Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Resilience – Can’t We Try Something Different?

I just heard an interesting talk by Dr. Irwin Redlener of Columbia at the Hazards Conference here in Colorado. At the conclusion, he proposed that we needed more federal government coordination of resources for family and individuals – a one-stop shop that would coordinate the needs of those affected by disaster and help them to get the resources needed.

I asked him why not take a page from the renewable energy folks and have a more distributed model of preparedness and recovery. Essentially, I was getting at asking more from individuals who live in risky places, and their communities; while expecting less from the federal government.

His answer was profoundly unsatisfactory to me. He pointed to the scale of disasters – such as Sandy – and opined that the federal government needed to take a bigger role in recovery. But do they? Maybe so, but does that excuse individual citizens from the responsibility of being prepared? Does that give communities a get-out-of-jail-free card (see NYC and their expectation – now realized – that the federal government is going to pay to protect their subway system) when they have failed to prepare adequately?

If we look at Katrina, those communities that were prepared or that took responsibility for their own recovery were the ones that recovered better. The Village l’Est community of Vietnamese fishermen had a vision and were devoting resources to improving their community long before Katrina. They recovered far sooner than other similar communities who looked to the federal government as their savior.

After Katrina, the Broadmoor community in New Orleans defied both the city and FEMA and through their own efforts have become the epitome of building back better. Conversely, too many residents in places like the Ninth Ward did not have the foresight – or take the responsibility – to ensure that transfer payments from the government could reach them. Would a federal coordinator of benefits have helped them to recover faster – certainly. But why didn’t they take steps themselves to assure that the assistance they needed would continue – obviating the need for a federal coordinator.

I have a five-year-old grandson who is the apple of my eye. The world I am bequeathing to him assuredly will afford him less opportunity to live as good a life as I have. Our staggering federal debt – equal to twice the value of the gold mined throughout all of history – is a burden even Ajax shouldn’t have to shoulder, let alone a young boy. Let’s try something different. Let’s try responsibility. Let everyone prepare to the best of their abilities. Force communities to take responsibility for their own bad decisions – like those in Oklahoma who will not require storm shelters in schools in tornado country.

We in CARRI fervently believe that resilience will only be achieved if the whole community participates. That means each of us has to take responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones. We each need to be prepared for crises. For many crises, our neighborhood (see Broadmoor) will do a better job of helping us to recover than some federal bureaucrat with a one-size-fits-all solution. Just as a distributed energy system is more resilient to shocks than our current centralized systems, so we must consider whether a more distributed recovery system would be more resilient (and probably would be more cost effective!).

We all can agree that our current approach doesn’t work nearly as well as we want it to, or it should. But our answer up to now (and that advocated by Dr. Redlener) has always been to increase federal involvement, i.e., to make each of us and our communities less resilient. Isn’t it time to try something new?