The affluence-vulnerability interface: intersecting scales of risk, privilege, and disaster

This paper examines vulnerability in the context of affluence and privilege. It focuses on the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm in California, USA to examine long-term lived experiences of the disaster. Vulnerability is typically understood as a condition besetting poor and marginalized communities. Frequently ignored in these discussions are the experiences of those who live in more affluent areas. This paper seeks to more closely explain vulnerability at its interface with affluence. The aim is to challenge uncritical explanations of vulnerability. We also offer alternative ways of conceptualizing vulnerability as a material condition and social construct that acknowledges broader cultural, ecological, and economic conditions, which may offset, maintain or deepen true risk exposure. Drawing on in-depth interviews with residents and emergency service managers, the paper presents a suite of vulnerability categories that intersect to create two concomitant and competing conditions. First, vulnerability is variegated between households within communities, including those in more affluent areas. Second, household vulnerability is collectively altered, and oftentimes reduced, by the broader affluent community within which individual households reside. By paying closer attention to the Affluence–Vulnerability Interface the paper reveals a recursive process, which is significant in the context of building more disaster resilient communities.