Hurricane Matthew, which hit in the fall of 2016, left a wake of devastation across the eastern part of North Carolina. The damage to homes and businesses topped $2 billion, leaving many families, workers, and business owners struggling to recover. Much of the response to such disasters is in the form of emergency funds to help people gain back what they lost—homes, businesses, etc. In addition, policy makers, funders, and communities themselves focus on what they can do to be better prepared when the next disaster hits. The idea of “community resilience” is that communities will have the right infrastructure, policies, and safeguards in place so that they can bounce back without incurring as much damage, both physical and economic.
But what does community resilience really look like? Having a clear definition is important, as it gives communities and stakeholders a foundation to build plans and infrastructure for the future. The UNC School of Government’s Community and Economic Development (CED) blog published a three-part series on defining community resilience. The School of Government has collaborated with the University of Missouri to begin assessing community needs, so that we can start developing the tools needed to better prepare our communities for disasters.
The project has resulted in an assessment of every county in the United States along four dimensions of resiliency and vulnerability: economic, social, infrastructure, and environmental. The map below shows all of NC’s counties and where they fall on the resiliency-vulnerability spectrum. There is a clear corridor of counties stretching from the southeast to the northeast that have the low resilience and high vulnerability.
The CED blog posts further define each measure:
- Economic resiliency and vulnerability: Overall health and strength of the local economy. Strong economies have economic diversity, high entrepreneurship, economic growth in the form of new businesses, and high labor force participation. Vulnerable economies are overly reliant on natural resource industries, experience economic hardship such as unemployment, and have high business property vacancy.
- Social resilience and vulnerability: Characteristics that allow communities to better assess risk and recover, including place attachment, or roots in the community; higher levels of education; social capital in the form of non-profits or community facilities; and population health. Conversely, vulnerable communities in this area have income inequality, community erosion, political fragmentation, and vulnerable populations such as high numbers of those in poverty rate.
- Infrastructure resilience and vulnerability: Physical, human and institutional infrastructure that can be quickly restored. This includes roads and other physical infrastructure, medical capacity, first responders, emergency response systems, and access to food. Vulnerable communities exhibit at-risk housing, such as mobile homes or older homes; evacuation challenges when people cannot be moved easily; high potential loss of facilities; and poor water system quality.
- Environmental resilience and vulnerability: The ability of the natural landscape to recover, as well as the type and severity of natural disasters that a community faces. A more environmentally diverse landscape is more resilient. The risks leading to vulnerability is measured by the severity of storms, the rang e of storm types, and the number of people at risk of flooding, earthquake and drought.
Taken together these four indices can give us an idea of the relative ability of a community to either recover from a disaster or be severely impacted with long-lasting effects. From this assessment, communities can begin to develop strategies to address their vulnerabilities.
There are many other studies that look at how resilience is defined, but the one offered by the UNC School of Government seems like a comprehensive approach. The Economic Development Agency (EDA) also put together a presentation about turning analysis into action. They describe the “resilience dividend,” or the positive results of proactively investing in strengthening community resilience.
In the chart above, the investments in various aspects, which align closely with the definition described above, result in benefits for residents, businesses, institutions, and local governments. The EDA outlines the tools that are needed to increase community resilience, including planning, governance, financing, business continuity, etc. It also provides guidelines for local and regional planning organizations to develop comprehensive economic development strategies.
Preparing our communities for the inevitability of natural disasters is critical. These tools provide a good foundation for local policy makers, community members, funders, and all stakeholders to develop the tools and plans to increase their resilience. One area of further investigation would be to examine resiliency and vulnerability factors and how they particularly impact certain populations, such as minorities, low-income people, rural residents, etc. Adding these additional layers would shed light on how different sub-communities are impacted and the disparities that exist along socio-economic lines. That way, community resiliency plans can account for and invest in the most vulnerable populations.