Document Type



Boston College Law Review




Vulnerability drives disaster law, yet the literature lacks both an overarching analysis of the different aspects of vulnerability and a nuanced examination of the factors that shape disaster outcomes. Though central to disaster law and policy, vulnerability often lurks in the shadows of a disaster, evident only once the worst is past and the bodies have been counted. The COVID-19 pandemic is a notable exception to this historical pattern: from the beginning of the pandemic, it has been clear that the virus poses different risks to different people, depending on vulnerability variables. This most recent pandemic experience thus provides a useful vantage point for analyzing vulnerability. Drawing on empirical data from the pandemic and experiences from past disasters, this Article identifies and discusses the policy implications of three dimensions of disaster vulnerability: the geography of vulnerability, competing or conflicting vulnerabilities, and political vulnerability. First, it explores the geography of vulnerability, using statistical analysis and geographic information system (GIS) mapping. The Article presents an innovative COVID-19 vulnerability index that identifies the country’s most vulnerable counties and the leading driver of vulnerability for each county. It demonstrates how this index could have informed voter accommodations during the 2020 elections and mask mandates throughout the pandemic.

The Article also shows how, going forward, similar modeling could make disaster management more proactive and better able to anticipate needs and prioritize disaster mitigation and response resources. Second, this Article explores competing or conflicting vulnerabilities––situations where policy-makers must prioritize one vulnerable group or one aspect of vulnerability over another. To illustrate this, it considers two other policy challenges: school closures and vaccine distribution.

Finally, the Article explores political vulnerability, analyzing how disasters make already-vulnerable groups even more vulnerable to certain harms, including political neglect, stigmatization, disenfranchisement, and displacement. In sum, this Article draws upon the costly lessons of COVID-19 to suggest a more robust framework for policy-makers to assess and respond to vulnerability in future disasters

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Disaster Law Commons