Graduate Student Reflection: Rebecca Ewert

The Pozen Center supports doctoral student research that makes a significant contribution to the study and field of human rights. The grants may be used during a 15-month period and awardees are asked to submit a report or reflection upon completion.

Here, Rebecca Ewert (PhD Candidate, Sociology) reports on fieldwork conducted from December 2018 through September 2020—work that, sadly, is all too timely. Rebecca’s dissertation examines how people with different social characteristics (i.e. race, class, gender, urban/rural locale) are recovering economically and emotionally from a 2018 megafire disaster in Northern California. Her work is grounded in a commitment to produce real world interventions that create greater disaster recovery equity. 

Human Rights and the Social Inequalities of Disaster
Rebecca Ewert, Sociology
2019 Pozen PhD Research Grant awardee

In California and across the West Coast, yearly fires have become the new normal. As these fires get bigger, more frequent, and more severe, it’s urgent that we address the ways climate disasters impact human rights. Contrary to popular discourse—which names disasters as social levelers that impact everyone—climate disasters like fires impact people differently depending on their gender, race, socioeconomic class, and region. 

In my dissertation, Where there’s Smoke, there’s Fire: The Social Inequalities of Disaster Recovery, I use the case of a megafire as an opportunity to study how disasters impact mental health and economic stability, paying special attention to how people ask for help. Drawing on 113 in-depth interviews and six months of participant observation in rural Shasta County, Northern California, a community devastated by the 2018 Carr wildfire, I argue that the timeline of disaster recovery produces disparities that contribute to poor mental health and low rates of help-seeking in rural places.

John Christopher and his wife had excellent insurance before the Carr fire, enabling them to buy a condo shortly after learning their house was destroyed. This provided them with a safe home base while they navigated the rebuilding process. At 81 years old, John found that the post-disaster time period reinvigorated him. The tasks associated with finding new housing and preparing the property for rebuilding gave him a sense of purpose that delayed his experience of emotional distress over the loss of his home and belongings. When these tasks were complete, John started to feel lost. Unfortunately, by the time his sorrow intensified, low-cost federal counseling resources had timed out and left the community, leaving him with few places to turn for support. Meanwhile, John’s wife felt acute distress as she took on the insurance negotiations. When I re-interviewed her two years after the fire, she said that while those negotiations caused intense pain, they also gave her the opportunity to process loss, rendering her less distraught than her husband at the two-year mark. 

“The gendered division of labor shapes experiences of disaster, and race, class, and rurality intersect to create recovery inequalities.”

Conversely, Karla Applegate was completely uninsured when the fire destroyed three of four shabby cabins on her property. She was grateful to have a roof over her head, but living in the remaining cabin was difficult due to extensive fire damage. Overwhelmed by rebuilding tasks, she was repeatedly denied aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because, due to family disputes and her limited literacy, she was unable to adequately document her ownership of the property. Even though she experienced significant stress and emotional upset, she did not reach out for mental health support. Material and emotional wellbeing are intertwined, as people without material resources have little chance of rebuilding and managing rebuilding is more difficult when emotional stores are depleted. Like Karla, those living in the more rural parts of Shasta display rural values such as dedication to the land—meaning residents are committed to rebuilding rather than relocating—and suspicion of the government that prevents residents from seeking mental health resources. Even after two years, Karla continues to experience significant distress. 

After a disaster, I find that gendered divisions of labor create expectations for men to engage in public rebuilding tasks that earn social recognition and for women to perform private bureaucratic tasks like negotiating with insurance companies and appealing FEMA decisions. These tasks cause women to experience a heavier emotional burden initially as they are forced to catalogue their losses and prove their suffering, often to unsympathetic bureaucrats. During this time period, men receive an initial emotional boost that I call the “masculinity premium.” Thus, women are more likely to need support immediately after the disaster, and their need for support coincides with short-term federally funded support systems. Men, on other hand, do not feel the full impact of their loss and begin to emotionally process until the availability of the masculine premium declines. At this point, most of the low-cost post-disaster counseling options have timed out, leaving men without support. 

The gendered division of labor shapes experiences of disaster, and race, class, and rurality intersect to create recovery inequalities. Rural and poor folks are doubly disadvantaged in the aftermath of the disaster because of 1) navigating federal bureaucracies built and run by middle class people unfamiliar with applicants’ lived experiences, 2) stigma associated with help-seeking, and 3) white settler colonial ideologies that shape decisions to stay and rebuild when relocating may be the more emotionally and financially supportive choice. My study shows how social characteristics influence the process of emotional and economic recovery, heightening inequalities in mental health in the aftermath of disasters. 

Funding from the Pozen Center truly made this research possible by enabling me to travel to California and live there for six months, observing the recovery process first-hand by attending community meetings, helping residents clear their burned properties of debris, visiting rebuilding sites, and sitting with survivors while they processed their grief. Living alongside physical and symbolic fire scars gave me a deeper understanding of the way disasters can worsen gender and class disparities. And, thanks to the Pozen Center, I was able to write policy recommendations aimed at producing greater disaster equity. Thank you, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights! 

Rebecca Ewert is a sixth-year PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago studying fire recovery, masculinity, and mental health. For more information, visit