Conducting an Immediate Needs Assessment

About Immediate Needs Assessments  

Although not required, Immediate Needs Assessments are usually one of the first steps in the recovery process. Immediate Needs Assessments are used to evaluate a group or community’s recovery needs after a disaster. The purpose of the assessment is to identify what actions need to be taken immediately following a disaster event to keep people safe. However, it also informs the path to long-term recovery. Needs Assessments are great activities for community-based organizations and philanthropy to take on in addition to local government. Ideally, these three groups coordinating with one another can provide the most comprehensive picture of what is happening on the ground. 

When a disaster strikes, local governments and first responders conduct Immediate Needs Assessments very rapidly with the primary intent to save lives and protect as much as possible. An Immediate Needs Assessment usually takes place within the first 12-36 hours after the disaster occurs.  However, assessment continues for weeks and even months as the disaster situation evolves. Ultimately, if the damage is severe enough, the local and State government will call upon the Federal government, at which point they will engage in an official Damage Assessment. This will consider the following

  • State or territory fiscal capacity and resource availability,  

  • uninsured home and personal property losses,  

  • the disaster-impacted population profile,  

  • impact on community infrastructure, 

  • casualties, and 

  • disaster-related unemployment. 

Further into the recovery period, the State government will engage in an Unmet Needs Assessment to justify requests for further assistance in the form of Community Development Block Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

Assessment methods 

  • On-Site visual inspections are a good way to gather information quickly. This method is effective if the group conducting the Immediate Needs Assessment can go directly to the disaster site to gather information about conditions. On-site visual inspection tasks include: 

    • taking photos and/or video footage of the situation on the ground, 

    • observing people’s physical condition and activities, 

    • directly communicating with affected people, 

    • visiting homes or shelters, water sources, clinics, distribution centers, etc., 

    • observing vulnerable groups, such as children, seniors, and people who are sick, and 

    • observing how services, vehicles, sanitation systems, etc., are functioning. 

  • Interviews can take place in-person or remotely if direct contact is not possible with the affected population. Depending on the disaster impacts, remote communication like phones might not be readily available. Interviews can be with individuals or groups. 

  • Use secondary sources to gather information from other groups’ information or assessments. This can be useful if groups, such as government agencies or community-based organizations, have systems in place to gather information. The risk of this method is assuming the accuracy of other groups’ information.  

There are many ways to conduct an Immediate Needs Assessment. The format itself is not necessarily important, but it has an assessment methodology developed and a team of people trained to conduct it before a disaster strikes or an emergency scenario emerges. You can use a template in this guide from the NAACP, but make sure to adjust it based on the local context.  

Impact on frontline communities  

Immediate Needs Assessments are rapid activities that happen during a chaotic time. As with any data collection, it may reflect the bias of the data collector. As a result, the data collected by the government during this time may not accurately reflect the needs and conditions of frontline communities. For example, some survivors may not speak English, and first responders may not speak their native language, or people who are undocumented may be afraid to speak to officials. Ultimately, this may limit the information gathered about the needs and conditions of some communities.  

Actions to take 

For community-based organizations and affordable housing provider

  • Connect with your local emergency management office and discuss how you can share information about needs after a disaster. 

  • After a disaster, conduct an Immediate Needs Assessment of your community right away. 

  • Share the information that you collect with your local emergency management office to incorporate what you know into their assessment. 

For local government 

  • Connect with local community-based organizations to learn what’s happening with their members after the disaster.  

  • Ensure that your needs assessment captures what’s happening in frontline communities.  

  • Ensure that your needs assessment team has people who are trained in collecting information from frontline communities.  

For philanthropy 

  • Connect with local government and community-based organizations in the impacted area to support the needs assessment. 

  • Check-in with your grantees in the impacted area and write up a needs assessment from what they share with you. Share this information with the local emergency management office. 

Credit: This guidance draws from the NAACP’s In the Eye of the Storm: A People’s Guide to Transforming Crisis & Advancing Equity in the Disaster Continuum.