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With the impending threat of Hurricane Florence looming over the Carolinas, a group of graduate students met at the Sanford School of Public Policy with storms on their mind -- in more ways than one.

They gathered to go over their research on the effects of natural disasters on the U.S. Census. After months of work, the students were preparing for a unique opportunity: Presenting their findings in Miami at a national conference of elected officials and policymakers.

“The big picture is that natural disasters happen and the more that communities and states can do to prepare before a natural disaster happens, the better off they will be in terms of their population and infrastructure,” said group member Jennifer Hausman MPP’19.

“That ties in with the Census … The more you prepare, the better you’ll be for your population to recover and for your government funding and government representation to recover as well, since that is tied to your population count.”

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“We are really excited to bring our project to a real-life policymaker conference where we’ll have officials representing 29 different states,” added Kristen Jensen MPP’19.

“The more I got to learn what the problem was and the huge impact and implications that natural disasters can have for funding, for political seats and representation -- especially for historically underrepresented minorities -- I think it’s one of the most important issues that coming up for 2020.”

Hausman agreed. “This is one of the first times in my academic career where I feel like I’m breaking ground with research … We’re going to Miami to give this to about 80 policy makers. With any luck, they’re going to implement this in their communities. We’ve had an actual real-world effect and that is awesome.”

The Class - Public Policy 804

Hausman, Jensen and classmates Janna Driskel and Mike Penansky conducted research as part of the final project for the 804 class, a required class for first-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) students. The goal of the class is to learn how to conduct applied public policy analysis and produce a set of deliverables for a government or nonprofit client.

John Quinterno, one of three instructors for the class, said the project is a significant part of the journey of an MPP student.

“Students, particularly in their first semester, get exposed to a broad set of quantitative methods, but at that point many of the techniques are academic and based in the classroom. This is an opportunity for students to learn about how to apply those techniques [and] develop new ones they might need for their specific project,” he said.

The Project

For their project, the students were matched with the NALEO Educational Fund, the nonprofit arm of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The goal of the non-partisan non-profit is to facilitate full Latino participation in the American political process by increasing the effectiveness of Latino policymakers, mobilizing the Latino community to engage in civic life and promoting policies that advance Latino political engagement.

“The Census has so much importance for representation and adding or taking away representative seats (that) they [NALEO] have a huge push for making the Census for 2020 count and encouraging Latino and Hispanic participation,” said Driskel.

“So the question is how do we mitigate the impact of natural disasters on areas that have high Latino populations that are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, and how can we make sure that they still receive accurate counts to [ensure] they receive the representation and funding that they deserve?”

To answer those questions, the students did case studies of three major U.S. hurricanes (Andrew ’92, Katrina ’05, and Ike ’08). They also conducted interviews with experts in a variety of topics, includingCensus funding allocation, demography. social vulnerability and disaster displacement.

The Results

NALEO invited the students to share their findings at the organization’s annual National Policy Institute on Emergency Preparedness and Response Management Sept. 14-15 in Miami, Fl.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Hurricane Florence almost canceled their trip. But they were able to fly out early, ahead of the storm.

They recommended four ways NALEO members can help ensure  an accurate Census Count:

1. Incorporate socially vulnerable populations into Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMPs)

HMPs are more effective when socially and physically vulnerable populations are included in the planning process. After identifying vulnerable populations, local governments should actively seek their involvement in the planning process.

2. Encourage Local Governments to Actively Participate in Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA)

LUCA, a federal program, provides tribal, local and state governments an opportunity to review and amend the U.S. Census Bureau’s master address list, in particular to capture unconventional housing units that may be missed by the Bureau’s records. Active LUCA participation with an emphasis on community-based canvassing, a method which utilizes trusted community members to target “hard-to-count” neighborhoods, ensures a more accurate list of address. This provides more precise enumeration and is essential for measuring displacement in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

3. Encourage Proactive Local Government Counting Efforts

State and local governments also can take proactive steps to ensure accurate enumeration.. One good example is AddressNC, a North Carolina project which provides a state-level running database for all addresses. Local governments can also track displacement by using other data sources such as post office forms and FEMA aid registrations.

4. Challenge the Count

The team noted that local governments can challenge the Census Bureau’s count if they believe their community has been undercounted. This is especially important in the aftermath of a natural disaster where significant displacement, increased residency in unconventional housing, and substantial destruction of homes with verified addresses makes accurate enumeration particularly complicated.