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Defeating The Clown

How Do You Tackle Community Resilience?

For the past several years, the term “resilience” has invaded the discourse of emergency management practitioners, managers and leaders throughout the industry. But for those who face the enormous challenges of carrying out their roles in the pillars of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, what does resilience really mean? Perception is reality as they say. When I think of the word resilience it brings to mind the plastic inflatable clown from my childhood that we would punch, hit, slap, and shove, only to have it bob back immediately to its original position. If your aim was to defeat the clown, you quickly realized that no matter what you did, it would always come back, mocking you with a sardonic grin that seemed to say “nice try”.

Resilience in disasters is neither as easy nor as simple as punching the clown. Restoring communities and families has been a challenging, and often monumental undertaking that many have struggled to attain. Just ask the people of New Orleans who are still struggling today to restore that once vibrant Gulf city twelve years after Hurricane Katrina. While the city boasts new and vibrant rebuilding projects, gleaming neighborhoods of beautiful brick homes, and infrastructure renovations, many would argue they have failed the test of resilience.

Resilience is a noun defined as:

1. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

2. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

So when we speak about resilience in the context of disaster ravaged communities, exactly what does it mean? For thousands of people displaced in Katrina, many of whom were forced to rebuild their lives elsewhere, the term resilience has no clear meaning. Those who stayed faced the prospect of losing their homes or being unable to rebuild. For them, participating in the renaissance of the Crescent City has been as fleeting as catching a rainbow.

For citizens in places like New Jersey, Moore OK, Joplin MO, Flint, MI and countless other cities and towns, the ability to bounce back after a disaster has been overshadowed by the battle to simply survive.

The hope of making it back to their former existence is long lost in a sea of repair bills, insurance disappointments, unemployment, broken promises, and distant memories of their life before the incident. Long after relief agencies, reporters, volunteers, and well-wishers have left, the clown is laying down, crumpled and deflated on the cold, hard pavement of reality.

So as we casually banter about resilient communities, one must take a big step back and determine exactly what does it mean in your community? The road to destruction is paved with good intentions. As emergency managers, we hold the pole position on the road to true resilience. While the weight of the responsibility to recover and restore is not ours alone, the approach for how we prepare our communities must take a different path.

Retired Lt. General Russel Honoré, who led the recovery effort following the Katrina debacle, once said, “The ability of people to cope after a disaster is directly related to what they were doing before the disaster.” New solutions to the resilience of communities require new thinking. This means abandoning or modifying those things that have not worked, and embracing creative ideas.

A few thoughts that could help emergency managers accomplish this goal are:

1. Bottom-up Communication, engaging the public in a more meaningful way before a disaster. We are not going to change preparedness behavior (60% or more of Americans have done nothing to prepare) until we get people to understand why they must prepare. That requires some honest dialogue with residents about the consequences of doing nothing before a disaster. Messaging from on high is easily ignored, but a word from those who are in the trenches (emergency managers and first responders) will often resonate and counteract resident apathy. Don’t be afraid to carry a grim message and paint a bleak picture of the human and financial costs of doing nothing. Preparedness is priority 10 for most people….make it personal.

2. Preparing for Recovery, convincing residents to prepare a disaster kit is important, but preparing them for the post-incident nightmare of dealing with contractors, insurance companies, government agencies, and disaster predators, is equally if not more important than getting ready for the event itself. We can no longer afford to send mixed messages to the public that subtly suggest they prepare, but tacitly signal that if they don’t, public safety, insurers, and relief agencies will be there to rescue them and make them whole.

3. Strengthening CERT, for those who have a strong community emergency volunteer presence, bravo! For those who don’t, CERT can be your force multiplier for not only augmenting your response assets, but creating a deep bench of on the ground resources to work with underserved populations, i.e., the disabled, elderly, children, transportation challenged. These populations especially will surely become victims if they are not at least marginally prepared to help themselves.

4. Developing Public-Private Partnerships, all of us who have designed, managed, or participated in exercises understand the difficult and time-consuming effort required to practice and test our plans. Still, we must include our community partners, faith organizations, businesses, and residents in training and exercises. Don’t expect them to come to you. Emergency response is your job, and many non-practitioners feel uncomfortable in this environment. Nonetheless, emergency managers must make a concerted effort to not only invite, but to insist on their participation.

Resilient communities will require the combined efforts of public health, human services, transportation, and many others. As the front-line soldiers in disasters emergency managers must lead the charge. Restoring homes, property, infrastructure, and services is essential to the viability of post-disaster communities. The most important task, however, is restoring lives. This is the real challenge of defeating the clown.

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