In a new study, retired Illinois State Water Survey engineer Sally McConkey and Eric R. Larson, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the U. of I., examined the metrics used at a county scale for national assessments to determine whether communities are prepared to withstand and recover from natural disasters such as floods and fires. McConkey spoke to News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about what they found.
What is community disaster resilience?
Researchers have proposed numerous definitions of resilience. In general, resilience is a measure of a community’s ability to “bounce back” after a disaster. Ideally, that recovery restores it to a state that is comparable to – or better than – before.
How can authorities determine community resilience before a disaster occurs?
There is no direct measure of community resilience. Research has demonstrated that many factors contribute to resilience. These include economic, social and institutional capacities. At a city scale, an assessment of risks and resources conducted by emergency managers, floodplain administrators and elected officials offers insight into strengths and needed resources. Acting to address those needs and gaps will improve community resilience to disasters. At the national level, metrics and indexes have been developed to give a relative measure of resilience at a county scale. The parameters used to create these indexes and their efficacy is the topic of our paper.
What are the key components of community resilience?
Many qualities appear to indicate resilience, but the relative importance of each factor is as yet unknown. These qualities may be categorized under the domains of social, economic, institutional, infrastructure, community capital and environment. Our study evaluated ways to measure community resilience over time. How can we tell if a community is becoming more resilient to disasters? To do that, we tried to identify components of community resilience that adequately reflect changes or improvements in resilience over time, and that also could meaningfully inform local decision-making for resilience.
What is missing from current assessment approaches?
Top-down assessments such as the Baseline Resilience Indicator for Communities that we explored in our paper are used at the federal level to identify geographies (in this instance, at the U.S.-county level) that may be less resilient and may need greater support in the aftermath of disasters. However, such assessments are constrained by the types of data that are consistently collected on a national scale. Bottom-up assessments may provide more details, allowing communities to craft specific actions to improve their own resilience. However, these assessments require the expenditure of resources that many locals do not have. Furthermore, such assessments are unique to each community and typically cannot be used for comparative study.
What recommendations would you make to communities hoping to assess their own resilience?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency released the National Risk Index in 2021. This is a rich resource for national data shown on a geospatial platform at the census tract level. The supporting data can be downloaded. This is a great starting place for anyone hoping to explore their relative risk and dig into the specific data on economic and demographic parameters, social vulnerability and hazard risk. Emergency managers, floodplain administrators and elected officials can begin with this data and take a deeper dive to understand conditions unique to their locality. A first step can be the adoption of up-to-date building codes, which have been demonstrated to ensure a more resilient future.