Want to build disaster resilience in your community? And worldwide?

Events in Japan and indeed around the world following the recent earthquake and tsunami have heightened everyone’s desire to build community disaster resilience. Yesterday’s post showed how anyone can launch and be part of a just such a community effort. Today, we’ll consider two additional small steps to the process. Each starts with a little story…

The first comes from my wife, who is a licensed DC tour guide. One day a few summers ago, she was one of several guides doing a big tour. They were showing around a high school band in town from Iowa for an event. At one point, when they were all out of their buses, one of her fellow tour guides made a short speech to the group. He specifically addressed the girls in the band, and he told them, “Every one of you should have a [life] plan. And don’t marry any young man who doesn’t have a plan!” My wife never tires of telling this story to friends (not the same ones!), and I never tire of hearing it.

Good advice! Former president Dwight Eisenhower was reputed to have said, “Plans are worthless. But planning is essential.”

So…extending yesterday’s discussion, as you and your community discuss the hazards you face and the risks they pose, as you discuss your community vulnerabilities and the consequences of a levee failure, or a tornado strike, or hurricane landfall or ice storm, you might also start collecting ideas for blunting the impacts of these hazards. Maybe those ideas have to do with preventing some of the loss of life, or the damage to property, or business disruption before it happens. Maybe you have some suggestions for how to respond to any emergency as it unfolds. Or perhaps you see with some clarity actions you might take to speed recovery.

These are the building blocks of a plan, aren’t they? Now let’s say you can structure the pre-event mitigation measures, the emergency response, and the recovery into component pieces and an overall framework. Can you also determine who in your community will be responsible for doing what, and by when? Are all those folks buying in? Are you accountable to each other? Then your plan is nearly complete.

That’s the first bit…to build on the increased community awareness you fostered, and push it through to a plan that people will act on. A couple of pieces to this plan and the process behind it are particularly important: accountability, and commitment. This is especially important, and particularly difficult to achieve, in areas of repetitive risk. Why does your town keep flooding out year after year? Because you insist on rebuilding as before – in the same location on the floodplain, and with the same engineering. Want to prevent this? Then you have to commit to relocating out of the floodplain, and you have to do that while the ground is still dry. Studies show time after time that communities lacking such plans will suffer the same fate again and again. Similar comments apply to other hazards: earthquakes, hailstorms and wildfire, for example.

Here’s the second piece, and the second story – this time from American history. The transcontinental railroad, built between 1863 and 1869, made a number of its investors rich. Nowhere was this more true than for those who started building from the Pacific side. The so-called big four who owned the Central Pacific? Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker. They started with $1500 each, and they made millions. Today their names are plastered over streets, buildings, companies, universities, every conceivable edifice and institution across California and the west.

How did they amass this fortune? Well, they certainly profited from the rail itself, but they were also helped by the folks who eagerly settled near to the rail line and who then perforce had to ship their agricultural products, livestock, and other goods along that same rail.

What could kill this golden goose? Why, another railroad line, under other management, offering people an substitute means to get their output to market. For years, the Big Four, fearing an end to their monopoly, funded scouting parties to look for alternative passages through the mountains that would be amenable to rail development by would-be competitors.

The moral for community disaster resilience? It’s a never-ending process, not a one-time event. You and I need to be just as vigilant, in each of our communities, about the build-up of new vulnerabilities resulting from population increase, economic growth, and social change. We need to be aware of our dependencies on communities around us and our nation as a whole. We need to keep probing, searching for such threats – not in an obsessive, fearful way, but in an alert, attentive manner.

And this same vigilance needs to occur at a national and global level. The March 18th post spoke to the growth in the geographic reach of disaster impacts in recent history. Increasingly, that scale is global in extent. For recent examples, you need look no further than the financial sector meltdown of 2008. The international repercussions of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. A little further back in history? Think of the pandemic flu of 1918, or the 14th-century Black Death, which killed one-third of the people from India to Iceland in the span of a single year. The flu pandemic owed its special punch in part to the mobility of young soldiers during World War I. The Black Death also resulted from a new mobility, following Marco Polo’s opening of the trade route linking Asia and Europe. Then there was the period 1815-1816, when the Tambora volcanic eruption triggered the so-called “year without a summer” worldwide.

In the future? Nuclear war, more pandemics, an asteroid strike, climate change, cyber threats and other hazards of unprecedented scope await.  Defense ministries worldwide, and those charged with national security, are more disciplined than most in spotting such risks and formulating coping strategies.

But we’d probably do well do fund additional exploratory examinations of these threats, their possible impacts, and steps we might be able to take as a world to reduce our global vulnerability, handle any resulting emergencies, and bootstrap our way back to recovery. For these large events, there will be no unaffected population to carry on as before; this makes them especially problematic. And because they’re likely to be unprecedented, and because as a species we learn best by practice and repetition, the task of seeing what might be coming is especially daunting.

Such studies should therefore be independent (and numerous, numbering in the dozens or hundreds) to start, reducing (but not eliminating!) the chance that through our collective lack of imagination or common blind spots we’ll miss something. Then, down, the line, they should be compared, to look for commonalities, as well as outliers.

Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford and Crocker would have approved.

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