Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Using Communication to Cope with Disaster in Multiethnic Communities

January 28, 2021
Critical and Cultural Studies, Interpersonal Communication

Effective communication is needed in the aftermath of natural disasters to help communities cope and recover. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Wenlin Liu examines how people in a multiethnic community that was affected by Hurricane Harvey utilized communication resources following the hurricane. According to Liu, it is particularly important to address how communication resources can be used in multiethnic communities after a disaster because “socioeconomic divide, language and cultural barriers, and ineffective disaster communication are all compounding factors that make ethnic minorities more vulnerable to disasters.” 

Disaster Communication Ecology

In this article, Liu utilizes disaster communication ecology, which looks at different kinds of communication resources (such as news media) after a disaster. Liu also explores individual self-efficacy, collective efficacy, and community resilience. Individual self-efficacy measures how participants assess their own ability to respond to disasters (such as dealing with debris). Similarly, collective efficacy measures how participants rate the community’s ability to respond to disasters. Finally, community resilience refers to how communities as a whole can mobilize resources together and bounce back from the adversity (such as confidence that people in the community can get the resources they need). Liu examines four communication resources in this article: local media (both traditional and social media), interpersonal connections (such as neighbors), community organizations (such as churches), and public and emergency management communication. 

The Study 

Between October and December of 2019, Liu surveyed 800 adults in Houston who had been directly affected by Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas in August 2017. Survey participants included about 200 individuals from each of the following ethnic groups: Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White. About 75 percent of the participants identified as women. In addition, approximately 15 percent were first-generation immigrants, about 24 percent were second-generation immigrants, and nearly 55 percent were other native-born American citizens. The participants were surveyed about their use of communication resources in relation to Hurricane Harvey, and were asked about individual disaster coping, collective disaster coping, and community resilience.


Survey results showed that local media were not significantly related to coping after the disaster, but social media was related to community resilience. Interpersonal communication was found to be a factor in individual disaster coping, collective disaster coping, and community resilience. Communication with organizations was also associated with individual resilience and recovery, as well as with community resilience, but did not predict collective disaster coping. In addition, government and emergency management communication was found to predict individual disaster coping, collective disaster coping, and community resilience.

There were some differences noted among racial and ethnic groups. Liu writes that “while the role of local media was still minimal, local media connection was positively correlated to Asian residents’ disaster-coping self-efficacy.” Social media was beneficial for Asian and Hispanic community resilience.  Social media use was also related to collective efficacy for Hispanic participants. Interpersonal communication was related to White participants’ collective efficacy and community resilience, as well as to Hispanic participants’ self-efficacy. The results also showed that “organizational connection was only significantly related to Hispanic residents’ disaster-coping self-efficacy.” Finally, governmental and emergency management communication was significantly effective in different ways across ethnic groups; Asian participants’ individual disaster coping, collective disaster coping, and community resilience were all related to emergency management communication. In contrast, for Black and White participants, only their self-efficacy and community resilience was significantly affected. 


This study highlights the importance of communication for individual and community resilience after a disaster. Liu concludes that “among the five types of communication resources, interpersonal connection and government, EM [emergency management] communication are the two most consistent predictors of all residents’ self-efficacy, collective efficacy, and community resilience perception.” Local media were not very effective for most groups, possibly due to news media’s tendency to focus more on preparation for the hurricane than on recovery following the hurricane. News media were particularly ineffective for Black participants and were negatively associated with collective efficacy for those participants. This may be due to news media’s use of Black American stereotypes in news coverage. 

Community organizations were also shown to be an important communication resource, particularly for Hispanic participants. However, Hispanic participants were the only group for which there was no benefit from government and emergency communication at all. This may suggest that official sources lack credibility or are inaccessible for members of that community. In contrast, Asian communities may put more trust in official government channels and can be effectively reached through them. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Wenlin Liu (2020): Disaster communication ecology in multiethnic communities: Understanding disaster coping and community resilience from a communication resource approach, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2020.1854329

About the author (s)

Wenlin Liu

University of Houston

Assistant Professor, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication

Wenlin Liu