Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Research Needed for the New Resilience

CARRI’s view of community resilience encompasses resistance, response and recovery.  As Claire Rubin and others have said, we simply don’t know enough about recovery and until we do, that lack of knowledge will hinder our attempts to become more resilient.  But to better understand what I think we need to know, let me tell a story.  

A group of foresters are walking through the dense undergrowth when they reach a clearing where a mighty oak has been uprooted by the wind.  Some of them stop to study why that oak fell – the wind speed, the root system, perhaps the soil and so on.  Some of them go on to the next clearing where a pine has been struck by lightning, and died and fallen.  Again, some of them stop to study why the pine fell. Others go on to another clearing and begin to study how an elm attacked by disease has fallen.  While each studies their downed tree in minute detail, all of them bemoan the fact that there are really too few downed trees of the same type that have fallen for the same reason to be able to obtain a general knowledge of why oaks or pines or elms fall due to wind, or lightning or disease.  

But they are standing in the midst of a forest in which the trees are each bending to the wind and the other elements and then straightening when the wind or the rain dies down.  And the foresters are really most interested in what keeps the trees standing straight and tall, not what makes them fall.  So it should be with community recovery and resilience.  Resilience does not arise from demonstrated weakness but rather from the exertion of strength.  Thus, we need to know and understand the strengths of each community, how those strengths are exerted, and how we can nurture those strengths so that they become even stronger.  We must look to those still standing, not those who have been beaten down by the storm.

An illustrative anecdote.  At the recent Natural Hazards Conference, an eminent researcher and I had the following exchange.
Me:  One of the things to look at is what the Native Americans did – they voted with their feet.  If their village was no longer viable, they moved.
Eminent Researcher (ER):  But the black and poor can’t move away.
Me:  Then who was it who moved from the rural South to the cities of the North during the Great Migration of the 20′s and 30′s?
I found it amusingly ironic that ER later bemoaned the fact that we can’t find so many of the people who left New Orleans after Katrina, and implicitly acknowledged that many of these were also black and poor.  ER was focused on the perceived weaknesses, the characteristics of those who stayed behind, but hadn’t thought about the strengths of those who had left and begun new lives in other areas.  In my experience, many of them were black and poor as well, but had called on strengths not seen by ER.  We need to identify and nurture those strengths.

And a recent study on recovering from Storm Sandy begins to do just that.  The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research has an excellent study “Resilience in the Wake of Superstorm Sandy” (http://www.apnorc.org/projects/Pages/resilience-in-the-wake-of-superstorm-sandy.aspx).  Based on surveys of residents in the region affected by the storm, these researchers provide a preliminary look at what’s important for recovery.  For example, the researchers found that social cohesion and trust among neighbors was an important indicator of speed of recovery.  More often than not, those affected by the storm turned to friends, families and neighbors for assistance and support.  If we accept these results, then the follow-on research questions become “How do we increase social cohesion?” and “How do we strengthen family ties?” or “Should our cities provide support for neighborhood block parties [Singapore provides funding for neighborhood block parties specifically to help build more cohesive neighborhoods.]?”

If we are to realize the New Resilience, then we need to better understand what strengths are needed to recover from crises and how to nurture them.  Clearly we don’t know enough yet – the challenge to researchers is to illuminate these still dark corners of our communities.