Community Organization in Social Work After Disasters

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A community social worker assists an elderly resident during the COVID-19 pandemicFrom severe storms to incidents of mass violence, natural and human-caused disasters have an immediate and lasting impact on individuals and communities.

Some key statistics reveal a recent uptick in the frequency and intensity of these types of disasters. In 2020, the United States experienced 22 weather and climate disasters, each one causing $1 billion or more in damages, a record high, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2021, the nation experienced 20 separate billion-dollar disasters — representing the second-highest total recorded.

The communities stricken by these crises must grapple with issues related to physical safety and emotional distress. The effects can be more profound for low-income communities, whose residents often lack the resources to adequately prepare for disasters and effectively respond afterward. A 2020 United Nations report laid out the disproportionate impact that disasters have on underserved areas globally: It found that 33% of countries had experienced disasters since 1994, but 81% of the deaths from those disasters were in low-income nations.

Social workers play a crucial role in communities hit by disasters as people manage their day-to-day lives and move toward recovery. These professionals assist with services ranging from counseling for people facing post-traumatic stress to finding temporary housing for displaced families.

Promoting healthy coping and recovery in the aftermath of a disaster requires careful preparation and a deep understanding of the typical conditions communities face after a large-scale emergency. This work also calls for knowledge of the disparities among populations and how they can affect a community’s recovery. A   program can help professionals understand the importance of community organization in social work, particularly for those affected by disasters.

What Is Community Social Work?

Community social work involves identifying social justice concerns in neighborhoods and cities and working to address these issues and improve life for the area’s residents. Typically working for nonprofit or government agencies, such as the American Red Cross or the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program, community social workers have responsibilities such as:

  • Partnering with organizations providing services to vulnerable populations
  • Raising funds to target community needs
  • Assisting with infrastructure planning
  • Educating communities about social justice concerns

After disasters, community social work may include recognizing people’s recovery needs and helping to meet those needs — particularly in areas lacking resources that would enable them to cope with the disaster’s effects. Social workers might help these residents evacuate dangerous areas or provide meals to those without access to food.

This role overlaps to some extent with work in public health, so anyone considering entering the field may want to compare the   degrees to determine which path is right for them.

Why Social Work Skills Are Essential After Disasters

The effects of disasters are far-reaching. Beyond dealing with damages and possible loss of property, individuals and communities must contend with the trauma these events create. For example, in 2020, the Center for Public Integrity surveyed 230 survivors of hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Of those responding, 60% experienced five or more types of emotional challenges in the year following the event.

A 2021 article in Qualitative Social Work examined the types of assistance that communities needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as securing housing and public assistance. However, while disasters affect all types of populations, the article noted, the responses can vary wildly because of discrepancies in the resources that people have available to them.

The article pointed out that social workers often play a key role in connecting residents with the services they need in the wake of disasters — especially those who lack the means to overcome challenges on their own.

Social work is important not only in the immediate aftermath but also in the long run, since recovery is often a gradual process. While initial volunteer offerings and donations may peter out, social workers remain available to provide vital treatment and services. Additionally, community organizations and social workers can collaborate to prepare for disasters, which helps ensure a smoother recovery when adverse events occur.

How Social Workers Fit in Disaster Preparedness and Response Strategies

Social workers play a critical role in disaster preparedness and response. Working independently and in collaboration with public health officials, nonprofits, and government agencies, social workers provide input and assistance in areas such as:

  • Educating communities about hazards
  • Sharing information about policies and procedures for seeking public aid
  • Establishing field care stations
  • Assessing community needs
  • Gathering and providing basic supplies
  • Providing mental health support

In 2020, social workers in Puerto Rico reported to the Center for Public Integrity that they provided support to the many residents who experienced mental health issues following Hurricane Maria. Social workers were also instrumental in providing mental health support to residents as COVID-19 surged on the island.

The critical role social workers have played in the recovery from Hurricane Maria and other disasters underscores their importance in community organization. In Puerto Rico, social workers have noted that their disaster relief work, particularly for those who are most vulnerable, points to the importance of their participation on teams that develop readiness plans for disasters.

What Is It Like as a Social Worker After a Natural Disaster?

As social work is centered on helping others, professionals in the field can take on diverse roles in preparing for and responding to disasters. Although first responders in the medical field often command more media attention, social workers also play a vital role in assisting with:

  • Emergency preparedness
  • Disaster response
  • Evaluating the long-term effects of disasters

For storms like hurricanes, which usually come with advance warning, disaster preparation means more than just considering evacuation. Social workers in hospitals with a shelter-in-place strategy often work to identify patients who can safely be transferred out of the facility in the short term, for example, while also preparing to remain operational through the storm for emergency patients.

After a disaster, social workers often put in long hours, setting aside some of their personal needs to focus on the at-risk populations they serve and even volunteering their own time to assist with cleanup. This makes balancing self-care with being available for others crucial. Social workers who assist with disaster recovery should take care to:

  • Watch for signs of stress in themselves
  • Confide in co-workers, family, and friends
  • Focus on time management
  • Commit to time focused on something enjoyable
  • Schedule periods of exercise

Gaining Skills Needed for Disaster Response

Natural disasters are becoming more common in the United States, and social workers are increasingly crucial to strengthening preparedness and response efforts. Pursuing an MSW can help professionals understand the importance of community organization in social work and how it can aid in disaster planning and recovery.

The Regis College online Master of Social Work degree program can help you develop community social work skills. It provides various clinical training opportunities to help you build the expertise to treat clients and provide ongoing support in the aftermath of disasters. The program also incorporates experiential learning, which can better prepare you for real-life responsibilities in the social work sector.

Discover how the Regis College online MSW degree program can prepare you to provide disaster recovery assistance to those who need it most.

Recommended Reading

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Explore a Career as a Clinical Social Worker

Important Social Worker Skills


Center for Public Integrity, “Three Years. Four Disasters. Social Workers in Puerto Rico Want Change.”

Exploring Your Mind, “Social Workers in Emergency Situations”

Indeed, “What Is a Social Worker? Types of Social Workers and Social Work Environments”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021 U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters in Historical Context

Portman, “Managing Stress as a Social Worker”

Qualitative Social Work, “Studying Social Workers’ Roles in Natural Disasters During a Global Pandemic: What Can We Learn?”

Social Work Haven, “Community Work in Social Work: 11 Smart Reasons Social Workers Should Be Community Builders”

SocialWorkin, “Role of Social Work in Disaster Management”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Types of Disasters

The British Journal of Social Work, “Introduction — When Social Work Meets Disaster: Challenges and Opportunities”

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Progress Report on the Implementation of the UN Plan of Action on DRR for Resilience

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Recovering from Disaster”