What the great Tohoku earthquake has to teach about community resilience

Some years ago, Fran Norris and her colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School wrote a paper that has become something of a classic in hazards literature[1]. The reason? They introduced the notion of community resilience.

Here’s the abstract for their paper. As you read it, reflect on what you’ve been reading, seeing, and hearing about the Sendai earthquake and tsunami (which the U.S. Geological Survey has named the Tohoku earthquake). Think about how this description of community resilience bears on today’s news.

“Communities have the potential to function effectively and adapt successfully in the aftermath of disasters. Drawing upon literatures in several disciplines, we present a theory of resilience that encompasses contemporary understandings of stress, adaptation, wellness, and resource dynamics. Community resilience is a process linking a network of adaptive capacities (resources with dynamic attributes) to adaptation after a disturbance or adversity. Community adaptation is manifest in population wellness, defined as high and non-disparate levels of mental and behavioral health, functioning, and quality of life. Community resilience emerges from four primary sets of adaptive capacities–Economic Development, Social Capital, Information and Communication, and Community Competence–that together provide a strategy for disaster readiness. To build collective resilience, communities must reduce risk and resource inequities, engage local people in mitigation, create organizational linkages, boost and protect social supports, and plan for not having a plan, which requires flexibility, decision-making skills, and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns.”

Here’s some more material on the same general idea, taken from a website called learningforsustainability.net: “Resilient communities are capable of bouncing back from adverse situations. They can do this by actively influencing and preparing for economic, social and environmental change. When times are bad they can call upon the myriad of resouces [sic]that make them a healthy community. A high level of social capital means that they have access to good information and communication networks in times of difficulty, and can call upon a wide range of resources.”


(A little hesitant here because I have friends who are far more expert in these matters than I am) Taking the texts pretty much at face value, as opposed to a more professional evaluation, do you recognize “resilience” in the events of the past week in this framing?

Maybe yes-and-no. No…if you zoom in and look at the individual small towns and neighborhoods entirely obliterated by the tsunami, or if you look at the Fukushima nuclear plant in isolation. They’re through. Finished. Other communities, and other electrical generating plants may come in and take their place. They may take the same names. But they’ll really be entirely different, won’t they? To call that recovery won’t really honor or fully respect those who lost their lives in the flood and its aftermath.

To see the resilience of which these texts speak, but you have to zoom out, step back quite a ways, don’t you? The smallest community you might consider? That might have be the nation of Japan in its entirety. And even at that national scale the picture is mixed. Marcus Noland wrote a nice analytical piece on this in yesterday’s Washington Post. He notes that after a period of economic ascendancy in the 1980’s, Japan has been struggling for the two decades with a stagnating economy, an aging demographic, and dysfunctional political leadership. They weren’t doing all that well before the tsunami. Noland stops short of making a definitive prediction. Instead he suggests a range of possibilities: at one end, returning to what he calls “a comfortable decline in experienced hands.” But he also notes the opportunity to jump start the country into a much more vigorous 21st century role. We’re not weeks or months from seeing how things play out; it’ll take weeks just to stabilize the nuclear reactors, and decades to sort out the longer-term implications.

In a sense, even with this event, you might have to zoom out still further, mightn’t you? Certainly the global financial sector, that same sector that suffered its own version of a reactor meltdown in 2008, is still nervously jangled. A globalized economy is trying to sort out just which bits are sensitive to the disruption of the Japanese supply chain, and how those sensitivities will ripple across the world. Just as the tsunami reached our shores, so have the economic impacts.

This is happening more frequently these days. The most recent Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption, unlike its predecessors, disrupted much of the commerce of Europe and Africa. In prior centuries, news of the eruption would have made its way around the world at the speed of sailing ships, and the impacts would have been confined to Iceland proper. Hurricane Katrina caused gasoline prices to spike throughout the United States, not just the Louisiana region. And international grain markets were unsettled for some time as well, until it was clear that the Port of New Orleans was fully functional. The “recovery” of New Orleans? That’s a twenty-year work-in-progress.

And go back just a little further, to September 11, 2001. In the decade since, would you say that the United States functioned as a resilient community, according to the above criteria? Have we really bounced back? Or have we instead struggled mightily with “build(ing) collective resilience, communities … reduc(ing) risk and resource inequities, engag(ing) local people in mitigation, creat(ing) organizational linkages, boost(ing) and protect(ing) social supports, and plan(ning) for not having a plan, which requires flexibility, decision-making skills, and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns.”

Sometimes it seems that 9-11 either made us brittle, or revealed a pre-existing brittleness we hadn’t yet noticed…and that we’re still, as a nation, undergoing a painful rehab.

All this matters because such events seem to be on the rise – in terms of impact, and in terms of frequency. They’re occurring on nature’s schedule, not ours. They’re not waiting until we’ve recovered from some previous horror, but rather are piling one on top of another. The hazards community used to refer to these as “cascading disasters.” Somehow the term seems a little tame today.

And you’ll note that what we refer to as “community resilience” really refers more to a community that has been struck a glancing blow. Think of resilience as “healing.” A soldier loses a limb in combat. He’s resilient, and recovers. A cancer patient loses one or more organs. She’s resilient, and recovers.

But the severed limb never does. The excised organs never do.

What does this mean for us? It means we should focus more than we have been on the set of disasters – very small, rather unlikely in any given time interval, but inevitable over long enough periods, that would be showstoppers for the human race as a whole, given today’s resiliency.

Global catastrophe? More on that in the next post.

[1]Norris, F.H., S.P. Stevens, B. Pfefferbaum, K.F. Wyche, and R.L. Pfefferbaum, Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness, Am. J. Community Psychol., March 2008, 41, (1-2): pp 127-150.

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