The story is now familiar. An area of the United States is battered by a superstorm, hurricane, or other climate disaster, resulting in a calamity for the people who live and work there. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers emergency assistance, but since it is not enough to address the harms that occurred, Congress acts to provide hundreds of millions of dollars of additional assistance.
But imagine a counter-narrative, with a significantly better outcome. In that story, we would have paid attention — before disaster ensued — to how environmental protection and planning can prevent and minimize the harm that disasters cause to people, their housing, and the infrastructure of our cities, states, and territories. Steps to inform the public about risks, to adopt protective measures, and to enforce health, safety, and environmental standards could have minimized the human suffering and loss and minimized the economic costs associated with recovery.
One reason for our oversight is that we tend to think about the varied functions of government as distinct. Agencies that protect us from health, safety and environmental risks are separate and operate under different laws than do agencies that address human needs, education, and other forms of our collective welfare. So we tend to overlook the role that these protections play in minimizing the impact of disaster. But viewed through a wider lens, all of these agencies’ work ideally serves the same goal: promoting social resilience. People and their neighbors are socially resilient when they have the capacity to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of misfortune and change.
Read As hurricanes expose inequalities, civil courts may be "great equalizer," Martha McCluskey and Sidney Shapiro's op-ed in the October 16, 2018, edition of The Hill.
These two types of government activities are mutually supportive. As this report details, investments in health, safety, and environmental protection on the front end can reduce the need for financial or other assistance for human needs after disaster strikes. Environmental protection measures cannot prevent all of the harms that will occur in the wake of weather disasters. Nor can social support services and disaster relief alleviate all the loss and suffering in the wake of disasters. By partnering to promote social resilience, these agencies can use their resources more effectively and better achieve their shared goals.
Although the term “social resilience” is relatively new — it gained prominence slightly more than a decade ago in the field of disaster studies — the idea that government can and should help people protect themselves against unexpected events outside of their control is not new. This commitment dates back to the founding of the country and has been a consistent commitment of our country ever since. Since 1776, Congress has passed numerous laws that protect us from economic, social, health and safety risks.
When we fail to prevent and minimize preventable harms, we ignore Ben Franklin’s sage advice, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” A recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences highlights the accuracy of that maxim in the context of disaster response. The study recommends measures that governments and property owners can take to reduce the impact of disaster events that would prevent 600 deaths, 1 million nonfatal injuries, 4,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, and that would save $6 for every $1 spent on these protections funded through select federal agencies.
We also ignore the reality that our most vulnerable citizens are the ones who suffer the most in violent storms and other disasters. Many people share the heartache of losing a house, valuable keepsakes, and other property. But while these harms are shared among many, the most vulnerable residents are often the people least able to manage the temporary and permanent consequences imposed on them by weather disasters.
Weather Disasters and Social Resilience
Social resilience is about the capacity of people and their communities to withstand, recover from, and prosper after disruption. In the case of climate and other weather disasters, measures that promote resilience include natural and human systems that reduce the force of storms or the likelihood of other disasters, preparedness plans that protect people when disaster occurs, and health, safety, and environmental protection measures that focus on anticipating and preparing for weather-related events in ways that prevent (or minimize) harm to people and their property. Resilience is also enhanced by strong social networks, access to information to make sound choices, and policies that recognize and account for the varied needs and capacities of different communities and populations. It is about ensuring people have access to health care, education, and training they need to accommodate the dislocation that occurs when disasters wreak havoc on the communities in which they live.
Social vulnerability is the opposite of social resilience. If left unaddressed, social vulnerability will prevent people and communities from withstanding and recovering from weather related disruption. We can measure social vulnerability by assessing whether a community (or area) has the necessary infrastructure that assists people in times of emergency and whether the people who live in an area have the health, education, and training to bounce back when disaster strikes. Researchers have found that a person’s wealth, race, ethnicity, age, gender, and occupation are important predictors of social vulnerability. Areas of the country that have larger populations of minorities, poor persons, older residents, among other attributes, are also the most social vulnerable populations. A study of flood losses in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, for example, revealed that counties with a higher level of social vulnerability had much higher rates of death and injury than counties that had social resilience.
A Historical Commitment
Government involvement in building social resilience dates back to the founding of the country. The framers broke away from England because they wanted a government that pursued the public interest as defined by its citizens. From the start, the federal government was involved in creating an infrastructure that promoted economic growth and prosperity, including the establishment of a national bank to manage the economy.
This is evident from Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Because Great Britain’s administration of the colonies was “destructive of these ends,” Jefferson declared it was the right of the people to establish their own government, one that seemed “most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Abraham Lincoln spoke of this function of government as promoting the “right to rise” and of bringing “economic opportunity to the widest possible circle of hardworking Americans.” For President Lincoln, it was a “leading object” of government “to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” Under President Lincoln, the federal government made millions of acres of western land available to homesteaders at almost no cost to the settlers, for example, and it set aside thousands of acres of land to support land-grant universities to educate a state’s residents. More significantly, President Lincoln opposed the South’s secession because it was an effort to establish an independent nation based on the denial of opportunity.
In the depth of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt made the same connection between the role of government and fair opportunity:
The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are: Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it.
To this end, the federal government engaged in extensive efforts to rebuild the economy and it established regulatory protections that were intended to prevent the behavior in private markets that led to the financial collapse.
In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson challenged the country to move “upward to the Great Society,” a place where there is “an end to poverty and racial injustice” and where “every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.” In support of this mission, the federal government substantially expanded its commitment to human needs assistance. At the same time, it established new agencies, including EPA, to prevent the environmental, health and safety risks that injured and killed people, hampering and preventing them from their pursuit of happiness.
So it is not surprising that Barack Obama, like presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt, spoke about the government’s involvement in promoting social resilience:
What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” . . . [H]istory tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing . . . Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
Building Social Resilience
When individuals lack opportunity through no fault of their own, they do not have meaningful choice or the capacity to exercise it. When government removes obstacles, as for example by reducing the cost of education or training for those who cannot afford it despite their best efforts, government builds social resilience. Similarly, when environmental protections help people to stay healthy by reducing exposure to toxic chemicals, it builds social resilience.
The financial and related assistance that the government provides in the aftermath of a storm is intended to help people get back on their feet. Even though such assistance is expensive, the nation has always rallied to help those in need after superstorms have struck. While such aid is valuable to those in need, and necessary to promote their recovery, the fact remains that it arrives only after the devastation has occurred. The aid arrives after people’s housing has been destroyed, after they have lost their cars and trucks, after they have lost many or even all of their possessions, including valuable keepsakes, such as pictures. And the aid arrives after some of our fellow citizens have died or suffered serious injuries as a result of the storm.
The following chapters of this report explain how we have failed to use the full range of available protections to minimize the amount of damage to people and their property that occurred in recent disasters, drawing particularly on examples from the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, when Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean with floods and brutal wind. Prevention can often be achieved at a reasonable price — one that is usually considerably less than the cost of after-the-disaster aid.
Environmental protection and planning for resilience, however, are about more than saving money. They reflect a commitment to reduce social vulnerability because of its devastating impact on the lives of our fellow citizens, when we have at hand the means to do so at a reasonable cost. It is, in short, the right thing to do. And while the failure to protect in advance of disaster harms everyone in the path of a superstorm, it falls most heavily on the least fortunate among us.
The lack of preventive measures and planning for resilience signals a failure in our basic commitment as a nation to ensure a fair chance in the race of life and the right to rise. We can do better, and this report indicates how we should start.