September marks the 10th annual National Preparedness Month. The President, FEMA, and disaster organizations encourage communities to prepare for and become more resilient to emergencies. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate recognizes that preparedness seems difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. “Preparedness is more about a state of mind than a stack of supplies,” he suggested during a recent National Academies meeting on Disaster Resilience in America.  This includes using the information around us to better understand the risks we face and to make choices that make us more resilient to disasters.

“Resilient” is a word used often to describe individuals and communities following a disaster. Newscasters interview resilient families who survive deadly events and praise resilient communities that come together to rebuild. To scientists, this term likely suggests ecological resilience. Following a disturbance, resilient ecosystems recover quickly and bounce back to previous levels of production. When this word is applied to humans, it suggests that resilient communities would also quickly recover, or bounce back, from a disaster. However, humans have the benefit of scientific research, which plays a critical role in forecasting future disasters and helping communities make informed decisions about how to recover. This key information means that human populations can do more than just return to where they were following a disaster.

Homes underwater after a major flood event (Image courtesy of FEMA http://www.ready.gov/floods)

Homes underwater after a major flood event (Image courtesy of FEMA http://www.ready.gov/floods)

Resilience to a disaster, like flooding, often means something different to an ecosystem than it does to the humans living in that ecosystem.  Flooding is a natural process that restores valuable topsoil and promotes agricultural productivity. Ecosystems bounce back relatively quickly to former levels of productivity following a flood event. When flooding intersects with human development, however, recovery is less certain. Following a significant event, like the recent floods in Colorado, residents must decide whether to rebuild their homes and businesses and if so, what changes should be made. At this critical point, science enables communities to make strategic decisions about how to move forward. As my professor at the University of Washington used to say, “If resilient communities were like resilient ecosystems, bouncing back could be as simple as patching up homes, businesses, and infrastructure and waiting for the next flood. But resilient humans don’t bounce back. They bounce forward.”

What does ‘bouncing forward’ mean, and why does it make communities resilient? Following a disaster, individuals, businesses, and communities make decisions about recovery, and including science in those decisions is important. Returning communities to their pre-disaster status sounds appealing, but taking time to determine the needs and priorities of a community allows them to evolve.

Tornadoes can cause significant damage to homes and infrastructure ( Image courtesy of FEMA http://www.ready.gov/tornadoes)

Tornadoes can cause significant damage to homes and infrastructure ( Image courtesy of FEMA http://www.ready.gov/tornadoes)

Disasters are not solely destructive—they provide opportunities for communities to grow and better serve their families. For example, in response to a devastating flood that wipes out the commerce of a small town, leaders and community members may decide that a shopping complex located in a floodplain along a river doesn’t make a lot of sense, but moving it inland and replacing that development with campgrounds for seasonal usage does. Planners can access hydrologic data to determine what choices move communities forward.

Bouncing forward applies at the family level as well. Families who did not previously gather emergency supplies, but who recognize their value after a disaster, may begin to assemble kits for themselves and their neighbors.

Science can play a key role in helping families and communities prepare. Information ranging from weather forecasts to the likelihood of infrastructure failing are key contributions from the scientific community that can help families to make educated decisions as they prepare. These choices move entire communities forward, not back.

Disasters can have high costs to both humans and communities (Image courtesy of FEMA http://1.usa.gov/1a7dJsu)

Disasters can have high costs to both humans and communities (Image courtesy of FEMA http://1.usa.gov/1a7dJsu)

It doesn’t take a disaster to become more resilient. Achieving resilience on a family level can be as simple as a dinner table discussion of what you would do following a disaster.  How would you contact each other if cell phones stop working? Where would you meet if your home was inaccessible? These discussions may grow to gathering emergency supplies. Simply gathering regular household items in an easily accessible place can make a difference if you are forced to leave your home quickly. Taking steps toward resiliency is as simple as informing yourself and your family and taking action.

For more resources on preparedness and resilience, check out FEMA’s website.

-Meg Gilley, AGU Public Affairs Intern- Meg graduated from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in 2012 where she studied hazard mitigation and emergency management.