All Disasters Are Local, But Decentralization Should Not Dilute Resilience

This is the ninth installment from our new commentary paper entitled, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” The full commentary will be shared on June 1 to mark the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season.

As a disaster safety community of citizens, policymakers, practitioners, and scientists, we must focus on catastrophes one at a time. We handle them as they occur, responding generously with resources and national empathy. But we often lose the momentum of public support too swiftly to affect sweeping policy changes. Lessons are learned and sometimes preserved locally, but we run out of momentum to create or sustain change beyond the affected area.

Unfortunately, this approach has created a hodgepodge system of different resilience levels across the country depending on where you live. States like California have not only embraced minimum seismic building codes, but they are now looking to performance-based codes that will go beyond life safety to preserve property too. Contrast that with those counties in Texas that either do not adopt or do not enforce residential building codes.

This local approach is rational in a world where resources are finite, and disasters are an uncertainty. But it sustains a costly cycle of “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” because leaders sometimes have little incentive to create resilience through building code adoption and enforcement or other “DisasterSmart” policies.

Again, it is understandable. Why act differently so long as communities can expect generous post-disaster relief dollars with few strings attached?

One might counter these observations with the fact that states and local governments have self-determination. That is true. But self-determination without self-funding is inequitable. First, it is unfair to the affected homeowners who bear the cost of insurance deductibles and loss of quality of life during extended, disruptive recovery periods. Additionally, it is unfair to taxpayers beyond the disaster zone who pay through billion-dollar relief grants and subsidized programs like flood insurance.

The cost of disasters can be mitigated by implementing resilience tools like building codes and research-informed risk communication. That is why we are calling for local and state leaders to put strong, modern building codes and communication plans in place before disasters strike. The current system of incomplete resilience leaves U.S. communities on a roller coaster of life safety threats and economic whiplash driven by weather and earth movement, but we can blunt those extremes when we commit to best practices and proven policies.

After the 2017 experience, we see a legacy taking shape. We are moving beyond only a defined community of disaster safety stakeholders who understand and support the policies and practices necessary to affect change. We are moving on to a new and growing public where everyone values and understands that every city, county, township, tribe, and village can innovate and become resilient through leadership and resolve.

This brings us back to the wisdom of one of the world’s greatest leaders during times of crisis, Winston Churchill, who stated, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We are committed to continuing, together, until we break the build-destroy-rebuild cycle once and for all.

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