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A Critical Imperative for Natural Hazards

With a sharp growth in the number and size of natural hazards across the globe, communities worldwide have experienced destruction from numerous natural hazard events – including deadly forest fires, exceptional flooding, severe hurricanes, and droughts. Mitigation of the effects of these hazards requires overall and comprehensive preparedness in intricate interrelations of physical, social, economic, and environmental factors to withstand, adapt, and recover from the shocks and stresses imposed by natural hazards. 

Improving overall preparedness includes physical infrastructure and emergency response systems that address the communities’ social fabric, economic stability, and environmental sustainability. Therefore, community leaders and those in emergency preparedness roles must take a holistic approach to enhance preparedness, develop collaboration, and cultivate resilience for negotiating the challenges of increasingly volatile natural events. 

Develop Robust Strategies 

Community resilience is a multi-dimensional concept describing the ability of a community to resist, recover from, and ultimately reduce the adverse impacts of hazards to set the stage to manage future hazards and learn from experiences. Physical, social, economic, and environmental components are critical for comprehensive community resilience building: 

  • Physical – This component includes infrastructure, buildings, and emergency response systems. Measures like disaster-resilient construction, critical facility reinforcement, and a well-coordinated emergency plan help reduce physical damage and ensure preparedness. 
  • Social – Strong social networks, engagement, and access to resources among communities ensure social resilience and expanded capacity to strive together and recover. 
  • Economic – Resilient economies have diversified local economies, financial soundness, and business continuity planning. These economies keep critical economic activities operational, support small businesses, and diversify all types of companies to avoid financial consequences related to natural hazards. 
  • Environmental – Environmental resilience is possible through the sustainable use of natural resources, preservation of ecosystems, and adaptation measures. 

For example, afterthe 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan invested heavily in disaster-resilient infrastructure and programs of community training. These vital components are intrinsically interlinked and, when treated holistically, can treat their interdependencies. Environmental conservation boosts social resilience by preserving natural resources for communities, whereas economic resources support physical resilience by building infrastructure. Using a holistic approach helps communities prepare for natural disasters. 

Fortify the Physical Foundation

Building codes and more robust standards, per the International Code Council, center around becoming disaster-resistant to substantially reduce damage and losses. Indeed, studies show that for every $1 invested in hazard-resistant building codes, communities will save $11 in future disaster costs, as does a high level of fortification of key infrastructure, such as the modernization of power grids, water systems, and communication networks. According to the 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the 10-year investment gap has increased from $2.1 trillion to $2.59 trillion since its 2017 report. 

Build Social Solidarity

Community involvement through workshops, training, and public events stimulate awareness and empowerment among residents. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, in over 2,700 communities, has trained almost 600,000 volunteers in disaster preparedness and response. Active dissemination of risk through various channels and in several languages is another crucial factor, primarily for vulnerable groups. Similarly, neighborhood support networks, like the Citizens Protecting Citizens program in St. Louis, Missouri, train residents in emergency protocols. 

Strengthen the Economic Core

Making local industry multifaceted can help avoid one sector’s inflexibility. The 2008 global economic crisis highlighted Detroit, Michigan’s overdependence on the car industry, prompting the city to seek to attract technological and health service companies. Small business continuity planning with assistance from the city government for local businesses is crucial. When a small business fails, its service industry fails, too. However, jobs can reduce psychological and other escalating disaster effects by providing a sense of purpose and meaning, offering a stable routine and structure, and creating opportunities for social support and connection, among other benefits. 

Protect the Environmental Balance

Water-saving practices, renewable energy, and green infrastructure projects increase environmental resilience. In 2018, The Guardian reported that a water rationing plan was ready for a so-called Day Zero in the arid City of Cape Town, South Africa, where taps began running dry. Conservation of resources, such as wetlands and forests, which provide roughly $24 billion a year in flood reduction and storm protection in the U.S., is of prime importance. Adaptation strategies, such as the one for Boston, Massachusetts, Resilient Harbor Vision, prepare cities for future impacts of changes such as rising seas, hotter summers, and flooding from the coast. They accomplish this by community engagement and long-term urban planning. 

An Integrated, Collaborative Approach

When combined into a comprehensive strategy established in close consultation with the community, these techniques perform at their highest level of effectiveness. A shared commitment and sense of ownership can pay long-term dividends in building strong communities. Good examples include communities that focus on engaging residents, businesses, government, and community organizations in risk assessments, preparedness goals, and tailored action strategies. For example, after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand, embarked on an extensive rebuilding process involving wide community engagement. The city founded the “Share an Idea” campaign that allowed residents to offer their visions and thoughts on how to redesign the city. This action led to a community-driven recovery strategy that focused on strengthening the infrastructure and the resilience of the community. 

Foster Partnerships and Collaboration

In a complex and interconnected world, building disaster resilience in the local community becomes a priority to create stronger communities that are capable of rising from the more significant hazards that nature delivers. It is achievable by establishing alliances and joint participation. For example: 

  • Developing a community’s capacity to withstand adversity is a challenging endeavor requiring broad stakeholder participation. Partnerships and collaboration appreciate collective resources, skills, and talents in tackling natural hazard concerns. 
  • Local governments strengthen partnerships with their constituents, emergency management agencies, community organizations, businesses, academic institutions, and residents. 
  • The key benefits of collaborative practice are evident when emergency management agencies offer disaster preparation and response expertise, while community organizations share information about different populations’ needs and vulnerabilities. 
  • A coordinated response understands the need for effective communication and coordination mechanisms when addressing or mitigating natural hazards. This coordination is achievable by establishing joint command centers, unified communication protocols, and integrated information-sharing platforms. 
  • Collaboration brings a sense of shared responsibility and ownership among stakeholders, which builds their commitment. Working together, communities can define existing gaps, complement their assets, and develop strategies to address these gaps in physical, social, economic, and environmental dimensions. 

Communities become better equipped to deal with increasing disasters when they adopt a comprehensive and pragmatic disaster preparedness program. Such a comprehensive guide would address vulnerabilities when it addresses the complexities of the physical environment, human society, and economic and environmental systems. Stakeholders would make concerted efforts to coordinate the energy, knowledge, and potential of everyone involved, which would not be successful in seclusion. People, organizations, and the government acting together and decisively would understand their responsibility in building resilience now. 

Build Resilience in the Face of Natural Hazard

This critical call to action for building resilience in the face of natural hazards involves a comprehensive approach, starting with risk assessments, emergency planning, infrastructure protection, preparedness, collaboration, ongoing mitigation, robust response, learning from past disasters, community engagement, deploying technology and innovation, and long-term recovery planning. Communities should consider taking the following steps immediately: 

  • Conduct a thorough risk assessment to identify areas of high risk and prioritize mitigation efforts; 
  • Develop a comprehensive emergency plan that includes evacuation routes, shelter locations, and communication strategies; 
  • Invest in infrastructure designed to withstand natural hazards and ongoing repairs; 
  • Foster a culture of preparedness and educate residents on the risks associated with natural and other hazards; 
  • Engage with local organizations, businesses, and government agencies to leverage resources and expertise; 
  • Conduct pre-disaster exercises and post-disaster assessments, and incorporate lessons learned into updating emergency plan and expanding resilience-building efforts; and 
  • Develop long-term recovery plans tailored to the specific needs of the community. 

The increasing frequency and severity of natural hazards globally demand a proactive and integrated approach to disaster preparedness and resilience. Natural disasters are a persistent reality, and significant events can cause immediate and enduring adverse impacts on individuals, societies, and economies’ physical and mental health, social fabric, and financial stability. By adopting a comprehensive strategy encompassing physical, social, economic, and environmental components, communities can significantly enhance their ability to withstand and recover from natural disasters. Community resilience is essential. We should work together to mitigate the destructive effects of natural disasters and ensure our communities’ long-term welfare and stability. 

Sandra Dennis-Essig

Sandra Dennis-Essig is a dedicated professional with a strong background in emergency management. She is a graduate of theFederal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)National Emergency Management Basic Academy, the Emergency Management Project (Class #25). She holdscertificates from FEMA/Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurityand Infrastructure Security Agency, National Nuclear Security Administration/Nuclear Forensics Operations, Counterterrorism Operations Support, the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services Infrastructure Disaster Management Certificate Program, and the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center. Sandra serves as adecontamination team memberwith apatient decontamination teamin San Diego, California, and as adisaster duty officerfor the American Red Cross in San Diego and Imperial County. She has collaborated with the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking as an advocate, speaker, and survivor. Sandra currently serves as aselected service board memberfor the State of Californiaandpreviously served as a volunteerselected services board memberfor the State of New Jersey. 

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