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Disaster Relief Social Workers and Their Roles

December 16, 2019

With a growing number of people facing traumatic events, it’s important that social workers are properly trained in disaster relief, planning, and recovery. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since 1980 there have been 241 sustained weather and climate disasters, causing at least $1 billion in damages.1 There were 124 federal disaster declarations in 2018 alone,1 and natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to wildfires and winter storms cost the U.S. $91 billion.2

The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder defined a disaster as “a sudden event that has the potential to terrify, horrify, or engender substantial losses for many people simultaneously”.3 Disasters are differentiated from other kinds of collective stress because, first and foremost, disasters are crisis situations. The social work definition of disasters centers on events that cause human loss and suffering sufficient enough to create social disruption. Furthermore, disasters necessitate an extraordinary response from outside the directly-affected region or community.4 This current definition has helped frame how social workers address and create interventions and response plans, and conduct research to help advance the field.

Even with the current increase in disasters, there has been little research on the matter within the social work field until the last 20 years. Part of this is due to the fact that it can be seen as controversial or inappropriate to approach trauma survivors to participate in studies while they’re coping with emotional distress, loss and grief.

Given the sparse research, social workers can gain disaster relief knowledge from theories, expert consensus, published papers and anecdotal reports. The fields of sociology and psychology have been the foundation for social work research on trauma and traumatic stress as well as interventions during crises.4

How Disaster Relief Social Work Works

The goals of disaster relief social workers primarily focus on supporting the victims of the disaster and helping them cope and recover in the aftermath. This generally centers on getting the victims access to the services they’ll need. Emergency management plays an important role in this goal. Communicating early with local food banks and shelters, along with planning for coordination of community resources, helps to prevent long-term social, physical and mental health problems after the disaster. Social workers may also help victims qualify for aid for home reconstruction as well as replacing other material losses. Volunteer programs that social workers manage can also help provide skills and the personnel necessary to rebuild communities and to manage temporary shelters.

The skills needed to accomplish these goals can sometimes extend beyond traditional clinical training. A key intervention in disaster relief social work is psychological debriefing, which emphasizes coping mechanisms, social support through the community and social connection through networking. Other necessary skills in disaster relief social work include:

  • Case management: Ensuring a meaningful mix of services by finding the right programs, services and resources for clients
  • Case finding: A critical service after a disaster as many victims aren’t aware of all of the disaster relief services that may be available to them; alternatively they may fear the judgement of their peers for receiving social services
  • Outreach: Making programs and services more geographically and socially accessible by creating satellite locations for relevant programs
  • Advocacy: Using professional contacts within organizations to advocate for clients to receive services they’re qualified for
  • Brokering: Exchanging clients among social work programs to meet their need for multiple services, this also helps to ensure movement of clients through various programs within the service systems

Considerations in This Field

Key considerations when working in the disaster relief social work field include cultural norms. This especially holds true in global social work where the cultural conventions may make it difficult to utilize the most effective methods of assistance. Cultural norms about helping, of who is “worthy” of receiving help first and which groups are eligible for aid and relief are all obstacles for disaster relief professionals from the U.S. when working globally. While in the U.S. we view all victims as deserving of aid, some developing countries may view low status populations as “unworthy” recipients of receiving help.4

The effectiveness of psychological debriefing is another consideration that needs more research for future effectiveness. Though the practitioners who conduct debriefings, and victims who receive them, say that they find this method helpful, there has been difficulty in demonstrating that it has been effective for populations outside of first responders. Those working in disaster relief social work would do well to conduct more research to determine the effectiveness of this method on the general population, but especially children, as they tend to be the most vulnerable victims in crisis situations.4

Little research exists on refugee camps and useful intervention or prevention models within them. Those in refugee camps are still in vulnerable and unstable conditions when compared to the comfort of their own homes and countries. As the global refugee crisis continues to grow, more studies on the effects of living in camps must be conducted so that social workers can properly advocate for this vulnerable population.

Prepare to Meet a Growing Need

Pursuing a Master of Social Work (MSW) can be pivotal in preparing professionals to serve those dealing with the unthinkable during crises and disasters. As natural disasters increase every year, the online MSW at Yeshiva University can provide you with the knowledge, training and skills necessary to advocate for and support victims of disasters. For more information about this increasingly relevant degree, contact an Admissions Advisor.

1 Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from fema.gov/disasters/year
2 Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/2018s-billion-dollar-disasters-context
3 Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10615-017-0623-8
4 Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from training.fema.gov/emiweb/downloads/edu/socialworkanddisasters4.doc