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Community Resilience Requires Collaboration

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Christine Gibbs Springer

Last year marked a record high, internationally, in the cost of weather disasters at $41billion. Public managers are becoming more aware of the need to enhance preparedness through collaboration with nonprofits and other agencies while also making clear the complex nature of doing so due to diverse stakeholders.

Some managers shine during a major crisis, while others don’t. As a strategic manager, one must follow a comprehensive protocol that includes the implementation of teams, systems and tools to build public awareness and respond to a crisis. It also requires having an action plan in place to react quickly, manage rumors and respond to victims and stakeholders sincerely while recovering from the crises’ impact. It starts with being willing to ask and answer important questions like what is the worst that could happen? It then requires addressing how to plan for and avert crises by securing the workplace as well as proper management of the workplace and community infrastructure during technical, intentional and natural disasters. It also requires maintaining effective communications.

Today, strategic management of crises means developing community and organizational resilience. The concept of resilience has been well documented for more than 30 years in the fields of engineering, biology, psychology and social science. In biology, it means perseverance of organisms and life systems. In psychology, it means perseverance of human beings during crises and their interaction with social systems. In social science, according to Aaron Wildavsky, it means a workable alternative to anticipation because of the need to prepare for the unknown rather than using a rational paradigm of goals-means thinking.

Building resilience in communities and organizations, as well as in their surrounding regions, is a process that seeks to improve the ability to contend with the overwhelming impacts of hazard events. Hazards include natural events like hurricanes, tornadoes, pandemics and floods as well as human-caused events like war, terrorist attacks or economic calamities. Ultimately, these events disrupt a community’s normal functions and are characterized by human casualties and damage to or destruction of the built environment and/or ecological resources. As an example, in 1947, the community of Woodward, Oklahoma and its 15,000 residents was decimated by a tornado. On April 27, 2014, another tornado of similar size demolished parts of Arkansas with 160 mph winds killing 16 citizens.

Since the 2010 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review first identified resilience as one of three foundational elements essential to a comprehensive approach to homeland security, it has received increased attention at national, state, local and even societal levels. Today, resilience is often defined as the ability to adapt to changing conditions, withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies. To be more specific, community resilience is defined as creating structures and procedures to ensure its capability to continue to operate critical systems such as communications even during the disaster and to rapidly restart all essential systems that allow a human society to be supported and continue based upon key mission areas: anticipate, prepare, mitigate, respond, recover, learn and readjust.

Effective community resilience programs:

1) Engage stakeholders across the social and political spectrum of the community.

2) Create buy-in from local leaders and initiate effective leadership relationships and strategies.

3) Communicate and coordinate across and among interdependent organizations.

4) Conduct ongoing planning, preparation and training that extends from anticipation and reduction through response and recovery.

5)  Keep plans flexible to enable more agile responses to the unexpected.

For example, engaging stakeholders in a community like Memphis, Tenn. is key to resilience. The urban area is a six-county area centered on Memphis, but also spans three states—Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi—and has 1.2 million residents who are demographically, economically, politically and environmentally diverse.

Effective and trusted leadership is vital to preparing for and responding to a disruptive event and it is equally important at all levels of government. In Shelby County, Tenn., local mayors have collaborated to create ReadyShelby, which partners with public, private, faith-based and nonprofit organizations to share guidelines for preparedness, regular training and exercises. In addition, a series of public preparedness messages are broadcast monthly.

Communities establish and maintain effective and redundant means of communication and coordination that involve both informal and formal social networks as well as hard communication systems. In Charleston, S.C., communication systems involving telephones and cell phones are now supplemented by informal networks and local media through an institutionalized communications network, redundant computer/ web, radio and landline telecommunications. In addition, Charleston County has a Reverse 911 system, which is an automatic system that dials all numbers in the community and issues warnings to individual residences.

Planning, preparation and training is ongoing and involves regular reassessment and updating of plans as well as passing on the lessons learned from the past to new leaders. Regular training, drills and exercises maintain channels of communication and reinforce cooperation among organizations while building skill across agencies and jurisdictions. Coordinated training increases awareness of pre-existing interdependencies and strengthens working relationships among organizations and stakeholders.

In Memphis, Tenn., the Urban Areas Security Initiative provides a means for counties in the Memphis area to jointly plan, coordinate and conduct training exercises for emergency purposes. The effort also includes scientific research on the potential impacts of natural events and the results provide emergency planners with credible data for planning. In Charleston, S.C., area officials maintain and update plans for a variety of hazards in coordination with the South Carolina Emergency Management Department and the state agency conducts an annual drill involving a broad range of local emergency response personnel. In Gulfport, Miss., post-Katrina, a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan was developed to address administrative shortcomings and regular drills/ exercises are now conducted in coordination with faith-based and voluntary organizations.

Flexibility is maintained by resilient communities to allow them to plan for the unexpected and maintain overall readiness. Plans, while essential, cannot deal with the myriad contingencies that may erupt. Consequently, leaders, emergency-response professionals, volunteers, citizens and public managers must all be flexible to adjust as events unfold. As an example, in Gulfport, Miss., an unexpected element of the long-term post-Katrina recovery was the surge in mental health service needs. Many mental health providers left, at least temporarily, after the storm and there was a growing need for services among residents. The Gulfport Area Interfaith Disaster Task Force addressed this need as part of a broader agenda to serve vulnerable populations. They brought in experienced trauma counselors to provide care for the caregivers and hosted an annual summit to maintain preparedness and share lessons learned.

Since 2010, community and organizational resilience has made great progress but more needs to be done. In the future, we should document and share with other agencies, nonprofits and public charities measureable outcomes regarding the following:

1. How to make multilevel governance work through higher levels of governance to facilitate not simply manage how resilience strategies are developed and delivered.

2. How to engage citizens in understanding risks and how to prepare for them.

3. How to successfully facilitate rapid learning and situational awareness on the part of all decision makers using modern technology.

4. How to improve international cooperation to better understand how international institutions can better lend a hand before, during and after a disaster.

 5. How to determine the price of resilience because at times the opportunity costs may exceed the benefits.

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