities across the nation were impacted by the pandemic and how they were responding and coping. In response, we created an interactive tool that measured a community’s ability to bounce back from a disaster called the Community Resilience Estimates (CRE). We recognized instantly the value these estimates held for understanding communities’ risk and adaptability in the face of the pandemic.
The idea behind the CRE is that different communities will fare differently during extreme events depending on individual and household characteristics within the community. The estimates use risk factors to model resilience such as income to poverty ratio, number of adults in the household, number of people in a household, communication barriers, education level, employment status, disability characteristics, health insurance status, age, vehicle access, and broadband internet access. While other entities produce similar metrics, they are based on publicly available data. Our estimates are based on our full suite of information increasing the reliability of our numbers for rural and other areas not typically represented well in other datasets.
When a storm is approaching or after a disaster occurs, the concern shifts to response and recovery. By combining our data on people and business with weather, fire, and other disaster-related data via GIS (Geographic Information System) tools allows the Census Bureau to have rich data and tools that zero in on the people, businesses, and workers in impacted areas.
My Community Explorer is one of our new equity tools built to support the President's Executive Order on Equity and Inclusion. It uses CRE to allow users to identify underserved communities at the state, county and census tract level. Here, using Lee County, Florida, we can pinpoint the census tracts at the highest risk of adverse outcomes from a disaster or other stressor. In addition to the resilience estimates, the MCE includes detailed characteristics of people and businesses and flexible tools to allow users to explore the data.
OnTheMap for Emergency Management allows the user to view an automated feed of most types of disasters currently impacting the United States with underlying Census Bureau data. OnTheMap for Emergency Management incorporates information on the nation’s workforce from the Census Bureau Longitudinal Employer Household Dynamics (LEHD) program based on UI-Wage (unemployment insurance) data we receive from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Thus, it provides a critical lens to the impact on local economies to disasters and other shocks (for example, when a Minneapolis bridge collapsed in 2007, impacting local commuting patterns).
All these tools are available for our users – community leaders, researchers, academics and emergency responders – to use when disaster strikes and, perhaps more importantly, when it’s time to rebuild. A key principle of our ongoing Transformation efforts is data user engagement. So, as we continue to refine these tools, we welcome comments and feedback from the public.
Our partnership with other government agencies on this work is crucial. The Census Bureau works with our colleagues at FEMA, EDA and NOAA and other federal agencies every day to warn of and respond to emergencies and assist in response and recovery efforts.
Over time, the Census Bureau’s partnerships have grown and strengthened leading to the improved data products and tools I’ve described here. In addition, our work over the last several years with FEMA has transformed the Census Bureau’s capabilities in other ways. After hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2018, local Census Bureau staff worked with FEMA teams to recruit and train temporary workers deployed throughout the battered island, and the Census Bureau provided call-center support in English and Spanish for disaster survivors.
In 2022, in response to Hurricane Fiona, the Census Bureau stood up a virtual call center utilizing our National Processing Center's Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI) staff and field representatives across the nation to take incoming calls from impacted residents for about 3 months. Within days, the Census Bureau and FEMA worked to implement the systems to help individuals and families apply for needed assistance. In a completely virtual environment, FEMA trained our staff and instituted tracking systems to manage the people and work – an incredibly quick turnaround after the devastating loss on the west coast of Florida and other parts of the country. Ultimately about 500 Census Bureau staff did this work to help individuals and families in need.
We are proud of the work our exceptional staff does and will continue work to transform our data, tools and skills to be of even greater service in the future. We understand data – especially good data – is vital in helping communities prepare, respond and recover.