The course of a disaster. Because disasters affect people in different ways based on factors such as poverty level, race, and ethnic background, it is understandable that minority groups are more adversely affected throughout the various stages of a disaster.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, a disaster can be broken down into several phases: the preparation phase, the response phase, and the recovery phase. The preparation phase actually occurs before the disaster strikes. The response phase occurs during the disaster. The recovery phase includes both long-term and short-term recovery efforts. Problems that minority groups encounter such as inadequate housing, lack of financial stability, and lack of communication resources contribute to slower response and recovery.
Many disaster assistance programs fail to consider the effect of factors such as social vulnerability on how communities and individuals are able to respond to the disaster. Assistance programs should be designed to ensure that everyone is afforded an equal opportunity to respond to and rebound from disasters.
Disaster mediation programs. Natural disaster victims commonly experience severe damage to their homes or lose their homes entirely to the ravages of the disaster. Many insured homeowners face unforeseen obstacles when they try to file claims. These obstacles arise when several thousand homeowners file claims within a short span of time, overloading insurance carriers. Another unfortunate reality occurs when the homeowner and the insurance carrier disagree as to the amount of proceeds due to the homeowner. One method of resolving this quagmire of claims disagreements is a disaster mediation program.
There are several flaws in disaster mediation programs. First is the potential for the insurance company to have an inherent advantage over the homeowner because, in general, the claims adjuster or other representative of the insurance company has more knowledge about the insurance policy and the mediation process than the homeowner. In addition, the homeowner cannot rely on the mediator to protect his or her interests because the mediator is a third-party neutral whose purpose is to guide the process to a mutually agreeable settlement.
Contributing to this knowledge imbalance is the homeowner’s unfamiliarity with the policy provisions, which are often written in technical and legal language. This problem is compounded when the required documentation is inaccessible or destroyed in the disaster. Additionally, minorities and the poor tend to live in parts of a community that are exposed to greater dangers during a disaster. For example, they may live in older buildings or portions of a city that are structurally less able to bear the stress placed upon them during a disaster.
When the reality of living in more vulnerable areas and structures is combined with the insufficient resources of the poor or members of minority groups, the situation can easily spin out of control and leave little or no protection for the vulnerable members of our society. This problem is especially relevant when referring to post-disaster insurance claims. A person with unlimited resources may be able to wait years to reach an acceptable settlement with the insurance company, but the average person cannot wait. The insurance proceeds that poor people or minorities receive are likely to be used to rebuild their homes or, in more extreme cases, may be used simply to help them survive.
The homeowner’s lack of sophistication regarding the mediation process leads to another problem that plagues disaster mediation programs: Administrators of the programs allow homeowners to attend mediations without any legal representation at all, whereas the insurer’s representative deals with insurance issues daily.
The last flaw results when members of ethnic and racial minority groups attempt to bring their insurance claim to the mediation table only to find that the appointed mediator is either unprepared or untrained to handle the mediation in a culturally competent manner. The most glaring example occurs when there is a language barrier between the insured and either the mediator or the insurer’s representative. An equally alarming problem occurs when the mediator fails to take into account the unique problems that minority groups face in the recovery and accompanying claims process.
Proposals. I offer the following proposals to address these inequities:
1. Include an educational aspect of disaster mediation programs geared toward minority groups. Any plan must include an educational component specifically geared toward minorities to educate this population on how to properly plan for disasters before the situation arises and how to cope with the situation once the disaster occurs. An educational component that speaks to minority communities specifically will help ameliorate the unequal bargaining power that currently plagues disaster mediation programs.
2. Encourage legal representation during insurance mediations. Disaster mediation programs should contain an explanation that, although homeowners have a right to represent themselves in mediations, attorneys are generally knowledgeable in insurance issues and the principles of negotiation and can provide valuable legal representation to the homeowners during mediations. This explanation should emphasize that attorneys would represent the homeowners’ interests and would be present to advocate on behalf of the homeowners.
3. Provide emergency mediators with proper training regarding cultural competency toward minority groups. An additional measure that should be taken during the recovery phase is for sponsors of disaster mediation programs to train emergency mediators regarding cultural competency toward minority groups. A properly trained mediator would know that minority groups are more likely to suffer losses including injury and death after a disaster; therefore, the mediator would be better equipped to mediate in a situation where the insured has been injured or suffered the loss of a loved one as a result of the disaster. Research indicates that many disaster responders such as emergency managers, military personnel, and American Red Cross workers are trained to consider factors such as cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender diversity when addressing the needs of disaster victims. Mediators should also be trained to consider these factors when conducting mediations with disaster victims.
Conclusion. Future disaster mediation programs designed to equalize the power imbalance between a homeowner and the insurer should also attempt to equalize the more drastic power imbalance that exists between the minority homeowner and the insurer. Taking measures such as educating minorities regarding post-disaster mediation, encouraging the use of attorneys during the mediations, and training mediators to be culturally competent regarding minorities will help create a comprehensive and balanced disaster mediation program.
ABA Section of Dispute Resolution
This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 22 of Dispute Resolution, Summer 2012 (18:4).
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