Lessons of Sendai: The Need for Community Resilience

March 20, 2011 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director, adapted from two posts (here and there) for the AMS Project, Living on the Real World

Events unfolding in and around Sendai – indeed, across the whole of Japan – are tragic beyond describing. More than 10,000 are thought to be dead, and the toll continues to rise. Economists estimate the losses at some $180B, or more than 3% of GDP. This figure is climbing as well. The images are profoundly moving. Most of us can only guess at the magnitude of the suffering on the scene. Dozens of aftershocks, each as strong as the recent Christchurch earthquake or stronger, have pounded the region. At least one volcanic eruption is underway nearby.

What are the lessons in Sendai for the rest of us? Many will emerge over the days and weeks ahead. Most of these will deal with particulars: for example, a big piece of the concern is for the nuclear plants we have here. Are they located on or near fault zones or coastlines? Well, yes, in some instances. Are the containment vessels weak or is the facility aging, just as in Japan? Again, yes. So they’re coming under scrutiny. But the effect of the tsunami itself on coastal communities? We’re shrugging our shoulders.

It’s reminiscent of those nature films, You know the ones I’m talking about. We watch fascinated as the wildebeests cross the rivers, where the crocodiles lie in wait to bring down one of the aging or weak. A few minutes of commotion, and then the gnus who’ve made it with their calves to the other side return to business-as-usual. They’ll cross that same river en masse next year, same time, playing Russian roulette with the crocs.

It should be obvious from Sendai, or Katrina, or this past summer’s flooding in Pakistan, or the recent earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, that what we often call recovery isn’t really that at all. Often the people in the directly affected area don’t recover, do they? The dead aren’t revived. The injured don’t always fully mend. Those who suffer loss aren’t really made whole. When we talk about “resilience” we instead must talk at the larger scale of a community that has been struck a glancing blow. Think of resilience as “healing.” A soldier loses a limb in combat. He’s resilient, and recovers. A cancer patient loses one or more organs. She’s resilient, and recovers.

What happens is that the rest of us–the rest of the herd–eventually are able to move on as if nothing as happened. Nonetheless, if we spent as much energy focusing on the lessons from Sendai as we spend on repressing that sense of identification or foreboding, we’d be demonstrably better off.

The reality is that resilience to hazards is at its core a community matter, not a global one. The risks often tend to be locally specific. It’s the local residents who know best the risks and vulnerabilities, who see the fragile state of their regional economy and remember what happened the last time drought destroyed their crops, and on and on.

Similarly, the benefits of building and maintaining resilience are largely local as well, so let’s get real about protecting our communities against future threats. Leaders and residents of every community in the United States, after watching the news coverage of Sendai in the evenings, might be motivated to spend a few hours the morning following building community disaster resilience through private-public collaboration.

What a coincidence! There’s actually a National Academies Natural Research Council report by that same name. It gives a framework for private-public collaborations, and some guidelines for how to make such collaborations effective.

Some years ago, Fran Norris and her colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School wrote a paper that has become something of a classic in hazards literature. The reason? They introduced the notion of community resilience, defining it largely by building upon the value of collaboration:

Community resilience emerges from four primary sets of adaptive capacities–Economic Development, Social Capital, Information and Communication, and Community Competence–that together provide a strategy for disaster readiness. To build collective resilience, communities must reduce risk and resource inequities, engage local people in mitigation, create organizational linkages, boost and protect social supports, and plan for not having a plan, which requires flexibility, decision-making skills, and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns.”

Here’s some more material on the same general idea, taken from a website called learningforsustainability.net:

Resilient communities are capable of bouncing back from adverse situations. They can do this by actively influencing and preparing for economic, social and environmental change. When times are bad they can call upon the myriad of resouces [sic]that make them a healthy community. A high level of social capital means that they have access to good information and communication networks in times of difficulty, and can call upon a wide range of resources.

Taking the texts pretty much at face value, as opposed to a more professional evaluation, do you recognize “resilience” in the events of the past week in this framing?

Maybe yes-and-no. No…if you zoom in and look at the individual small towns and neighborhoods entirely obliterated by the tsunami, or if you look at the Fukushima nuclear plant in isolation. They’re through. Finished. Other communities, and other electrical generating plants may come in and take their place. They may take the same names. But they’ll really be entirely different, won’t they? To call that recovery won’t really honor or fully respect those who lost their lives in the flood and its aftermath.

To see the resilience in community terms, you have to zoom out, step back quite a ways, don’t you? The smallest community you might consider? That might have be the nation of Japan in its entirety. And even at that national scale the picture is mixed. Marcus Noland wrote a nice analytical piece on this in the Washington Post. He notes that after a period of economic ascendancy in the 1980s, Japan has been struggling for the two decades with a stagnating economy, an aging demographic, and dysfunctional political leadership. He notes the opportunity to jump start the country into a much more vigorous 21st century role. We’re not weeks or months from seeing how things play out; it’ll take weeks just to stabilize the nuclear reactors, and decades to sort out the longer-term implications.

In a sense, even with this event, you might have to zoom out still further. Certainly the global financial sector, that same sector that suffered its own version of a reactor meltdown in 2008, is still nervously jangled. A globalized economy is trying to sort out just which bits are sensitive to the disruption of the Japanese supply chain, and how those sensitivities will ripple across the world. Just as the tsunami reached our shores, so have the economic impacts.

This is happening more frequently these days. The most recent Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption, unlike its predecessors, disrupted much of the commerce of Europe and Africa. In prior centuries, news of the eruption would have made its way around the world at the speed of sailing ships, and the impacts would have been confined to Iceland proper. Hurricane Katrina caused gasoline prices to spike throughout the United States, not just the Louisiana region. And international grain markets were unsettled for some time as well, until it was clear that the Port of New Orleans was fully functional. The “recovery” of New Orleans? That’s a twenty-year work-in-progress.

And go back just a little further, to September 11, 2001. In the decade since, would you say that the United States functioned as a resilient community, according to the above criteria? Have we really bounced back? Or have we instead struggled mightily with “build(ing) collective resilience, communities … reduc(ing) risk and resource inequities, engag(ing) local people in mitigation, creat(ing) organizational linkages, boost(ing) and protect(ing) social supports, and plan(ning) for not having a plan, which requires flexibility, decision-making skills, and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns.”

Sometimes it seems that 9-11 either made us brittle, or revealed a pre-existing brittleness we hadn’t yet noticed…and that we’re still, as a nation, undergoing a painful rehab.

All this matters because such events seem to be on the rise – in terms of impact, and in terms of frequency. They’re occurring on nature’s schedule, not ours. They’re not waiting until we’ve recovered from some previous horror, but rather are piling one on top of another. The hazards community used to refer to these as “cascading disasters.”

Somehow the term seems a little tame today.