There is broad and growing recognition that resilience is important, but there is less consensus about what this concept looks like in practice. The term could mean the ability to rebuild and recover from a disaster, the ability to mitigate risks and hazards, the ability to restore economic development and growth, or all of these factors combined.
True resilience is a combination of recovery, risk mitigation, and economic growth, but achieving it is easier said than done. Translating “resilience” from a laudable but amorphous concept into measurable results requires two key ingredients: (a) breaking out of operational and program silos at all levels of government; and (b) working with nontraditional groups that wield significant social influence.
Breaking Out of Silos
Communities receive funding from various sources – Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), U.S. Department of Commerce, and others – and programs that often are not affiliated with each other. However, these funding partnerships – for example, FEMA Public Assistance and HUD Community Development Block Grants – sometimes create operational silos that may hinder resilience.
For example, communities typically receive federal grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to support state and local preparedness efforts by fire and police departments. These grants are targeted and augment what communities would normally do. Then there is another set of funds that localities receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to mitigate hazards (Hazard Mitigation Grant Program) and reduce future risks, such as flooding.
Mitigating risk is the hallmark of both programs, but one has a terrorism-centric focus, while the other is used primarily for flood mitigation or tornado safe-room development. Both programs talk about how to improve the current infrastructure of people, places, and things to make them more resilient, but they are programmatically split, victims to separate political spheres of influence and rarely coordinated at a national program level or even within states.
Communities could avoid such division by examining how to link disparate programs and funding sources so they address resilience in a holistic, rather than unsystematic, way. For example, when a hurricane damages the public infrastructure of a community such as a bridge that carries an important road network, more than just the bridge is at stake. Commerce may be adversely affected when people lose mobility to travel to their jobs or to the store to get supplies. Local governments also can experience a drop in tax revenue. The economic ripples grow as private sector companies have their supply chain and workforce disrupted.
When considering these impacts, several mechanisms to support the rebuilding exist – FEMA for disaster reconstruction support and highway trust fund money from the U.S. Department of Transportation, just to name two federal resources. As community leaders think about restoring a lifeline bridge, they need to consider not only how to rebuild it better to withstand the next hurricane, but also how it can be built in such a way to enhance community growth, to prepare for the next event, and to promote community development or public safety. In turn, funding that expands the potential use beyond FEMA support could include other federal, state, and local resources, making the project more feasible, while also creating lasting resilience implications for the community.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some states like Mississippi developed wide-ranging programs that focused on long-term major improvements to infrastructure, and used funding from multiple federal and state sources. Officials in the state of Mississippi coined the phrase “global match,” the goal of which was to leverage widespread federal funds that all required a state match to meet the criteria of each program so as to limit a large taxpayer burden for their already storm-ravaged economies. In some cases, this approach created improved and more resilient public safety communications systems that will have long-term resilience effects.
Harnessing the Power of Social Media & Community Groups
Local governments and communities are accustomed to working with familiar organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army to aid in disaster response, but it is important to recognize that other ad-hoc community groups can have an even bigger impact, especially given the power and reach of social media. However, it can be challenging for emergency managers and local officials to learn how to harness the power of nontraditional groups in a fast-moving situation.
Part of resilience lies in understanding where the social capital of a community lies, and in being able to recognize new influencers and centers of gravity as they emerge. This means thinking less about how to control social media and more about how to harness and work with it, learn from it and make use of the power it can have. Some groups that are vital to the fabric of a community can be identified ahead of time, but not all of them. What matters is the ability to register when new community power brokers surface as events unfold, and to understand how to enlist their help and support.
Identifying the barriers to recovery efforts and working together to lift them is crucial. For example, it is the role of the power company to restore power quickly – but the state can lift permit requirements to allow out-of-state line workers to help, with community groups clearing the right of way to let these trucks in.
Breaking out of operational silos and harnessing the social power of local communities are the keys to real resilience. The results are measurable not only by how quickly any given community recovers from a disaster, but also by its success in reinvigorating and growing its economic base. Resilience in practice starts with rebuilding and planning, but does not end there. A community mired in disaster response mode for too long cannot return to healthy economic activity, which in turn would attract more business and more people wanting to live and work in the region. That is the meaning and the measure of true resilience.