Tornadoes and violent storms ripped through the Midwest Plains states this weekend, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Once again, national attention turns to how communities such as Woodward, Oklahoma, and Thurman, Iowa, can rebuild and recover.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Biloxi, Mississippi and saw the progress that had been made in recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Six years on, the rebuilding continues and the stories of the people who survived the disaster in spite of losing their homes and businesses are testaments to the resilience of the communities along the Gulf Coast. Although many people left and have not returned, it is clear that there is a powerful human force at work which drives not only a desire to rebuild but also to create a better place.
|In 2007, a tornado leveled Greensburg, Kansas. The city council passed a resolution stating that all city buildings would be built to LEED platinum standards, making it the first city in the nation to do so.|
Resilience is the term used to describe the process by which communities and regions bounce back after a disaster, and is the subject of a new report from the Rural Futures Lab. Regional Resilience: Research and Policy Brief was prepared for the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) to review the growing literature on the topic, the approaches being adopted by Federal agencies, and the work of public-private partnerships to improve community understanding and preparedness. The report also includes new analyses of economic, social, and infrastructure vulnerability across the nation.
Here are some of the report’s conclusions:
Research and experience over the past 20 years show a growing understanding of the complexity of anticipating, responding to, and recovering from disasters of all types. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to focus on a particular type of disaster in isolation, such as terrorism or flooding, because communities increasingly are faced with multiple, and sometimes cascading hazards. This realization demands what is commonly termed an all-hazards approach. Although each hazard presents particular challenges, the processes of preparedness and planning are broadly consistent, and there is general consensus on the main components of these processes.
|This map shows the number of FEMA Disaster Declarations per county |
against the national average. It covers the time period from 1991 - 2011.
Some communities and regions are clearly more vulnerable than others to disasters, although no community is immune from some sort of threat. Settlements on coastlines, in river floodplains and valleys, in or adjacent to forestlands, on seismic faults, or in the regular paths of major storms can be particularly vulnerable. Some of these communities may well have placed themselves in harm’s way as a result of poor or short-sighted development decisions.
But vulnerability is more than a function of geography, it can also be economic. The disaster may be the closing of a plant or the collapse of a whole industry as a result of changing market conditions or the introduction of new technologies; or it may be a consequence of a natural disaster that has disrupted or even destroyed local businesses. Sustaining businesses and economies has been shown to be a critical part of regional and community recovery but often not give the priority deserved.
Vulnerability can also be social, as the events following Hurricane Katrina very publicly demonstrated. Differential impacts on segments of the population based on race, income, mobility, language capability, and other factors are not only unfair and unjust, but undermine recovery efforts.
The federal policy response to disasters has been transformed over the past decade. Driven after 9/11 by heightened concerns over terrorism, it has evolved into an all-hazards approach following Hurricane Katrina and a succession of other major disasters both at home and abroad.
The development of the National Response and National Disaster Recovery Frameworks have brought to the forefront the need for seamless coordination of federal, state, and local efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. Elaborate processes and structures have been introduced to pursue planning, coordination, training and exercises, and certification across the country.
Interestingly, this concerted federal effort has generated at least two very important initiatives that have engaged collaborations across the private, public, academic, and nonprofit sectors.
- One is primarily focused on the security of critical infrastructure. It is called the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP), and was published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2009.
- The other initiative focuses on building the capacity of local communities and regions to drive preparedness, response, and recovery efforts in line with their own vision for their future. It is called the Community & Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI).
Disasters pay no attention to jurisdictional boundaries or to whether a place is designated urban or rural, metro or nonmetro. But in rural areas, many counties and localities do not have the personnel or technical or fiscal capacity to engage in planning and preparation. Many of these communities may be vulnerable. The national network of regional development organizations represents an infrastructure that can address this capacity and vulnerability challenge.
All regions and communities need to plan and prepare for disasters in ways that are holistic and fully engaging of all sectors of the community. It is fair to say that there is an ingrained suspicion of, if not outright resistance to, the idea of planning across much of America. But as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, oil spills, wildfires, floods, and other natural and human-made disaster continue to assail our communities, there may be a window of opportunity to recast old and worn-out planning efforts and to help communities and regions see a better future for themselves, with or without a disaster. Moreover, in times of fiscal stringency, where the public sector is less able to function as the principal protector and responder, engaging the resources and talents from all parts of communities and regions may be the best way to proceed.
Visit the Rural Futures Lab here.