Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Local government and resilience

I follow the Recovery Diva blog by Claire Rubin religiously.  One of the main reasons is Claire’s uncanny ability to find papers and articles that I don’t stumble across on my own.  A few weeks ago, she pointed us all to an article by John Travis Marshall (Georgia State University School of Law), called “Rating the Cities:  Constructing a City Resilience Index…” (NB:  behind a pay wall).  Knowing my interest in resilience, she asked me to take a look at the article and share my thoughts. Claire posted my initial take, but I’ve made a few additions/changes after talking with Marshall and so am reposting an updated version.

Marshall has a multi-faceted background, having practiced real estate and land use law and worked with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.  A main focus of his scholarship is recovery of urban areas from crisis and disasters.  He clearly learned a great deal during his time in NOLA, and has internalized those lessons well.

The well-written article focuses on the resilience of local government – not just the legal framework (laws, regulations and legal institutions) but especially its effectiveness.  Marshall begins by spotlighting the problematic recoveries from Katrina, Rita and Sandy.  He points out that many of these arose because local government was unable – did not have the capacity necessary – to marshal the resources to plan and achieve an effective recovery.  He builds a good case that the problems he identifies were foreseeable and should have been foreseen.

He then posits that a City Resilience Index (CRI) would be a useful tool to move communities to become more resilient.  The CRI thus should “evaluate the range of [local] governmental community capacities that are critical for implementing long-term disaster recovery efforts by states, the federal government,” and other sources of resources.  While he acknowledges that recovery requires the involvement of non-governmental organizations as well and states that the intent is to eventually expand the CRI beyond government, it is not clear how this will be done.  The CRI is still at an early stage of development so Marshall has not yet confronted the knotty (and naughty) problems of how to actually calculate an index.

The great strength of the paper is that it is probably the only attempt to systematically assess the resilience (=ability to recover quickly from crisis) of local government – a valuable step forward in evaluating a community’s resilience.  However, by looking only at local government initially, there is a real danger that important interdependencies in actual communities will be missed.  While I’m not a big fan of any of the resilience indices that have been developed so far (including the one I developed for CARRI) most of them started with the “Whole Community” concept.  Their creators implicitly or explicitly recognized that, as Betty Morrow has said, a community is only as resilient as its weakest part. If local government is the weakest link then making it more resilient is of the greatest importance.  However, if the business sector, for example, is the weakest link then actions to “fix” local government may be of only marginal value.

Marshall envisions his CRI fulfilling three purposes:

• Evaluating the laws and institutions that would enable a city to recover quickly from disaster.
• Measuring the contribution of the laws and institutions to recovery, and thus providing a comparison of communities.
• Tracking a city’s resilience over time.

This brings up several questions that Marshall will be addressing as this work goes forward.  For example,

• Who will be the users?  As a citizen of my city I care about both response and recovery – don’t we need to have both represented?  Will the same index be useful for all of the potential users identified by Marshall?
• Marshall seems to implicitly assume that capacities demonstrated during normal conditions are reliable indicators of performance in the far from normal conditions after a disaster (admittedly a common assumption).  In my experience, however, bureaucracies that are normally efficient tend to be less flexible.  This is consistent with the observation that the demand for building permits and inspections extremely stresses city housing offices that may be quite efficient under normal circumstances.  How justified is Marshall’s assumption?
• How reliable is an index – a roll up of several attributes – as a predictor of resilience?  And even if the index is a good predictor it might be difficult for a government official to know how to correct a low score – the components of the CRI likely would be more informative because they would point toward specific actions to be taken.
• How is the role of the state reflected in a city’s actions?  As Marshall acknowledges in discussing eminent domain issues in Louisiana after Katrina,  state laws and regulations can either help or hinder a community’s recovery from disaster.  Some time ago I wrote a post about Dillon’s Rule (the legal basis for state Home Rule legislation) and community resilience.  I pointed to initiatives undertaken by cities (e.g., Gary, IN) that ultimately failed because the state legislature would not allow the city to take desired actions.  Given the widely differing amount of Home Rule granted to communities by state legislatures across the US, shouldn’t this factor be explicitly represented in a CRI?

Marshall’s CRI (in this initial version) is focused on a jurisdiction’s ability to successfully implement long-term recovery programs.  There are no convenient metrics for this so Marshall has to use surrogates as indicators of a local government’s resilience.  In this paper he chooses to focus on housing and community development – certainly important parts of community resilience.

Marshall discusses four indicators in detail:  a city’s ability to implement federal community development block grant programs, its ability to pursue redevelopment objectives with federal state and private entities, the capacity of land use banks and vacant property management agencies, and state prohibitions against use of eminent domain.  While Marshall justifies each of these I was left puzzled by what wasn’t chosen:

• Leadership:  In times of crisis a community looks to its elected leaders to cut through the “Fog of War” and re-establish some sort of normalcy.    As I have said many times before, there are three important components of community resilience – leadership, leadership, and … leadership.  There are several components of leadership; e.g., trust, confidence, respect, empathy.  If we are to understand the role that local government plays in the resilience of a community we have to assess the contribution of its leadership (And who knows?  That understanding might even carry over into electing better leaders – or at least we can dream that it would!).

When John and I discussed this, we agreed that “Leadership” is both too fraught with emotional baggage and actually an inaccurate descriptor of what needs to be assessed.  A community’s strength in all four of Marshall’s indicators transcends local government and points to cooperation and collaboration among various parts of the community.  Thus, “governance” – how a community makes decisions and  takes action – is actually what needs to be assessed.
• Risk:  What is the risk profile of the community?  There is an intriguing effort by FEMA to better quantify this just getting under way.
• Building codes:  Lack of appropriate building codes (and especially lack of enforcement) can mean the difference between crisis and disaster.  On a deeper level, enforcement of appropriate building codes indicates a city leadership with an awareness of risk and a willingness to spend to hedge that risk.
• People:  How well-staffed are the city offices that will be highly stressed by a disaster?  Does the community have personnel who know how to navigate the shoals of federal funding?  In conversation, John pointed out how big an impediment the latter was to NOLA’s recovery.
• Financial resources:  Getting federal and state assistance is important as Marshall discusses.  However, what is the insurance profile of the community?  The ISO rating of a community subject to wind, flooding or fire would seem to be an important indicator as well.

Marshall’s work is a valuable first step toward understanding how local government contributes to the resilience of the community.  He deserves great credit for trying to climb such a steep mountain where there is no track to guide him.  I may find his treatment incomplete but I greatly respect his foray along an uncharted path.