Spring tornados and their devastation will test region’s resilience

3.6.2012 | As deadly tornados ripped through the Midwest and South last week, the trail of devastation they leave behind will challenge communities large and small. As USA Today reported, businesses are struggling to reopen and families are scrambling for shelter.

How resilient these communities are in the face of this disaster will determine how quickly they can rebound and return to a “new normal.” Working in their favor is the communities’ size. If a case study in resilience by BRR member Edward (Ned) Hill and colleagues is any indication, their smallness and tight social ties will likely help them to rebound–as is already evident from the flurry of chain saws as neighbors pitch in and get to work clearing the rubble.

Hill and colleagues looked carefully at the factors that make areas more resilient to shocks or disruptions, including the role of social capital. In a series of case studies in “Economic Shocks and Regional Economic Resilience,” they visited Grand Forks, N.D., which was ravished by severe floods in 1997.  The floods came on the heels of series of economic shocks, such as the departure of a military base in the late 1980s and a 1996 downturn. Then the next year, the flood struck, wiping out 82% of the homes and 62% of commercial sites in Grand Forks. The total unemployment that year fell by fully 2%, the largest decline in decades.

Contrary to the other three sites they examined, all three of which were considerably larger, resilience in Grand Forks turned on social capital.

As Hill told me in an interview, according to their estimations, Grand Forks didn’t look look like it’d be resilient. But the sheer survival after both the flood and the military cut-backs made residents believe they were shock resistant. The crisis in fact pulled the community together.

Disasters such as floods or tornados not only present a sense of urgency, but unlike shocks such as unemployment or an industry downturn, the problem is immediately and literally visible. In Grand Forks, the ability of community to work together, coupled with a helpful role played by FEMA, resulted in a plan to restructure its floodway and a plan to bring people back to the community again. In addition, the smaller, tighter community made it easy to rally. There was a high degree of trust between state and local officials, and there was no wasted time or effort between them.  As Hill reported, a “gang of four”  deputy mayors quickly reached consensus on how to rebuild community.

The result, as the authors write, was a catalyst.

Although the flooding of 1997 was only one of the shocks to the Grand Forks region that year, our interviewees saw it as a catalyst for change in the region, in particular by improving the relationships between the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks governments and the self-image of residents throughout the region. When asked how they perceived the region after 1997, interviewees consistently responded that the region was better [because of the new collaboration].

In a larger metro areas, social capital and the cooperation it engenders is more difficult to tap because there are so many different interest groups, demographic groups, all affected differently by the disaster. There’s also more governmental jurisdictions to coordinate.  In the end, though, social capital alone could not spark a complete recovery. The rebound has been slower than perceptions support.

We’ll have more information on the role of social capital and resilience when BRR member Margaret Cowell‘s new project begins to bear result. She is joining a team at Virginia Tech to examine  how citizens merge into responsive communities, make an impact, and then dissolve during and after a disaster. The project will develop a series of case studies exploring such questions as

  • Who organizes citizens into a community, how, and why?
  • How do they respond to the disaster?
  • How is technology, especially social media, mobilized for community organization and relief operations?
  • And what leads to the disbanding of these communities and is there any institutional memory preserved?

For more information, visit the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech site.

Photo credit: Times-Mail News

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