Australia regrettably is no stranger to disasters and shocks. Over the past two years alone, individuals affected by fire and flood have filed more than A$6 billion in insurance claims. The recent bushfires, hail storms, and East Coast flooding have taken lives, destroyed homes and businesses, and upended lives across the nation. This short period of multiple catastrophes is not an outlier as most forecasters see more hazards ahead and therefore higher societal costs as global climate change accelerates. The COVID-19 pandemic has further hurt communities and businesses through lockdowns, stay at home orders, and physical distancing.
Standard approaches to handling shocks and hazards remain rooted in a variety of older management and response styles, including top down, command and control, government-led planning and reconstruction activities, and physical infrastructure-focused recovery. For example, decision makers often seek to set up military chain of command types of institutions to direct the flow of goods and services. Too often local communities have little say in the reconstruction planning process. And much of the emphasis on rebuilding revolves around structures – roads, bridges, dams, and other grey infrastructure. To help deal with the sprawling set of issues involving mitigation, response, and recovery, Australians now have the National Recovery and Resilience Agency to help.
The strength of community
The NRRA will be an important ally as Australia looks to better prepare for and recover from these events. But a growing body of evidence has demonstrated that it is residents, local businesses, and their networks themselves that serve as the foundation of resilience. During shocks and catastrophe, neighbours, business owners, clubs, schools, and faith based organisations serve as the bedrock of recovery. This is because the social connections in the community – not its roads, bridges, and dams – help coordinate actions, provide information and assistance, and guarantee a bottom up vision for policy decisions.
For example, even before a disaster like a fire or a hurricane reaches a community, our connections to people living nearby can save our lives. Well before official rescue or police personnel arrive, neighbours knock on doors, bring around cars and vans to transport the infirm and elderly, and get others out of harm’s way. Even before Japan’s 3/11 tsunami arrived, communities along Japan’s coast with stronger connections to their neighbours were the ones with the lowest casualties from that massive wave. Once a disaster has passed, stronger connections between the community can help ensure that the reconstruction proceeds according to local visions, not a plan designed by technocrats hundreds of kilometres away.
About Daniel P. Aldrich:
Daniel P. Aldrich is professor and director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University.
He has published five books, more than fifty peer reviewed articles, and written op-eds for The New York Times, CNN, Asahi Shinbun, along with appearing on popular media outlets such as CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and HuffPost.
His research has been funded by the Fulbright Foundation, the Abe Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, and he has carried out more than five years of fieldwork in Japan, India, Africa, and the Gulf Coast.