Anticipating the Unimaginable: The Crucial Role of the Census in Disaster Planning and Recovery

Andrew Reamer
Andrew Reamer Former Brookings Expert

July 10, 2006

At any moment, we know from recent experience, disaster may strike America. A major earthquake may tear California apart. A Katrina-like hurricane may shred the Gulf Coast. A devastating tornado may rip through the Midwest. America’s enemies may find a hole in our defenses and wreck large-scale loss of life.

The question before the Senate Appropriations Committee this week: Will the Senate, unlike the House, provide the funding necessary for the Census Bureau to deliver the population data that state and local governments need to respond to and recover from such disasters?

Here’s the context of the question. On June 16th, the Department of Homeland Security released the National Plan Review, a comprehensive, nationwide assessment of the adequacy of emergency plans for each state and the 75 largest urban areas. DHS found these plans insufficient in many respects, particularly with regard to evacuation planning for populations who cannot simply jump into their cars and drive away.

The Review notes that large swaths of the population have special needs that must be addressed in evacuation plans, including the carless (9 percent of U.S. households), those with a physical or mental disability (13 percent of residents) or language barrier (8 percent), the elderly (40 percent have a disability), and those living in group quarters such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities (2 percent of residents).

The report’s finding: “One of the most serious deficiencies uncovered . . . was inadequate planning for special needs populations. . . . (N)o State or urban area plans were rated Sufficient.” Katrina made the consequences of inadequate special needs planning quite visible—1,300 dead and tens of thousands stranded at multiple venues, indoors and out.

The Review’s recommendation: “The Federal Government should provide guidance to States and local governments on incorporation of disability-related demographic analysis into emergency planning.”

Fine, this sounds like a proper, important job for the federal government. What federal agency provides the population data for each special needs category, down to the neighborhood level? The Census Bureau.

Which brings us to the floor of the House of Representatives on June 27th. In a burst of political opportunism, the House voted to strip the Census Bureau budget by $58 million (a 7 percent cut) in order to provide more grants for state and local enforcement, a move attractive to many Representatives in this election year. If the House budget cut holds, the state and local population figures produced by the Census Bureau will be less accurate and complete.

Never mind the irony that the House-added law enforcement grants are distributed on the basis of census data, or that state and local police depend on the census to effectively allocate their own scarce resources. Never mind that the fair apportionment of House seats and Electoral College votes depends on a complete, accurate decennial census. And never mind that taking $58 million from the Census Bureau in 2007 will cost taxpayers many times that amount in subsequent years.

For the moment, let’s only mind that in reprogramming Census Bureau funds, the House puts the lives of millions of Americans at risk. If the House-passed budget stands, our state and local governments will have an incomplete and out-dated sense of who may be stranded at a time of evacuation.

Moreover, let’s be aware that the Census Bureau produces two data series—daytime population and domestic migration—that are critical to disaster planning and recovery, not mentioned by the National Plan Review, and threatened by the House budget cuts.

Effective evacuation plans must account for night and daytime populations by place. The Census Bureau tells us, for instance, that the workday population of Birmingham, Alabama in 2000 was 90 percent greater than the number of residents. The figure for St. Louis was 87 percent, for Jackson, Mississippi, 59 percent, and for Houston, Dallas, and Oklahoma City, 40 percent or more. But these data are significantly out of date, and so not optimal for emergency planning. With adequate funding, though, the Census Bureau could soon chart current daytime populations by neighborhood.

Disaster recovery requires knowing where people fled to. If fully funded, the new American Community Survey will generate detailed annual data on place-to-place migration, allowing recovery authorities to determine the number, characteristics, and location of displaced persons.

Will the Senate Appropriations Committee provide the Census Bureau with the funds necessary to support the nation’s homeland security? Past practice does not inspire hope. The annual pattern is for the House to take care of the Census Bureau, the Senate to see to the needs of NASA and NOAA, and the conference committee to emerge somewhere in between.

This year, the House fell down on the job. For the nation’s sake, the Senate needs to demonstrate wisdom and responsibility and restore the full Census budget. In the context of annual federal homeland security expenditures of $58 billion, $58 million is an extraordinarily small price to pay so that we may adequately plan for the unimaginable, by state and community, and not abandon residents with special needs to pain and, at worst, death.