A hurricane, tornado or flood that destroys homes and property goes beyond individual harm. Entire communities suffer.
In the aftermath of an event like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the New York-New Jersey shore in fall 2012, we naturally ask how people can rebuild their lives. But on a broader level: what makes one community or region better at responding to a natural disaster and surviving its aftermath?
At its most basic, resiliency is the ability to absorb a shock and bounce back. But it needs to be about more than that. At its heart, resiliency is responding to challenges in ways that promote a more equitable distribution of resources across the region to:
Reduce and avoid spatial divisions by race, class, and household status
Promote lasting environmental quality
There is no top 10 list of attributes that are going to guarantee resiliency. It’s more about decision-making structures.
Communities and regions exist within intergovernmental systems and their fortunes are inevitably shaped by decision making at the state and national level. If we just focus on the attributes of the particular region, then we ignore the important role that state and federal policies play in shaping the fortunes of regions and the important responsibility they have to help regions respond to challenges.
There is nothing “natural” about the organization of population and space in regions damaged by severe weather. Decades of federal and state policies have led to metropolitan areas that are divided along economic and racial and ethnic lines, with clear consequences for who is harmed when a natural disaster hits. The book The Neoliberal Deluge captures this point using the immediate aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. Will rebuilding efforts incorporate the concerns and interests of New Orleans’ low-income and African-American residents? Or, will they perpetuate old divisions?
In the same way that there is nothing natural about the about the way in which these shocks affect regions, there is nothing natural about the way our response to these crises will alter the future of the region and the prospects of people who live there. Individuals are embedded in communities, just as communities are embedded in a broader federal governance system. A system, according to urban scholar Todd Swanstrom, that sets “the rules and structures within which regional resilience occurs.”
Public policy at these higher levels of government has shaped regions in ways that impact their current level of resilience. When we look for ways to increase future resilience, we need to look to federal and state policy makers for help.
You won’t ever get everyone to agree on a solution, but you need regional institutions capable of making decisions that reflect the concerns and needs of the region, rather than individual pieces of the region. You also need mechanisms for incorporating the views of all groups. Regions make different kinds of decisions in areas where lower-income residents have an organized voice that is part of the governing conversation.
It is heart-warming to read stories about community volunteers and local businesses working together to help rebuild neighborhoods. But, we should not let the nature of these stories blind us to the important role of government and public policy in shaping the fortunes of the places we live. In particular, state and federal government must pay close attention to the way in which their policy decisions will shape communities and regions for decades to come.