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Disaster: Before or After

September 16, 2013

This week’s guest lecturer, Brandon Mitchell, works in post-Sandy redevelopment and strategic acquisition for the Mayors Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, a position that puts him at the heart of the recovery effort, and for myself, puts a much needed face of the rebuilding process.

Rebuilding is a somewhat misleading word however. In the rush to return to normalcy, economic, community and safety pressures have been driving forces in the quest for a speedy recovery. For many communities that does not, and should not, mean rebuilding. Offices like Brandon Mitchell’s  have been a part of a complicated, collaborative-web with congress, HUD, the City of New York and community members,  to establish a set of guidelines regarding the physical recovery that uses government funds. The result: for many New Yorkers recovery has been boiled down to rehabbing, reimbursement, rebuilding or leaving.  These seam at first like four neat boxes, into which all buildings and areas can be sorted. But simultaneously creating and implementing a program of mechanisms intended to help those most affected, means that finding information, sifting through regulations, consulting communities and finally sorting out what form in which ‘recovery’ comes, is a challenge of monumental proportions.  Our discussion with Mr. Mitchell highlighted our need to establish robust emergency management plans, and further emphasized our need to be physically and well as socially prepared for emergency situations.  

There is a distinct difference (and co-dependent relationship) between physical resiliency and social resiliency. Being physically resilient may take shape in our various layers of infrastructure and building systems, as well as in the geography, landscape, and ecologies that surround us. Social resiliency is somewhat less tangible, especially during times of calm. It is during times of disaster that social resiliency manifests itself as a palpable entity, critically influencing a community’s ability to organize, support  and rebound from the hard-felt blow of crisis.

Similar to resiliency, there are also two types of crisis. Physical emergencies often take the form of natural disasters: acute, relatively instantaneous.  But there are also social disasters. Chronic, and slow to develop, these disasters build over time to manifest as civil unrest, gross inequality or lack of access to basic resources and opportunity. Although divergent in impact, both are powerful erosive forces, destroying the fabric of systems and relationships upon which we depend. And in some cases, both are catalyzed by our changing climate as a common impetus.

An opinion piece I read this week in US NEWS – about the role of water scarcity in the Syrian civil war – brought to light the relationship between management of basic resources and the economic and social turmoil that grew out of a population’s inability to maintain their status quo. The massive drought that killed up to 85% of livestock and forced the abandonment of 160 villages exemplifies the important link between environmental and social stability.

The realization of drought, its impact on individual welfare, and the cumulative, region-wide affect, are all things that take shape slowly, over time.  Being aware of changes and discrepancies, as they happen is key to making incremental policy and public affairs decisions along the way that reduce the risk of a mounting crisis.  But in a world of  varying political climates, and where policy often lags far behind science, it almost seems impossible to run our political machines with enough efficiency to adapt to climate related nuances with the needed precision.

The unfortunate result is that we find it much easier to be reactive than proactive. Despite the vast challenges faced by people like Brandon Mitchell, picking up the pieces after a disaster is still far easier than preventing one.

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