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Tuesday, 23 September 2014 19:48

Community Resilience in the Face of a Disaster

Written by  Jim Sharp

If you’ve been in or even around the emergency management profession for any length of time you’ve probably heard the old joke: “What’s the difference between an emergency and a disaster? It’s an emergency when it happens to someone else and it’s a disaster when it happens to you.”

There is nothing funny about what happened this summer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo.

When most people hear that term disaster their minds provide immediate imagery: Hurricane Katrina, the Joplin tornado, Superstorm Sandy – the list goes on. But is the situation in Ferguson a “disaster?” Webster’s Dictionary defines a disaster as:

  • something (such as a flood, tornado, fire, plane crash, etc.) that happens suddenly and causes much suffering or loss to many people, or
  • something that has a very bad effect or result, or
  • a complete or terrible failure

A common definition of “disaster” in emergency management circles usually sounds something like, “An event or situation that overwhelms the capabilities of local emergency responders, requiring support from neighboring or regional/state/federal agencies.” By either definition, I think you have to conclude the events in Ferguson do in fact constitute a disaster.

It’s been the subject of world-wide media attention – the fatal shooting by a Ferguson police officer of an unarmed subject on Aug. 9, 2014 – followed by daily protests, looting and related violence almost nightly (some of which spread to neighboring jurisdictions), a massive law enforcement presence that has included numerous local jurisdictions, county police, the Missouri Highway Patrol and, following the declaration of a State of Emergency, and the activation of the Missouri National Guard.

Dozens of stores were looted, some of them repeatedly. At least one has been intentionally burned to the ground. Police have come under gunfire and attack by rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. People who live closest to the areas where riots are occurring are afraid to leave their homes after dark, and there is less and less reason for them to do so as stores – even those that have not been damaged or looted – close early as a precaution. Local and county agencies struggled to decide how to best provide support to those families with the beginning of school two weeks after the incident. Several local school districts were forced to cancel classes for a few days in the interest of student safety.

So, what happens next? The major protests have come to an end, as have the riots and accompanying violence. The community as a whole will have to move forward, and community resilience will be the focus.

It’s a fairly new catch-phrase – community resilience: the ability of a community to rebuild not just its physical assets (homes, businesses, utilities, infrastructure, etc.) but also its spirit, its heart ... the intangible but very real elements that make people want to live there.

Bottom line, rebuilding takes money. Sometimes it takes a lot of money, but here’s the paradox: At the time a community needs resources the most, those resources may be least available.

  • A business owner who’s been looted may decide not to re-open, or to re-open in another town. Perhaps the losses are so serious they are unable to re-open at all.
  • A business owner could hardly be blamed for not wanting to open a new business in or re-locate an existing business to an area where looting has been the focus of more than a week of nightly news coverage.
  • Real estate values may decline.
  • People may simply move to a new city that they consider safer or more hospitable.

All those things have a negative effect on a community’s tax base, which means that not only might funds be unavailable for rebuilding and recovery, they might not even be available for the basics like public schools, law enforcement, firefighting, and public works. The potential exists for a self-sustaining cycle:

Sharp-Jim-graphic

I don’t know what’s next for Ferguson. I wish I did. But I hope fervently that someone there is looking beyond the immediacies of response and recovery.

Sharp-JimJim Sharp is the vice president and chief training officer with Aegis Emergency Management. With more than 30 years of experience in public- and private-sector emergency response and contingency planning, he is an effective and highly-sought speaker, presenter, and trainer.