Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Disasters Have Direction – What Does That Mean for Community Resilience?

For a few years, FEMA and DHS have championed the idea of an “All Hazards – Maximum of Maxima” approach to planning. The basic premise is that if a community plans for the worst of the worst, then it will be prepared for whatever may actually happen. This is a deceptively simple tautology that I think deserves a little more analysis than it usually receives, especially in terms of community resilience.

Let’s start by looking at an idealized community. A community can be thought of as an ecosystem. There is a “human layer,” made up of individuals and families. There is an institutional layer, consisting of private businesses and other economic institutions, and all of the other “human-serving” organizations in the community. Then there is the physical, environmental, layer – containing the built and natural environment. All of these are held together by the social capital within the community (some may argue whether the physical layer is bound to the community by its social capital, but that’s a subject for another post!).

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Of course, this is an ideal community; real communities may have a strong economy but be weak in the human element. Some have a decaying infrastructure but a flourishing natural environment. Thus, we can depict a real community as follows. This real community would be relatively weak in terms of its community institutions, have a somewhat stressed natural environment, but have a robust built environment.

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Now let’s assume the community is hit by a hurricane. The initial impact on the community is going to be on the physical layer; buildings are going to be blown down, debris will be strewn about, flooding may occur. The other parts of the community will be impacted because of these physical blows. In our notional real community depicted above, there would be relatively little damage done to the built environment, but the natural environment would experience much greater damage (at least in relative terms) because it is weaker.

But what happens if a pandemic occurs? There is no immediate physical damage. Any that occurs most likely happens because the humans who normally maintain infrastructure, for example, are not able to do so. This disaster has attacked individuals and families, and – because they are closely tied to the human layer – the community organizations that meet social needs. Since, in this case, there is relatively little capacity in the community institutions, they will be particularly hard hit – most likely overwhelmed. There is good reason to expect social capital to be impacted, as well.

A severe economic downturn attacks the community from another direction. Businesses lay off workers; some close. Many individuals and families experience severe economic hardship. There is no immediate impact on the other parts of the community ecosystem. Eventually, however, all will be affected. In our example community, the economic impacts are less severe than for a community with a weak economy, or already burdened individuals and families.

Thus, disasters have a direction, as shown in the next graphic.

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This may seem a rather obvious conclusion, but it has important consequences. Most importantly, it means that the vulnerability of a community to a specific threat will depend on both the direction and magnitude of the attack (the nature of the threat), and the relative strength of the community at the point of attack. A community may be weak in a certain direction (say, in terms of its community organizations), but if it is never attacked from that direction, then its weakness may never be exposed. Conversely, if it is strong in some way (say, a robust infrastructure and a flourishing natural environment), the community will be able to withstand events that might crush a lesser community. Thus, in the diagram, the community is highly vulnerable to Threat X, even if it is a relatively weak threat. The community is less vulnerable to Threat Y; in fact, it may be relatively unaffected by even moderate threats.

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This simple picture of a community also has meaning in terms of recovery and community resilience. If community resilience is measured by how fast – and effectively – resources are deployed to achieve community restoration and recovery, then the social capital within the community plays a crucial role. Suppose Threat X above actually materializes. The vulnerable part of the community has few available resources. It is the community’s social capital – its connectedness – that provides the pathways for resources to be shifted within the community. It is the community’s social capital that determines whether resources from outside the community are effectively brought to bear. In a very real sense, it is the community’s social capital that determines whether the community actually recovers from disaster.

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Disasters have a direction in terms of how they assail a community. Communities have strengths and weaknesses. The direction of the threats that face a community, and the strengths and weaknesses of a community, will determine whether a threat will cause a disaster. If it does, the community’s social capital is the key to its ability to recover – to the resilience of the community.