How resilient communities handle natural disasters

A citizen of Beaumont, Haiti unloads a bag of rice from a CH-47 Chinook on October 13, 2016. (Credit: Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf/USAF via The 621st Contingency Response Wing/Flickr)

The destructive nature of Hurricane Matthew—which resulted in hundreds of deaths in Haiti, dozens more in the US, and extensive damage still being assessed—was a test of strength in communications systems, infrastructure, and ultimately the resilience of communities.

In addition to Matthew, Hurricane Earl, Tropical Storm Fiona, Hurricane Gaston, Hurricane Hermine, and Tropical Storm Nicole are among the 14 named storms this Atlantic hurricane season—already more than 12 originally projected for the season, which extends into November.

The kind of devastation caused by storms like these is replicated elsewhere with losses increasing from tornadoes, floods, wildfires, excessive heat, and other costly and life-threatening extreme weather conditions.

From 2005-2015, extreme weather conditions resulted in the death of more than 6,500 people in the US alone. Since 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has contributed more than $26 million nationwide toward disaster preparedness—and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has spent about $1 billion in natural disaster resilience.

Scientists and urban planners are searching for ways to better help communities become more resilient so that they can prepare and recover more quickly when natural disasters occur.

Community disaster resiliency is broadly defined as the ability through policies, programs, and interventions to mitigate damage and quickly recover when disasters occur. Resiliency measures vary, and may include rates related to poverty, educational level, homeownership, and access to vehicles and telecommunications networks. Other measures include infrastructure density and the presence of hazard mitigation plans.

Laura A. Bakkensen, assistant professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona, responds to four questions about natural disasters and the need to improve community resiliency.


You and your collaborators have found that resilient communities are better able to recover from devastating disasters. What are the implications for such a finding, particularly as it pertains to community and economic development?


Natural disaster resilience is a common policy goal these days, and billions of dollars are being spent around the globe to try and achieve it. Despite risk-management actions to lessen impacts, disasters losses have increased over time. This, at least in part, has motivated the new resilience paradigm across multiple levels of government.

Effort must be tailored to the needs and unique local characteristics. However, in a recent publication, my coauthors and I show that resilience as a concept can be tricky to meaningfully quantify. One important implication is that communities should be careful about which metrics they use to make decisions, to be sure that money is targeted toward projects that can meet their specific goals.


What does it mean to be a vulnerable community? Also, what are some of the essential tools present in resilient communities that are lacking in those that are vulnerable?


Broadly speaking, resilient communities are better able to bounce back and recover from adverse events, relative to more vulnerable communities. A growing literature quantifies vulnerability and resilience in disaster indices, grouping variables across economic, social, infrastructural, and other domains. However, resilience can often be elusive to pin down and quantify. Theoretically persuasive metrics of resilience do not always correlate with observed disaster outcomes, such as fewer fatalities or reductions in disaster losses.

Thus, policymakers should be careful when using resilience indices and select a resilience index that is a good measure of outcomes relating to their policy objectives. For example, we find the often-used Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) to be useful in explaining natural disaster damages, as areas that are more vulnerable, based on this index, have higher levels of damages in a regression analysis. However SoVI does not strongly explain fatalities from disasters, as areas that are more vulnerable, based on the index, do not have significantly more fatalities.

So, we recommend that policymakers be careful when choosing which index on which to base their decisions.


You and your collaborators also call for improved research on the implications—some of them negative—related to how hurricanes are gendered in naming. Why do we need to have a better understanding about how something as simple as a hurricane’s name has an impact on the population?


Understanding disaster risk is a key component in deciding how to respond, be it evacuating from a hurricane zone or pulling over while driving through a dust storm. People must perceive that the threat is credible and that consequences from inactivity are bad enough. If we misjudge risks, this can result in people unknowingly putting themselves in harm’s way, with potentially fatal results. As such, a key area of my research analyzes how individuals understand disaster risk.

In the context of hurricane names, the good news for society is that my coauthor and I did not find evidence that individuals discount hurricanes with female names. However, in other current work, I find evidence that individuals do not always pay attention to tornado warnings broadcast by the National Weather Service, which leads to higher levels of tornado injuries and fatalities.


Given the statistical rise in natural disasters—considering Hurricane Matthew, this year’s flooding in Louisiana and West Virginia, the Southeast blizzard from earlier this year, and also the more intense wildfires seen throughout the West and Southwest—how can communities become better equipped to respond?


Research has shown that certain advanced-planning strategies can, in essence, pay for themselves by reducing the magnitude of disaster damages. However, my current research in flooding shows that people can sometimes forget about disaster risk until a disaster strikes. Realizing this, one thing that communities and policymakers can do is to evaluate spending both before and after a disaster. Spending a little more up-front and preparing for disasters can, in some cases, make good financial sense. Of course, each policy should be evaluated based on its own costs and benefits.

On an individual level, information really is power when it comes to natural disaster preparedness. Some tips are:

  • Know the natural disaster risks in your area. For example, you can find out the flood risk for your home at Flood Smart.
  • Have a plan in place to be ready for a disaster. Familiarize yourself with advice from the organizations such as the Pima County Office of Emergency Management or the Red Cross.
  • Consider options such as insurance to cover the disaster risk or the costs and benefits of damage mitigation strategies.
  • Keep updated with good information in the moment. Extreme weather such as flash floods can develop quickly in southern Arizona. Check out the National Weather Service Tucson’s Twitter feed for instant updates on hazardous conditions.

While we cannot directly control the weather, preparedness and information can help empower us to know that we will be ready to deal with whatever comes our way.