Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bouncing Back: How Do Population Dynamics and Social Cohesion Affect the Resilience of Societies?

“The scale and the impact of disasters today can be greater than anything we’ve previously experienced,” said Laurie Mazur at the Wilson Center on March 18. “The proliferation of disasters has gotten a lot of people talking about resilience, about how we can lessen our risk and how we can recover more quickly from disasters of all kinds.”

Some of these discussions have revolved around physical infrastructure, she said. “How we can harden our defenses? How we can build stronger levies or higher sea walls?”

“What often gets missed in that conversation is the social dimensions of resilience,” Mazur continued. In other words, what makes some communities recover from disasters more quickly and completely than others?

Characteristics of Strength…and Vulnerability

“Resiliency has many definitions but they almost always start with this idea of the ability to absorb and then recover,” said Dr. Betty Hearn Morrow, professor emeritus at Florida International University. But “when we start talking about social resiliency, now we’re getting into something that’s far more complicated – after all, people are involved.”

In addition to the ability to recover, social resilience “has to do with being ready, it has to do with adaptability, tenacity, our commitment to survive… and the willingness of communities to actually rally around a common cause and a shared set of values.”

Morrow drew from examples of communities that have not responded well to disasters to highlight elements of resilience.

One factor she emphasized was the importance of accurately understanding risk. This is very hard for people, she said. For example, she found that almost 50 percent of people living in areas vulnerable to storm surge from North Carolina to Texas thought that such surges were not very or not at all likely to hit their homes. The pervasiveness of this kind of misinformation can be a significant cause of mortality when natural disasters strike; families who don’t believe they are at risk won’t leave before a storm strikes.

For some, however, it is lack of capacity that makes them vulnerable. There is “unequal exposure to risk” among economic classes, Morrow said. “More poor people live in flood plains than anyone else,” for example, and they have fewer resources to cope if and when a disaster does strike. Some 100,000 people in New Orleans lacked transportation during Hurricane Katrina, for instance, unable to leave the city on their own, she said. “Community resilience and sustainability are certainly tied to how we use our resources, how they are distributed,” she said. More