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True Resilience Means Cities Must Plan for Poverty-Stricken Citizens

Weather-related events are often catastrophic for urban poor.

Martin Haas/Shutterstock
Recently, Slate ran an excerpt from Linda Tirado’s book, “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.” In it, Tirado describes “why poor people stay poor” by detailing experiences of her own, including losing a truck because she didn’t have the money to get it out of the tow lot, losing both of her jobs (and her husband losing his as well) because they didn’t have a truck to get to work and losing her apartment because her roommate became ill and couldn’t work to contribute to the rent. “It’s amazing what things are absolute crises for me are simple annoyances for people with money,” Tirado remarks.

Which leads one to wonder: If “simple annoyances” can lead to disaster for the most vulnerable among us, what happens when something more serious -- that affects the entire population -- occurs?

The U.S. has seen plenty of weather-related problems lately. Seven feet of snow in upstate New York; droughts, fires and floods in California plus dire predictions of major earthquakes sometime in the future; and severe thunderstorms across the Midwest -- all of these are disruptive to what is considered to be "normal life" for people with resources, but for the poor, they can be catastrophic.

Interstate Highway 59 extends 500 miles from New Orleans diagonally across Mississippi and Alabama to Chattanooga, Tenn. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Region in 2005, thousands of people were displaced. Hundreds came straight up I-59 and arrived in Chattanooga -- many with little more than the clothes on their backs. Suddenly, we were establishing intake centers and coordinating services for evacuees arriving on our doorstep from a devastated part of our country. This was something that was largely unanticipated. Even though Chattanooga was undamaged by the storm, we had to rise to the occasion and provide food, clothing and housing for those who had lost everything.

We learned a valuable lesson: Be ready.

Later, when the Chattanooga area was raked and ravaged by more than 8 tornados on April 27, 2011, (including an F5 that killed 25 people) the resiliency of the community was tested again. Even though the worst of the damage and all but one of the fatalities occurred outside the city, our emergency services had to ramp up and provide assistance beyond our municipal limits.

Fortunately, in the few years after Katrina, our fire department embarked on an aggressive program of training in urban search and rescue techniques (commonly known as USAR). In addition, we pre-loaded a 53-foot tractor trailer rig with all the necessary equipment for rapid response to collapsed structures and stockpiled other needs for such emergencies.

We were much better prepared than would have been the case five years earlier, yet we were still stretched and stressed. And our resources intended for one purpose were necessarily diverted to address a more pressing need.

So, what does resilience and preparation for disaster have to do with efforts to eliminate poverty?

Simply this: Even under the best of circumstances, funding and programs designed and intended to aid the poor are chronically underfunded and severely limited.  When disaster strikes, those already restricted resources can be stretched beyond the breaking point -- resulting in a further breakdown of recovery efforts and even greater human suffering. Long-term efforts to address poverty can be interrupted for an extended period of time.

A 2012 article in The Guardian, “EU to focus on building resilience to disaster among world’s poorest,” describes efforts by the European Union regarding "a new approach designed to build resilience in communities to withstand the impact of crises and disasters -- and save money in the long run at a time of growing pressure on aid budgets." It goes on to note that studies have shown that over a 20-year period in Kenya, every $1 spent on disaster resilience resulted in a benefit of almost $3 in positive effects. It concludes: "Prevention not only saves lives but is cheaper than waiting for a full-blown emergency to hit."

A recent report by NBC News outlines plans by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to make the city an "epicenter” of preparedness rather than waiting to be "jarred into action by a devastating earthquake" -- omething that almost everyone acknowledges lurks somewhere in the city’s future. In addition to strengthening building codes and retrofits to existing buildings and other structures, the plan proactively proposes the comprehensive application of resilience measures to protect water supplies and maintain telecommunications when the inevitable disaster occurs.

U.S. Geological Survey Seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones said of the "Resilience by Design" plan, "We acknowledge that we cannot prevent 100 percent of the losses in an earthquake. What we are trying to do is prevent the catastrophic collapse of our economy by addressing the biggest vulnerabilities." Referring to a major apartment fire (which caused between $20 and $30 million in damage) in L.A. that same day, Dr. Jones added, "We all saw a fire this morning. Imagine 1,600 at the same time."

To add to the level of difficulty, Los Angeles is considered to be the poorest large city in the United States. Statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau estimate that 17.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and an even more dramatic rate of 25.3 percent of children live in poverty within the metropolitan area. Of course, Los Angeles also has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States with approximately 54,000 homeless individuals -- up from 15 percent from two years earlier.

As we have learned in the hard lessons from Katrina and other disasters, the effect of major catastrophes will reach well beyond the limits of the most directly impacted community. It will not be enough for cities such as Los Angeles to prepare their infrastructure, it is also essential that other communities -- even cities hundreds of miles away -- get ready to lend a hand and deal effectively with the waves of refugees that will come following a major disaster.

It is inconceivable that any U.S. city would turn its back on human suffering.

An article in the December 2014 issue of Planning -- the magazine of the American Planning Association -- describes a new initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The National Disaster Resilience Competition offers more than $1 billion to aid "impacted and distressed areas with unmet recovery needs." The program focuses on 67 governments that have already received Community Development Block Grant funds under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. However, the effort also focuses on preparations for future needs.

"As y'all know firsthand, communities across the country are facing significant risk from extreme weather," HUD Secretary Julian Castro is quoted in the article. "And the science is clear: Climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and more severe."

This new grant competition is a welcome offer from our federal government, but $1 billion is probably only a down payment -- especially if we are to effectively respond to disasters without totally suspending efforts to address the chronic pain and suffering of poverty.

A joint paper prepared by The Green Alliance and published in March 2013 by the United Nations concludes: "Only through truly resilient development that considers our changing environment and limits to our resources will it be possible to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality in the long term, ensuring poverty eradication for current and future generations."

Recent disasters provide dramatic lessons for what is yet to come. More importantly, they provide a wake-up call for cities to consider their poorest residents in the face of future challenges. Preparation and prevention are the most cost-effective approaches. Planning and innovation will never be more important in achieving true resilience. 

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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