How Communities Can Survive and Thrive in a Stressful World

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When disaster strikes on a national level, enormous federal and state programs get involved to mobilize emergency response personnel, disaster relief organizations, and efforts to rebuild damaged infrastructure.  These systems are designed to keep government functioning in a crisis, like an earthquake or a hurricane, but they don’t solve everything. They are not designed to respond to all of a community’s needs.  What happens if water is contaminated, as it was in Flint, Michigan, and whole regions need a new source of water?  A community’s resilience will dictate its ability to respond in those times of intense stress.

Community resilience is the capacity of a community to prepare for, respond to, and recover from adverse events and unanticipated crises. This involves a full range of community-based organizations that specialize in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. There are eight essential interconnected components to community disaster resilience: wellness, access, education, engagement, self-sufficiency, partnership, quality and efficiency.  All communities have some form of each of these components, though some communities are more actively improving their resilience.  The city of Los Angeles, for example, has been at the forefront of resilience efforts, charting a path towards more robust communities.

A community’s resilience will dictate its ability to respond in those times of intense stress.

This resilience can be critical, as many government agencies simply cannot be everywhere at once. When a blackout occurs, resilient communities that can readily share resources, like clean water and electricity from generators, will be much better off than those that have not planned ahead. The best way for a community to be prepared is for it to have strong programs in place well before disasters happen.

In January 2013, as part of the Los Angeles County Community Disaster Resilience Project (LACCDR), sixteen community coalitions were formed. The LACCDR website supplies educational materials, like resilience toolkits, work plans, and community resilience measures, to anyone who wishes.  These guides give people who are new to community resilience a place to start, and help communities analyze their context and target their efforts.  LACCDR also connects the Los Angeles County Department of Health, as well as a number of nursing organizations and other health educators, to supports these coalitions.  

The building blocks of resilience

One of the more important components of community resilience is for people to simply know their neighbors and foster a sense of cohesion and trust, so they know who to turn to in a crisis.  “You should not be trading business cards at the disaster… you should have traded long before,” says Professor Eisenman, of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters.  To help develop the necessary community interconnectedness, LACCDR targets four key means of community resilience: education, engagement, partnership, and self-sufficiency.  Several of these factors are involved in each of the LACCDR programs, and all of the programs bring people together – facilitating that exchange of business cards.  

For example, Community Emergency Response Training (CERT, a FEMA program), is a combination of education and self-sustainability, as it informs individuals about disaster preparedness, while also training them in basic disaster response skills. The Huntington Park Coalition, as with many other coalitions, has been actively promoting CERT in an effort to establish its own CERT team.  Another good example of the combination of education and self-sufficiency are the HAM radio training classes so far conducted by the Acton/Agua Dulce and Compton coalitions.

Engagement and partnership pertain to promoting community member involvement in the process of planning and performing response and recovery activities.  For example, the Compton Coalition, Pac Red, has been very active in providing emergency preparedness education and outreach within the community, including Section 8 housing units, even creating their own website. Other coalitions have reached out to local business, and some have introduced a business oriented CERT program. Still more have begun networking with surrounding cities, empowering their community members to prepare together.

As individuals, many of us are optimistic about the future.  While the chance that an earthquake or an extreme heat wave will strike on any given day is quite slim, it is inevitable that our communities will be faced by some kind of disruption, and it is best to be prepared.  “When you think about risk, change, disaster,that’s when you realize we are all in this together,” says Heather Joy Rosenberg, Director of the LA Resilience Initiative.  By addressing what makes us vulnerable to disasters before they happen, we can be far better prepared for whatever life might throw at us.

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Michael Abrams serves as a writer for Seed Insights. He joined Seed in 2016 and has previously served as a consultant and project leader. Michael is also a Ph.D student in the department of Biology at the California Institute of Technology, where he uses jellyfish to study self-repair, sleep, and primitive behaviors.
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