Community Resilience: Some Practical Questions

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 research project on community 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. This is the fourth blog in a series that looks at what enhancing resilience means for North Carolina’s communities. Previous blogs have discussed the importance of resilience thinking and ways of measuring resilience and vulnerability. However, resilience planning raises a number of practical questions.

How do we pay for increasing resilience?

How much does it cost when we do not invest in resilience? The State of North Carolina, in a funding request to Congress after Hurricane Matthew, estimated that almost $1 billion is still required to repair, elevate, reconstruct, or buyout flood-damaged homes, cover agricultural losses, repair and improve public facilities, help affected small businesses, and fund health services for storm survivors and repair health facilities[1]. Could such needs been avoided with better resilience planning? Probably not, but it is reasonable to believe that many communities could have been spared the worst of the disaster.

Absent large-scale public funding for increasing resilience, a three-pronged approach would be beneficial. Building resilience into all development activities is the first prong.  Adjusting or expanding zoning, building codes, maintenance protocols, and infrastructure investments can reduce potential impacts of flooding, high winds, wildfires, and other threats. Preventing new or intensified development in areas liable to floods, requiring homes to be elevated, clearing and maintaining ditches and storm-water systems, incorporating resilience into the design of schools, public buildings, and road and bridge construction, are all examples of spreading the costs of resilience across the community and over time.

The second prong is to ensure active and continual collaboration across agencies. Emergency response efforts, including preparation, training, and drills are of course critical, but they are not usually linked to other planning efforts. Mitigation planning – the assessment of hazards and risks – is also a vital part of enhancing resilience, but the priority tends to be on reducing physical vulnerabilities. As previous blogs have discussed, community resilience is not only about infrastructure, but also encompasses social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Such a holistic approach requires integrated community planning across these dimensions with all parts of the community fully engaged. In this way, investments can serve multiple objectives with benefits and costs better assessed.

Once the floodwaters have subsided, public attention drifts to other priorities, and the impetus for finding ways to increase resilience diminishes. Thus, the third prong is to introduce incentives to maintain momentum. Some Federal funding programs already build in planning requirements or scoring protocols to ensure applicants consider resilience as part of their projects. This could easily apply also to state and foundation funding criteria.

How do we plan for increasing resilience?

The anguish of families in small North Carolina communities trying to decide whether to stay and rebuild or sell-up and leave after being flooded for a second time was all too evident. If these communities had had the opportunity to think through their post-disaster options before the disaster hit, they might not have needed to make difficult life-changing decisions in such circumstances. They could have considered and tackled tasks such as identifying parcels of land nearby for possible relocation, imagining how the community might improve and grow, and understanding the extent of flood risk.

There are many planning processes available to help communities envision a better future. Some are specifically designed to improve resilience; others are more generic community planning processes. They all share certain elements – building a collaborative planning team, assessing assets, threats, and risks, agreeing goals and objectives, exploring options and solutions, identifying priorities, implementing plans, and monitoring results. Resilience planning has three particular features: engaging all parts of the community, particularly the most vulnerable, instilling a sense of urgency, and moving towards concrete actions.

Who should take responsibility for increasing resilience?

In North Carolina, the director of Emergency Management, acting on behalf of the Governor, is the primary disaster response coordinator. His job is to ensure that all necessary assets and resources are available to help communities after a disaster, and to act as the main point of liaison with FEMA and other federal agencies. The Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative, based at the Coastal Resilience Center, is the lead for engaging with communities to help them develop post-disaster plans and linking them with state and federal resources.

The next hurricane, tornado, major flooding, or wildfire could affect communities in any part of the state, so building resilience has to be part of every county’s and city’s to-do list. Some jurisdictions have the capacity and resources to take on this role. However, most do not, including 15 counties classified as having low resilience and high vulnerability compared to all counties nationwide.  An organizational structure exists that could be positioned as the ongoing focus of resilience-building across the state – the 16 regional development organizations that provide a range of planning, economic development, transportation, and social services for multi-county regions. They are already required to incorporate economic resilience into their comprehensive economic development strategies. Modest investments in enhancing their capacity to help counties and cities build their resilience could yield significant returns.

[1] Letter from Governor Cooper to the President of the United States, May 10, 2017


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