Disaster Relief and Recovery in Rural Areas

Rural communities share characteristics that can make it more challenging for legal organizations and attorneys to help their residents recover after a disaster. But there are ways to prepare for and overcome these challenges.

Page last updated: 04/19/2023


The 2020 Census showed that 20% of people in the United States live in rural areas. No two rural communities are exactly alike, but many of these communities share characteristics that can affect the ability of legal organizations and attorneys to help their residents recover after a disaster. Learn more about these challenges and how to overcome them.

Common Issues in Rural Disaster Management

Many of the disaster management challenges in rural communities are related to the nature of the areas and the resources available to them. These challenges include:

  • Limited funding that can leave the communities short on staffing, equipment, training, public outreach, and education for emergency preparedness and response. Infrastructure for communications and warnings systems also may be substandard.
  • Longer travel distances for rural residents to reach commonly used community meeting spaces and access basic necessities.
  • Longer emergency response times because the communities are often remote and encompass larger geographic areas.
  • More vulnerability to the impact of disasters. Compared with urban areas, rural communities have a higher percentage of residents who are older, have disabilities, and have low incomes.
  • Limited or lower quality online access. Rural residents are less likely than urban residents to have high-speed internet at home and to own a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
  • Potential distrust of outside assistance. Rural residents typically know their neighbors and may be wary of new faces or organizations.

Responding to Disaster Management Challenges

Although there are some challenges, there are things you can do to address and minimize them.

Community Networking and Relationship Building

Ideally, whether as an individual or a legal aid organization, you want to build these connections and relationships before a disaster strikes. If that’s not possible, start making these connections as soon as you arrive. Reaching out to have these conversations will help you to:

  • Identify survivor needs and community sources of assistance. Key community leaders and influencers can tell you where the most vulnerable populations live and what their greatest needs are. They can also fill you in on the community resources and organizations available to help residents. When you arrive as a volunteer, be prepared to direct people to nonlegal resources that can help them.
  • Build trust. Community leaders and residents are more trusting of someone they are familiar with, especially if they see that person making a good-faith effort to learn as much as they can about the community.

To build relationships and trust in these communities, individuals and organizations should:

  • Proactively reach out by phone or in person to community leaders and other key influencers to gain insights into their concerns and priorities.
  • Seek out, identify, and listen to other federal, state, territory, county, local, or volunteer organizations working in the area, including faith-based organizations.
  • Acknowledge to residents and leaders that the process for obtaining assistance can be challenging and might not always deliver everything they seek. Trust is built through listening, being credible, and staying honest.
  • Be available. Getting pro bono assistance in rural areas can be difficult, particularly for disaster-related issues that can continue to arise months or even years after a disaster strikes. Continuing to show up when needed helps build trust.
  • Be prepared to lend a hand in areas other than legal assistance. It’s all hands on deck after a disaster, particularly in rural communities, and they’ll appreciate the help. This assistance includes directing people to community resources.

Disaster Response Planning

Having a plan is important for any community. But response planning can be even more important in a rural community, where volunteers and legal aid organizations are more likely to encounter challenges with communications and resources. What equipment and procedures can you use to help fill in the gaps?

In rural communities, it’s especially important for community members, health care providers, and organizations at local, regional, and state or territory levels to coordinate and communicate with one another. Ask what strategies work for them to address these challenges and where there may be opportunities to partner, coordinate, or share insights and advice.

Assistance for Housing and Agricultural Operations

Many federal forms of assistance are available to anyone, anywhere, after a presidentially declared disaster. But responders helping rural residents after a disaster should also be aware of federal programs specific to rural areas that can help individuals recover. Some do not depend on disaster declarations. Forms of assistance specific to rural areas include:

  • Single-Family Housing Direct Home Loans. Families with moderate and low incomes in eligible rural areas can use loans provided through this U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Section 502 Direct Loan Program to buy, build, repair, or renovate their home. Learn more about the requirements and how residents can apply. The loans are available at any time, not just after disasters, but the program can help disaster survivors recover.
  • Multifamily Housing Rental Assistance. Multifamily Housing Rental Assistance provides payments to owners of USDA-financed rural rental housing or farm labor housing projects on behalf of tenants with low incomes who are unable to pay their full rent. Eligible tenants pay 30% of their income in rent, and rental assistance pays the balance.
  • Priority Housing Access for Displaced Households. If a natural disaster displaces a resident from their home in a USDA Rural Development-financed multifamily property, they may be eligible for priority placement in other Rural Development-financed multifamily properties.
  • USDA Rural Housing Loan Relief. Disaster survivors who have USDA Rural Housing loans can contact the Customer Service Center at 800-414-1226 to learn about options such as payment reductions, mortgage moratoriums, or workout agreements.
  • Disaster Assistance for Agriculture Operations. USDA offers a suite of programs to aid agricultural operations in recovery from winter storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, including partial compensation for things like animal deaths, increased production costs, and financial losses. USDA’s Farm Service Agency provides emergency loans to help farmers and ranchers recover from disaster-driven physical and production losses.


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