Guest author: John Shaw, County Emergency Management Director, Florida, USA
There is a saying in emergency management, “all disasters are local.” Typically, this is understood to mean the acute disaster – the hurricane, the flood, the wildfire – is a local issue and occurs with little to no warning. What is often ignored are the chronic stresses on the community – homelessness, blight, and climate change – all are local issues that require a resilient approach for the community to survive. To increase the resilience of a community, leaders should have a basic understanding of the complex interdependencies beyond the immediate, life-saving response and short-term recovery actions.
Most emergency managers understand these basic interdependencies of their communities; for example, if schools are closed due to the disaster, then the parents or caregivers may not return to work because they need to supervise their children. This impacts the local economy every day there is not a solution to re-open schools. It impacts the first responders who are parents, too, and emergency services may be reduced to due reduced staffing levels. A disaster has multiple layered complexities that can continue to compound against each other, potentially causing a larger problem than the initiating event.
How does urban planning fit into disaster management? Critical to the understanding of resilience against natural disasters, against technological disasters, against terrorism, and against climate change is that it needs all aspects of the community to work together. Traditionally, emergency managers function best in coordinating the disaster response and short-term recovery, and many are trained to have an “all-hazards” philosophical approach. In theory, emergency managers should be able to coordinate any disaster, chronic stresses such as climate change notwithstanding. Urban planners are, among other traits, exceptional at devising long-term strategies to facilitate changes in a community.
Several years ago, I was privileged to be part of a progressive emergency management organization in Jacksonville, Florida, that was tasked by the Mayor’s Office with coordinating the multi-disciplinary response to a chronic stress impacting the community: urban blight. Remarkably, this approach worked. In effect, the organizational structure of city government was reorganized, only in relation to combating urban blight. Coordinated by emergency management, leaders from public works, solid waste, code compliance, community planning, public affairs, and finance worked together to develop a process to improve the community’s resilience from urban blight. Emergency management coordinated the response to the chronic stress of urban blight for over a year. The executive and the legislative bodies worked together to support it and the project was a success. This same organization came together over the next several years to respond to the threat and impacts of a serious hurricane.
When Jacksonville engaged in the fight against urban blight, it did not refer to it as resilience. As documented previously in this blog, there are different approaches to resilience, with markedly different understandings of what, specifically, are resilient actions. Wholeheartedly, the response to urban blight was an undeniable exercise of the community’s resilience. If it were termed something akin to “Urban Resilience,” the project likely would not have been as successful from a practitioner’s standpoint as it was by calling it “Urban Blight.” Appropriate branding for the community is necessary; the term resilience is not universally defined or understood. Some may find it scary, or incendiary, or even lackadaisical. What is understood is good governance, cleaning up the community after years of neglect, implementing recidivism control measures, and overall improving the effectiveness of the government’s operations in vulnerable areas.
Instead of focusing on “resilience” from disasters, perhaps the focus should be on this question: How can the community better act in response to an acute or chronic disaster while regarding the interdependencies of different community elements? Public safety, education, our basic needs – what can the community do to ensure that as a [resilient] community, the resolve to find solutions to acute shocks and chronic stresses is rewarded with action for the whole community, including improvements for the vulnerable populations?
Step one is for urban planners to work more closely with the community’s emergency management personnel. They understand the disasters facing the community. They understand the groups most vulnerable to disasters. When the community experiences a disaster, they will likely be involved to coordinate the response and recovery. Resilience is more than the government being involved; it requires a private-public collaboration. If it is not already actively present in the community, the local emergency management agency may be interested in coordinating a private-public collaboration effort in response to disasters and climate change. To be resilient in the face of adversity, especially amidst the great, burdensome odds a disaster can inflict, the whole community must work together.
Step two is for the capacity to better accommodate disasters to be written into the community’s plans and policies. After a disaster, regardless of how localized or regional it is in scale, is there a way to more quickly encourage recovery? Can the government expedite the permitting process to rebuild the community? Can the government implement mitigation initiatives that will reduce or eliminate the threat of future disasters? Can the government design stronger, more resilient cities? Each of these is related to the importance of a private-public collaboration; additionally, the business community would need to quickly reestablish itself in the affected area. If area businesses are unable to rebuild in a timely manner, they may be forced to close or move elsewhere, resulting in significant, longstanding economic impacts to the community. Increasingly, corporations are investing in disaster-resilient actions to reduce their anticipated losses.
Efforts to build resilient communities will not be without difficulty nor will they occur quickly. The politicizing of resilience, much as has been done to climate change in the past, is the first obstacle that must be overcome. However, if defining resilience is ignored and the focus is instead on the practice of resilience, then communities can begin to look at the cumulative effects of natural disasters and climate change on the built environment. Working together, urban planners and emergency managers can devise robust, long-term resilience strategies with the support and participation of the local community. Emergency management and urban planning are complimentary partners that enhance the community’s resilience against all disasters it may experience.
About the author: John Shaw is a county Emergency Management Director in Florida, USA, serves on the board of directors for the National Homeland Security Association, and has assessed foreign and domestic emergency management programs for compliance with the international standard for several years. His approach to emergency management is heavily influenced by his background in urban planning, as well as his belief that emergency management and resilience are strongly, and appropriately, interconnected.