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What Is Community Resilience?

A lack of knowledge and indifference hampers disaster recovery. Why we keep repeating mistakes.

by Adam Stone / July 27, 2015

Fire, flood, famine, nuclear disaster — we’ve been through them all and more, and yet we so quickly forget. All but a few Americans, depending on which survey you read, remain stubbornly unprepared for the next disaster. Without preparedness, there can be no resiliency.

Insurer Allstate reports that 40 percent of Americans have thought about an evacuation plan, but just 8 percent have practiced an escape plan. Thirty percent say they’d take their chances and leave at the last minute in the face of a storm. More than half of parents say they’ve been directly impacted by disaster, according to Save the Children, yet 67 percent don’t know about the emergency plan at their kids’ schools, and 42 percent wouldn’t know where to find their kids after an evacuation.

Certainly things are better today than they used to be. “Fifty years ago there were no flood maps. Anyone could do whatever they wanted on a flood plain,” said Gene Whitney, a member of the Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters at the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council. “Today communities are aware of the high-risk zones and they use those flood maps to guide their land-use decisions.”

But not always and not very well. Poor planning on personal and civic levels impedes bounce back, stymieing a community’s resilience when it’s time to rebuild. Why is this so? It may be in our genes.

“It’s hard-wired into us,” said Robert Meyer, co-director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. For millennia humans survived by thinking about today’s food, not tomorrow’s storm clouds. “As human beings, we are prone to not thinking far enough into the future, and we are prone to not look too far into the past,” Meyer said. “When in doubt, we just do what everybody else is doing.”

Cash counts too, Whitney said. “Resilience and preparedness cost money, so when someone says they should harden their communications infrastructure to be more resilient to a disaster, people may not see that as a priority.”

Why put immediate needs first on the fiscal chain? It’s all about likelihood. “Disasters are probable-risk events,” Whitney said. “What are the chances that this hurricane is going to destroy my house? What are the chances that this flood is going to destroy my house? Maybe we had a flood back in ’88 and it did some damage, but people aren’t going to worry about that now.”

It’s called denial, the thinking that, “It isn’t going to happen to me, and if it does FEMA will swoop in like a golden eagle and fix it all.” That’s not a resilience plan.

But for emergency planners to overcome resiliency resistance, they should take a candid look at some of the community-level hurdles too, the structural factors that prevent whole populations from building resiliency plans.

Money comes first, as usual. “Who pays for the cost of recovery? It is a little unclear at the moment, and that is handicapping the development of strategies that will make us more resilient,” said James O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation.

He points to the current structure in which the federal government subsidizes flood insurance. It’s a pricey endeavor, and O’Donnell argues that resilience would be better served if government weaned shore-dwellers off the teat. “If people actually had to pay the full cost of the insurance for the risk that they have, they might make smarter decisions.” He said the private market for insurance should be allowed to participate in the coastal flood programs in a bigger way. And then people would change the trend of building bigger and bigger, closer and closer along the shoreline.

By the Numbers

$136 billion

Federal spending on disaster relief from 2011 to 2013


Disaster Declarations in 2014

100 million

People affected by disasters worldwide in 2013


People displaced by natural disasters in the U.S. in 2013

Would less government spending drive better resilience? It counters the usual logic — government should shore up the bulwarks — but it opens the door to new ways of thinking.

Working the numbers might also help emergency planners sidestep a persistent bugbear in the efforts to devise effective resiliency plans: Civic authorities can only demand so much, Meyer said. “As a society we’d rather have a situation where the government doesn’t tell us how to live our lives.”

It’s not just a matter of preference, but also of fundamental liberties. “If I own my home, you as the government can’t tell me to insure it,” said Gerald Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland.

Still, there are some ways in which government can drive specific action, for example by withholding funds. Emergency planners can set specific standards for rebuilding after an event, and if builders fail to meet those standards, they become ineligible for government disaster relief.

“If people don’t build back in a resilient way, the government simply says no,” Galloway said. “There may be some pushback, but people are getting tired of seeing money poured down the drain, in this case the flood plain, unnecessarily.”

Rules that impinge on property rights or individual liberties must be justified as being necessary in the protection of health and safety. That sets a high bar. Without a stick to wield to drive greater resilience, government must turn to the carrot.

Working together with government officials, emergency managers can help lay the groundwork for policies that not only penalize bad planning but, more often, also find ways to reward smart preparations.

While banks may require flood insurance, government cannot make such requirements. On the other hand, tax authorities could give a break to those who get insured voluntarily or they may give tax incentives to building companies that go the extra mile, said Sean Scott, author of the disaster handbook The Red Guide to Recovery.

Financial incentives — the carrot — can be helpful, but they aren’t simple to utilize. Suppose the city or state opted to offer tax breaks to those who equipped their homes with additional fire protection measures. Who’s going to drop by to confirm these measures have been implemented? Or will tax breaks be given on the honor system?

As the manager of all things financial, government can certainly manipulate the tax code and other tools to generate resilience incentives. As an additional measure to drive best practices, emergency planners can also look to education.

Whitney points to the simple practice of using the ring shank nail. It’ll keep a roof tacked down even in a heavy wind, at no more cost than an ordinary nail, but some builders may not be familiar with it. Education may start here, with zoning officials and others distributing literature to inform builders of their options.

At the level of the individual and the family, much has already been said about the need for education and much has been done. High-risk communities have produced public service materials in various forms, informing people about the steps they might take to prepare for an event and to restart their communities afterward.

Such messaging might spell out how much water to keep on hand or which emergency routes to keep in mind. But there are other forms of education, less commonly addressed, that can have a big impact on a community’s long-term ability to get up and running in the wake of a disaster.

Kids ought to learn this stuff in school, Galloway said. Even from a young age, children can be introduced to the basics of risk and response. “You can include that in the school curriculum, and then the first thing a child asks at home is, ‘Mommy, why are we building in a swamp?’”

Along these same lines, the mayor can appoint every local child a deputy for water conservation during a drought. The initiative can teach them the basics of water management and pressure adults to keep water use within regulations.

In the era of Facebook and Twitter, planners need to look to social media as a potentially powerful means of broadening the public understanding. This will require a new approach. “You’ve got to be able to convey a compelling message quickly, in a way that they are going to digest it and act on,” Scott said. “It’s speed, it’s entertainment, it’s very concise snippets of information that answer precise questions. It’s education as instant gratification. So far emergency planners are not even anywhere close.”

Emergency planners also need to help people with definitions. As Hurricane Sandy loomed, authorities warned of a potential 14-foot storm surge. But the magnitude of that possibility wasn’t understood by the general public.

For that matter, what do basic financial terms mean when it comes to planning for resiliency? “To me there is surprising ignorance over what property insurance is, why you would carry it and why it is priced the way it is,” Meyer said. “People don’t understand a lot of that. There is a total lack of education on risk and protection. Financial literacy is an acute problem.”

This in turn feeds into another fundamental aspect of resiliency. While good policy and good education are essential, in the big picture “recovery is all about money,” said Tamara Habib, co-founder of Firelily, a philanthropic effort to bridge the financial gap for communities in the wake of catastrophe.

Are You Resilient?

As emergency managers consider the question of resiliency, it helps to have benchmarks. Although every community will have its idiosyncrasies when it comes to short- and long-term recovery, some factors remain consistent. Resilient cities:

  • Are aware of their vulnerabilities and assets
  • Have diverse and redundant systems to cope with disaster
  • Have agencies that are integrated and share information
  • Are self-regulating — if one system fails, they can cut it off without allowing it to cascade into catastrophic failure
  • Are adaptive and flexible
“If you don’t qualify for an insurance payout, you have to destroy your savings or take a high-interest loan. Think about the impact that has on your ability to spend in your community and support small business,” she said. “There hasn’t been much research into the connection of personal recovery and community recovery, but I think we’d find that the lack of financial assistance and knowledge significantly affects the ability of the whole community to recover.”

The average American family has $3,800 in its savings account, while the average house fire costs more than $12,000 in repairs, according to Habib. “That’s a significant financial gap to overcome,” she said. “The largest source of financial assistance in the vast majority of cases is the American Red Cross, which is only able to provide an average of $550 per family of four. And yet we expect people to immediately repair and rebuild. The stats speak for themselves.”

Firelily takes a novel approach to resilience as a sort of philanthropic Kickstarter that connects those in need with those looking to help victims rebuild. Such efforts likely won’t solve the resiliency problem alone, but emergency planners should be aware that they have partners out there looking to achieve the same ends.

Complicating all these factors is that resilience itself is ill-defined. The term refers variously to the ability to weather the immediate crisis, the certainty with which the aftermath can be contained and the ability of the community to come back in the long term.

It’s no surprise then that resiliency can sometimes present itself as a moving target. “It’s not like one day the city council says, ‘OK, we are done, the city is now resilient,’” Whitney said. “It is a matter of constant improvement.”
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