Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Local government and disaster resilience

I am a tremendous admirer of Claire Rubin and her Recovery Diva blog.  There are mornings – days – when I rely on her to get my juices flowing.  The other morning was no exception.  She posted a link to an essay by Steve Cohen (Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia U) proposing that the federal government set up a new tax-based program to provide funds for rebuilding homes damaged by disaster, for example in Louisiana after the floods.  To me the most important thing about the article was its title – What is the role of government in disaster?

Ever since the flooding began – this time – in Louisiana, I have been struggling with this question.  And for us in the US, it’s really the wrong question, for we have municipal, parish and tribal governments in the flooded areas, a state government, and the federal government.  Each has roles they play in making our communities more resilient.  But rather than focusing on the federal government as Dr. Cohen does, I want to look at local government.  It should know best the risks its community faces; it should know best what resources its community can call on; and it has the largest stake in its community’s resilience.

As Dr. Cohen points out, we are building in places we’ve never built before; places of high risk where we shouldn’t be building.  What Dr. Cohen doesn’t point out is that in too many cases we’re building badly – fragile doll houses liable to be smashed when Mother Nature has a bad day.  Homes in flood zones not raised so that water can pass under them.  Wooden homes in wild fire areas with tall pines less than a meter from their walls and pine straw on their roofs.  Homes in tornado zones with weak – or no – connections between roofs and foundations.

Dr. Cohen focuses on rebuilding from disaster; I much prefer to use a wider lens because I believe – to paraphrase Sun Tzu – the best disaster is one avoided.  It is in this context that we can best recognize the role of of local government in both disaster avoidance and disaster recovery.

Almost by definition, a disaster means destruction and damage beyond the coping capabilities of local governments.  But – using the wider lens – local governments still have four important roles to play.  The first is educational – local governments need to ensure that residents know the risks of living where they live.  If they’re in a flood plain, if they’re subject to wild fires, if they’re in Tornado Alley.  Certainly homeowners should know these things, but if you’re a young father working two jobs with a boy who needs insurance before he can play peewee football and a girl who needs ballet slippers and a wife who is working part-time and taking care of your sick Mom on the side, I’ll cut you some slack if you didn’t have time to do your due diligence about the chances of losing your home to Nature’s wrath.

The second role for a local government is set a good example by taking action to mitigate those risks.  In particular, it needs to enforce building codes that ensure that homes and businesses and its own buildings will survive all but the worst that Mother Nature may throw at them.  Local government has to recognize that – just as it’s true for homeowners – it’s true for businesses and government:  you can’t live your normal life if you don’t have a roof over your head.  You can’t collect taxes if your tax base has been washed away.  You can’t provide the services your citizens expect if you’ve lost the resources to do so and the places to provide those services have been blown down.  It is sickening when places like Shelby County – in the heart of the New Madrid earthquake zone – actually try to weaken their building codes; cowardly cowering before greedy developers who really don’t care how many lives will be destroyed when the walls come tumbling down.

The third role is as the guardian of recovery.  After a disaster, money and supplies will flow in – for a while.  There is a horrible temptation to rapidly rebuild things the way they were even if that ensures another disaster.  Local government has a responsibility to make sure that rebuilding is done right not just rapidly.

At the same time, money – especially from the federal government – comes with strings attached.  Bureaucrats hundreds or even thousands of miles away will want to make decisions about what the community should become and the path it should take.  But those bureaucrats don’t know what makes the community the special place it is.  They haven’t seen people looking at the old clock tower as a pillar of permanence; they haven’t seen families sitting on their front porches chatting with the neighbors as they walk by; they haven’t seen the young and old lovers tenderly walking down by the river hand-in-hand.  But local government should; and thus should know what must be preserved if recovery is to be more than a check mark on a bureaucrat’s ledger.  One of the lessons I took from New Orleans after Katrina was that the federal government – though well-intentioned – didn’t have a clue about how the communities that comprise the city should recover.  The cosmically unqualified Mayor at the time went along with whatever FEMA’s contractors proposed; it took neighborhoods like Broadmoor with a vision of what they should become and a new and better Mayor willing to help them fight for the resources needed to realize that vision before recovery truly began.

And that ties in with the fourth role local government must play – as the wise steward of public funds.  To many (esp. on the political Right) that means not spending money.  But that’s miserliness, not wisdom.  Wisdom is investing public funds in projects that will provide a positive return on the investment.  Thus, the wise steward recognizes that every dollar invested in disaster mitigation saves four dollars when disaster hits.  To their credit, local governments and the state were investing in projects that would have mitigated and certainly avoided the worst of the flooding in Louisiana.  To their discredit, they allowed the projects to proceed with the speed of glaciers, and thus the benefits of their investments were not realized.  The same holds true for Italy; investments to make old structures more earthquake-worthy apparently were made but they were not effective (Knowing Louisiana as I do, I have to wonder what role endemic corruption played in both cases).

Pundits and even disaster scholars have seemed to fixate on our federal government as the “fixer” of any and every wrong in the world.  At a time when we have gridlock in Washington and perhaps the worst candidates for President since the dark era before our Civil War, we should look carefully at the roles our local governments can, should and often do play in our communities’ resilience.  Informing us of the risks we face, ensuring the integrity of our built environment, guiding disaster recovery so that it isn’t a prelude to another disaster, and investing our public funds wisely – these are the roles our local governments should play.  And that they must play if our communities are to be truly resilient to natural disasters.