Normally a nice trout stream, Vermont's Williams River raged after rains from Hurricane Irene.

For rural America, 2011 has been a year of fire and rain.

Wildfires have raked across the southwest, from East Texas to California. Vermont has flooded and so have New York, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, Missouri and Louisiana. Hurricane Irene flattened tobacco and cotton crops in North Carolina and Virginia before it continued its destructive path up the Atlantic coast.

The long journey to recovery has just begun in many hard-hit rural areas, often given little or no attention in post-storm media reports. 

Beginning even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed rural communities along the Gulf Coast in 2005, MDC, a Durham-based non-profit, started working with citizens in distressed and disaster-prone communities along the Atlantic Coast to reduce individual, household, and community vulnerability. Through our work with the FEMA-funded Emergency Preparedness Demonstration Program, which expanded to the Gulf Coast after the devastation there, we learned some key lessons. 

Here are a few :

1. It’s hard to start over. 

The first step on the path to recovery is to understand that many people and families will be starting from scratch. A community hit by a disaster begins to recover by accounting for and serving the needs of survivors. Some will have evacuated, others remain in shelters, and some choose not to leave, or aren’t able to. 

After the search-and-rescue phase is over, communities have important questions to answer in the short-term.  How do they get people out of shelters and back into permanent housing? How do businesses get the necessary certifications to reopen and put people back to work?  How do they get schools and other critical facilities up and running again? 

Rural communities almost always require federal and state assistance to deal with such problems.

2. Neighbors are the best first responders. 

Every individual should be encouraged and enabled to act on the natural inclination we all have to come to the aid of a neighbor. This is especially important in rural areas where FEMA and state officials may not arrive for days after relief centers are already open in more populated areas. 

In the midst of a crisis, it is too late to address issues of coordination and liability that keep neighbors from acting in a safe, timely, and efficient way.  Without the proper training and coordination in advance, citizens could pose a danger to themselves and others. 

3. Planning matters.  

Plans grounded in the local physical, cultural, and political context will increase citizen awareness of the risks posed by natural hazards, highlight potential unmet needs, and focus attention on the most appropriate measures to mitigate the risks.  

In addition, the process of planning must be inclusive, involving the expertise of public officials and private citizens, especially those most vulnerable to disasters.  It takes a village to prepare for and recover from a disaster.

4. Build on what you have.  

Communities should inventory their internal resources, skills and capacities:  How many folks have cars and are willing to transport neighbors to safety?  How many don’t own cars but are licensed to drive?  Can local churches safely provide food and shelter?  How many citizens can give advanced medical relief or CPR?  How many citizens know how to use a chain saw or repair damaged homes? Who is qualified to provide counsel to distressed families?

5. Make the most of mutual aid and pre-disaster procurement.  

Once a community knows its internal resources, it should fill gaps with outside sources through agreements with other municipalities or arrangements with external contractors.  Debris removal can be a major obstacle to getting relief supplies or utility repair trucks into a community—and after a disaster, dump trucks are in short supply. It’s better to secure services and fees before the disaster happens.   

6. Don’t repeat mistakes. 

The recovery period is an opportunity to reconfigure the design and function of communities. Instead of rebuilding things the way they were, communities should move people to higher ground in flood-prone areas and place moratoria on building in hazard-prone areas.  

Communities should strengthen building codes and create incentives to build with stronger or fire-proof materials.  Communities should immunize themselves to future disasters.

Disasters test the fabric of a community. Where the fabric is weak, the community may not fully recover. Where it is strong, a stronger community will emerge.   

In addition, research and the experiences of communities around the country prove that the key to building a strong community fabric is leaders who take steps before the disaster to engage citizens in efforts to reduce community vulnerability and position the community to undertake comprehensive and equitable disaster recovery in the future. 

I have seen this work.  An investment in disaster planning and preparedness is an investment in a more resilient community.

John Cooper, Ph.D., is a researcher and program director at MDC, a Durham-based nonprofit, where he directed the FEMA Emergency Preparedness Demonstration Program, an effort to understand barriers to increased disaster awareness and preparedness in marginalized communities. You can learn more about how to connect with emergency services before disaster strikes by going here.

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