Building Community Capacity to Reduce the Adverse Effects of Natural Disasters

08.08.2017 | In Community & Events
By Shannon Cunniff, Director, Coastal Resilience, Environmental Defense Fund

Originally posted on LinkedIn on August 2, 2017.

A couple of weeks ago I spent three days with the nation’s leading researchers and practitioners in reducing the hazards of natural disasters, and the evidence is clear: Disasters have an adverse effect on the social, economic, and environmental fabric of their communities – and climate change is already making the problem more acute.

Large and small communities across the nation are trying to figure out how they will adapt and mitigate to reduce the impacts of natural hazards – floods, drought, wild fire, mudslides, tornadoes and earthquakes – on their communities.   

While federal progress on climate mitigation may be stalled, government agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology, continue efforts to reduce the impacts from extreme weather disasters.

Local planners, emergency responders, ecologists and sociologists are banding together to sift through the plethora of plans, including economic development, transportation, energy, natural resources, and disaster plans, just to name a few. The aim is to de-conflict the plans and create more integrated frameworks that actually guide communities toward greater resiliency.

You’ve probably experienced an aspect of these conflicts. Maybe you’ve participated in a tree planting effort to beautify and cool a neighborhood only to see the trees bulldozed a year or two later to widen a road. Or perhaps you’ve seen a pothole being fixed one week only to see the whole street torn up a month later? This lack of integration can really affect the success of disaster risk reduction efforts.  

For example, through this process, one town – you’ll see why I don’t name it – realized that its economic development plan called for increased density in a walkable community. Unfortunately, it was the very same area that emergency planners had identified for private property buy-outs because it flooded so frequently.

These reviews are revealing where hospitals, fire stations, and schools will be isolated by rising seas or flood events. Integrating plans will help guide where to build infrastructure – both built and natural – to reduce the costs of disasters, generate disaster risk reduction benefits as well as other day-to-day benefits like public open-space, groundwater recharge, and higher property values.

Getting agreement from the public and political leaders on whether humans are the cause of climate change is not seen as a barrier to building resilient infrastructure. Increasingly, conversations are about reducing economic and social disruption from disasters, finding ways to create thriving communities through safe growth, and positioning communities to wisely leverage disaster funds if and when one strikes.

Plans need to be built with the community – not solely by community planners through practices founded on informed citizen involvement. Louisiana’s LA SAFE program was highlighted as an exciting example of how to combine grassroots (community members) and grasstops (experts) knowledge to help define community assets and values; assess vulnerabilities now and at various times in the future; and define projects, programs, and policy changes necessary to achieve the future they envision.

Efforts across the nation are building community capacity to plan for a climate impacted future, seeking to change perverse incentives, and incorporating risk reduction as a fundamental land use planning tool. Best of all, there is growing recognition that protecting and restoring natural habitats is an important component to ensuring communities thrive. 

Resiliency isn’t a fixed endpoint. It’s a journey, and while the path won’t be easy, at least we’re underway.