Community Resilience Has Many Faces… Part 1

About the Author

Brian Dabson


Brian Dabson, Research Fellow at the School of Government, focuses on community and economic development, community and regional resilience, and entrepreneurship.

The 2016 Disaster Recovery Act was signed into law in December 2016 and provides over $200 million to help recovery after Hurricane Matthew and the wildfires in western North Carolina. This appropriation is intended to cover needs not met by Federal disaster recovery funds allocated to the state in the form of grants, loans, and insurance payments, which to date total well over $400 million. Many daunting challenges lie ahead in determining the most effective way of deploying these funds. The research project on community and regional resilience at the School of Government aims to help communities think differently about how they prepare for disasters and how they can become more resilient, providing data and information that can spark realistic conversations about a community’s future.  This blog looks at some of the main elements that determine resilience and vulnerability in North Carolina’s counties.

A previous blog (Strengthening Resilience in North Carolina’s Communities) referred to a set of measurements that have been developed for resilience and vulnerability for every county in the United States. These look at four dimensions: economic, social, infrastructure, and environmental. This blog looks at the economic and social dimensions, and sets out to answer the questions: what do these mean and how can they be measured?

Economic Resilience and Vulnerability. The immediate concern following a disaster is how quickly businesses can return to normal functioning, for the longer a business is prevented from reopening, the more likely it is that it will not reopen at all. However, economic resilience is more about the health of the local and regional economy than any particular business. An economy that is strong and healthy before a disaster will recover more quickly than one which is struggling or in decline.  So what makes an economy resilient? Four factors are important. The first is economic diversity which suggests that if an economy is not concentrated in a single or a couple of sectors, it will be less affected by changes in market conditions. The second is entrepreneurship where higher numbers of entrepreneurs suggest a more dynamic economy. The two other factors are economic growth, specifically the birth rate of new businesses, and labor force participation meaning the proportion of men and women who are active in the labor market.

There are also factors that make local and regional economies particularly vulnerable, and which will tend to delay recovery. Three appear to be particularly significant. An over-reliance on natural resource industries, such as mining, forestry, or fishing, makes economies subject to boom-and-bust cycles. Where an area’s households are already experiencing high levels of economic hardship due, for example, to high unemployment or high housing costs, there is little margin for coping with additional stresses brought on by disasters. For towns and cities with high business property vacancies, the shortfall of tax revenues means there is no cushion to deal with unexpected financial demands.

In North Carolina, there are 42 counties that can be classified as having low economic resilience and high economic vulnerability on the economic dimension. Most of these are concentrated on the inner Coastal Plain and the Sandhills, and also in the western Piedmont and in the far west of the state.

Social Resilience and Vulnerability. It was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating impact on poor neighborhoods in New Orleans that shone a light on the importance of the social factors that determine resilience and vulnerability. Social resilience describes those characteristics that give a community the capability to better anticipate risk, limit impact, and recover rapidly. Five such characteristics have been identified. Place attachment, that is how deep the roots are that people have in their community, can be measured by the length of time people have lived in the same place and by the proportion of owner-occupied housing. Education, particularly at the higher levels, is also a measure of social resilience as is the degree of civic engagement, often reflected in voter participation rates.  A related characteristic is the strength of social capital which can be estimated by the number of nonprofits and associations in the comnccog_quad_socmunity. A final measure of population health uses longer life expectancy as an indicator of social resilience.

On the flip-side, social vulnerability focuses on those sections of the community that are most likely to be disproportionately affected during and following a disaster. Four factors stand out: income inequality, community erosion (as indicated by high violent crime rates), political fragmentation (high numbers of overlapping governmental jurisdictions), and vulnerable populations. This last factor includes a range of indicators such as a high poverty rate, high proportion of households that are linguistically isolated, and high percentages of people who are disabled, without health insurance, and over 65 years of age.

There are 40 North Carolina counties that can be classified as having low social resilience and high social vulnerability as compared to the nation as a whole. These are generally concentrated in the same regions of the state as those so identified on the economic dimension.

Good News? Fourteen counties have high resilience and low vulnerability on both economic and social dimensions. Eleven of these are primarily suburban counties within the major metropolitan areas of Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Hickory. Two nonmetropolitan counties in the west – Transylvania and Polk – and Dare County on the coast also rate well on economic and social resilience.

The next blog in this series will look at the infrastructure and environmental dimensions of resilience and vulnerability, and describe how the four dimensions come together to measure community resilience in North Carolina.


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