What it Means to Build a Disaster-Resilient Community

December 4, 2023

Resilience doesn’t look the same for every community. Those in rural areas have different resources, needs, and cultural values than communities in urban centres. Indigenous communities have important traditional relationships with the land they live on, which also influences what resilience looks like for them. 

Building a disaster-resilient community requires emergency management organizations to acknowledge and incorporate the nuances of each unique community into disaster recovery planning. 

For a community to reap the benefits of a disaster recovery plan, emergency management leaders must plan ahead for long-term resilience. In this article, we’ll share some of the core components of building a disaster-resilient community, including: 

  • Understanding the ways different disasters—and the scale of disaster—are likely to affect your community 
  • Assessing and addressing your community’s current vulnerabilities
  • Establishing resources for addressing the social, cultural, and psychological impact of disaster

Develop a Disaster-Resilient Community

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) defines resilience as: 

The ability of a community exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform, and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner.

Resilient communities have strategies in place to help them adapt, transform, and recover from disaster events—not just cope with them. Emergency management teams can begin to prepare for resilience by paying attention to three key areas. 

1. Recognize the Unique Impacts Disasters Have on Your Community 

Floods, wildfires, summertime heat domes, winter storms, and hurricanes are becoming routine occurrences in communities across Canada Each of these disasters will put pressure on different recovery resources and affect infrastructure and individuals in different ways. A disaster-resilient community must be prepared to handle a variety of disaster outcomes. 

Rural communities and low-income neighbourhoods are more likely to be affected by disasters. It’s a challenge even for disaster experts to foresee all the risks. Emergency management teams must work to gain detailed knowledge of the types of disasters a community is likely to experience and which parts of the community will be impacted. 

Prioritizing equity in emergency management is essential for making sure no community is left behind. In situations where rural and urban communities have formed disaster response and recovery agreements, rural leaders must understand how their community’s needs differ from those in the urban centre. 

For example, river flooding may impact a downstream city and a small town upstream at the same time. In this instance, the area with greater population density may require more emergency services from sources such as first-response flood and fire restoration specialists. However, emergency managers in both communities must collaborate to ensure that there are adequate resources allocated to the rural area even if disaster strikes its urban neighbours. It’s also a good idea to build direct relationships with mutual aid partners such as the Red Cross, Team Rubicon, or the Salvation Army and establish a clear scope of work in the event of disaster to make sure resources are allocated effectively. 

Get support creating a rural disaster response and recovery plan →

2. Understand the Nuances of Your Community’s Vulnerabilities 

Resilience often hinges on risk mitigation. Emergency management teams need to get a holistic view of their community’s vulnerabilities and an understanding of how these vulnerabilities are interconnected. It’s important to conduct thorough risk and needs assessments of essential infrastructure and services that are likely to be affected by disaster. 

For example, a flood emergency response plan must include initiatives that will mitigate the risk to water treatment and sewage infrastructure before flooding occurs. Wildfire response plans should include public education and regulations around reducing the risk of fire near homes and in wildlands. Emergency management teams also need to look at public gathering spaces such as schools, gyms, community centres, and hotels to make sure they are suitable options for temporary accommodation. 

Improving and strengthening current resources and infrastructure creates a foundation for recovery and puts the community on the road to resilience. A few additional examples of disaster mitigation tactics include: 

  • Ensuring community members have adequate insurance 
  • Seeking out financial resources (from provincial governments, non-profits etc.) for those who cannot afford insurance or who are uninsurable 
  • Creating reinforced tornado safe rooms throughout the community
  • Implementing and enforcing building, land use, and zoning practices
  • Conducting hazard and floodplain mapping
  • Creating public disaster preparedness and mitigation awareness programs
  • Investing in planting shelterbelts and cultivating protective wildland

Get a holistic disaster risk assessment and risk mitigation plan →

3. Acknowledge the Social, Cultural, and Psychological Effects of Disasters

Disasters are both physically and emotionally destabilizing. Building a disaster-resilient community requires emergency management teams to consider the intangible trauma inflicted by serious events. Dealing with loss of life may be the most obvious cause of emotional trauma after a disaster. Displacement and the destruction of sacred land, long-term health effects, increased uncertainty, and financial precarity can also be extremely damaging. The psychological toll of trauma can result in physical illnesses and influence an increase in domestic abuse and substance use. 

Community resilience includes the ability of individuals to cope with and heal from what they experience during a disaster and in the days, weeks, and months that follow. What’s needed is a trauma-informed, human-centred approach to disaster preparedness and management. Those who are affected by disasters are in a vulnerable emotional state. Transparency and open communication are essential for establishing trust and ensuring that community members are treated with care and respect through early response, recovery, and beyond. 

It’s important for emergency management teams to conduct community engagement to understand what the community members value and what they are most likely to need when disaster strikes. Emergency management teams must take time to learn about the nuanced differences between cultural groups with varying economic status, such as how the needs of low-income Indigenous or immigrant communities might differ from those of affluent communities.  Listening to the voice of the community is part of establishing equity in emergency management which ensures that the needs of community members are heard, understood, and acknowledged throughout the planning process. 

A community’s intangible needs could include mental health support, community gatherings, and the facilitation of traditional ceremonies combined with ecological restoration. 

Read Keeping Your Community Safe: Tailoring Your Disaster Preparedness Plan to Meet Your Community’s Unique Needs →

Going Beyond Recovery to Ensure Resilience

Resilience is a long game. One of the benefits of a disaster recovery plan is having an established framework for what resilience looks like. Recovery plans must include strategies for supporting the strength and well-being of the community long after the immediate threat has subsided. 

This approach requires leaders to continuously demonstrate their understanding of the community’s needs through dialogue and action in response to feedback. Communities can only be resilient when provided with resources to recover and build back stronger, reducing the risk of disaster or improving access to recovery resources in the future. 

Prioritize Community Resilience with a Disaster Recovery Plan

Resilience begins with strategic planning. The disaster experts at Rebecca Innes Consulting (RIC) specialize in risk mitigation and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery planning. Our team understands the unique nuances of addressing disaster risk in rural and Indigenous communities. 

RIC can help your emergency management team create a pre-recovery plan that includes short-, medium-, and long-term goals that lay the foundation for a strong, disaster-resilient community. 

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Helping you prepare for and recover from disasters through strategy, project planning, and grant writing services. Based in Alberta, Canada

RIC is fortunate and grateful to live vibrantly on the land of the Treaty 7 People – the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations (Chiniki, Bearspaw, Wesley), and the Métis Nation (Region 3). In the spirit of change, RIC is committed to seeking truth and reconciliation.

© Rebecca Innes Consulting 2023