Bring community voices into disaster rebuilding and infrastructure planning
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After wildfires and hurricanes ravaged the country last year, we saw devastating human impact, but also soon came to understand the huge financial costs to communities needing to rebuild. Reports are calling 2017 the most costly disaster year on record, with estimates of over $306 billion in damage to housing, transit, infrastructure and businesses. We know that a $1 investment of federal funds in resilient infrastructure can yield $6 in savings, and we also know that community voice is necessary to building more resilient infrastructure for the future. With Congress including $90 billion for post-disaster relief in their recent budget deal and broader federal infrastructure plans being considered, this is an important moment to consider how disaster relief funding and long-term infrastructure investments will reshape communities. We must learn from how past recovery efforts have contributed to the inequalities among neighborhoods and how we can incorporate community voices in post-disaster reconstruction.

Research has shown that immigrants, communities of color, low-income individuals, and people who live in high-density housing are more likely to suffer when disasters hit. Low-income families are more likely to live in flood-prone areas with insufficient infrastructure and inadequate flood control protections (as we saw clearly during Hurricane Katrina), and their impacts are often left out of the calculation of total damage costs. Compounding this vulnerability, resources often come too slowly or are insufficient to help underserved communities rebuild the infrastructure, schools and transit systems needed for these places to rebound.

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It is therefore crucial for recovery efforts to take these disparate impacts into account when allocating resources. What designs and construction methods will be endorsed and implemented to protect communities from future weather events? How can the reconstruction be participatory to include all voices and needs of all residents? How can we facilitate a rebuilding process that takes into account communities’ real needs and empowers marginalized residents to have a role in recovery? And how can the recovery effort leverage lessons from both the successes, and failures of prior disaster recovery efforts, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy?

With these questions in mind, there are a few recommendations policymakers, businesses, and advocates can keep in mind to increase the resilience of fire- and storm-vulnerable regions while also prioritizing equity: 

  • Assess post-disaster needs and reconstruction strategies by partnering community voices on the ground with nonprofits, government agencies, institutional partners and businesses. 
  • Incorporate local community input into reconstruction planning. For example, the NY Rising program, sponsored by New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was an effort to develop community-led reconstruction plans following Superstorm Sandy. This program offered communities the opportunity to weigh in on the planning and reconstruction for their specific communities.
  • Ensure communities have requisite technical assistance support to incorporate resiliency into their reconstruction efforts.
  • Identify co-benefits of resilience investment and leverage private dollars for public investment. For example, how can funds that come into a community to support recovery also support additional unmet needs like affordable housing?
  • Educate and train communities about identifying risk and best practices around safe infrastructure and emergency planning and detail practices that work.
  • Build a community’s reserve of first responder support by encouraging and sponsoring support and participation in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. Communities, particularly communities in rural areas, are often the first responders in lieu of a formal institutional response. The CERT program, sponsored by FEMA, educates community volunteers about basic disaster preparedness concepts and is an excellent resource for communities to better prepare for disasters and emergencies. 

Philanthropies are already playing a big role in thinking about how the goals of resiliency and equity can work together. One national initiative, the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) is helping communities think about development with equity in mind. SPARCC is supporting six jurisdictions across the country to amplify locally driven efforts to ensure major new infrastructure investments lead to equitable, healthy opportunities for everyone. For example, in Chicago, SPARCC’s partners are investing across the city in urban flooding and heat interventions, including storm water and urban tree canopy management. While in Los Angeles, SPARCC’s partners are focused on expanding green infrastructure vital for improving local water resources.

What’s more, Enterprise’s Resilience Initiative, in conjunction with SPARCC, works to provide low income communities across the nation that are vulnerable to weather impacts with to tools, guidance, grant funding, and advocacy needed to safeguard their future. We are working on the ground with partners in Texas, California and Puerto Rico to support resilient reconstruction and to answer many of the questions communities are facing regarding assessment of vulnerability and developing solutions to safeguard housing infrastructure.

Natural disasters are devastating, but also provide an opportunity for us to reassess how we can invest in our communities to promote racial equity and climate outcomes that benefit all populations. This is a critical moment for rebuilding, and a critical opportunity to listen to our local communities and leverage lessons from prior disasters to positively shape our cities and regions for generations to come.

Laurie Schoeman is national program director at Enterprise Community Partners.