“Resilience” is a word you hear a lot in the aftermath of a disaster. Indeed, it’s critical to think about how we can be less vulnerable in the future. In New York City during Hurricane Sandy, we saw firsthand how a downed transportation system can bring the city to a halt. After the earthquake in Haiti, we talked a lot about how to make buildings more stable by improving building codes. These conversations are incredibly important, and help us to plan for what we hope will never happen.
I have been thinking about what it takes to be resilient for a while. Before joining ioby as staff, I worked at the United Nations Development Programme as a Climate Change Policy Specialist. I supported national governments to address climate change within their countries and at the negotiating table at the UNFCCC negotiations. In my work, I spoke with people addressing disasters around the world: the floods in Pakistan, earthquake in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines and other tragedies.
Here is what I learned: resilience is personal.
When the storm hits, it’s the things that you barely thought about before the disaster that are crucial. Questions that you probably never asked yourself before in any urgent way: How can I get food and water? How can I communicate with my family and friends? If I need to leave my home, how do I get out?
In my experience, people that could answer questions like these are much more resilient to the impacts of the disaster. And in New York City, we saw this vividly – stories of the elderly stuck in apartments at the tops of buildings with no way to get food or power. They depended on the incredible army of relief workers, volunteers and concerned citizens to bring them supplies. By getting their personal needs met, they were more resilient.
Don’t get me wrong – personal resilience is very connected to the resilience of larger systems. You can’t call your family if the telephone lines are out. But in a disaster my first though isn’t “what’s going on with the grid?” It’s “How do I call my family? NOW.”
This is why I am proud of ioby’s report after Hurricane Sandy. While there have been many important discussions about how we can improve larger infrastructure – like energy grids, buildings and transportation systems – to be less vulnerable to erratic storms, ioby’s is the first to make this personal. When we asked people for ideas, we didn’t know what we would get. And the responses surprised in all sorts of good ways. Many suggestions are wildly practical and don’t cost a lot of money. Ideas like having a “buddy” in your apartment building to make sure that everyone is accounted for after a disaster. Imagine how that would have helped in the days following Sandy? Or Katrina?
I hope this is just the beginning of more efforts to talk about resilience from the personal perspective. There is no doubt that we need to rebuild in smarter, stronger ways and it will require good ideas from everyone so that, if a storm like Sandy comes our way again, we will be ready with good answers to the unexpected questions.