Creative and effective responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita came not from where most had expected--—the U.S. government—but from the grassroots.
Take Common Ground Relief, which started with $50 and three people. The group runs medical and legal clinics and four distribution centers offering food, water, and clothing. Volunteers do everything from tarping, gutting, and cleaning homes to "bioremediaton" of soil contaminated by sewage and toxins. So far, the group says, it has offered relief to 50,000 residents in four parishes.
Since Katrina, Americans are looking to their neighbors, local governments, and to themselves to prepare for disaster. "Confidence in the federal government's ability to protect the American public has continued to fall to a new crisis level," according to studies done by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University several months after Katrina.
"One of the key things we're learning is that we have to strengthen our neighborhoods," says Gwendolyn Hallsmith, director of Global Community Initiatives, a Montpelier, Vermont-based group that does sustainability planning with cities. "Because if they don't have inner resiliency, connectivity, communications, there's nothing government can do to help. Government will never be able to be the only response for a disaster like Katrina. We need to depend on each other, too."
What does it mean to be resilient? According to Hallsmith, it means having "an adaptive capacity rather than just the skills and training of emergency response." Hallsmith has been working with a group in Canada called "Imagine Calgary" on developing that capacity, which she defines as "the ability of a system to adapt to change, to be able to respond to disturbances, surprises, shocks, and uncertainty."
"Resiliency is like physical fitness," says David Gershon of the Empowerment Institute in Woodstock, New York. "It's getting people in shape for the future." Gershon helped create New York's All Together Now.
Resiliency also involves another paradigm shift, say activists: communities must start considering possible future scenarios.
One way they are doing this is through a process called "Imagine." This process gets the public involved in creating future scenarios for their communities. It has most often been used in Canada, but the original idea is credited to Bliss Browne, director of Imagine Chicago.
What does it look like in practice? After doing an inventory of the city's resources, "Imagine Calgary" recommended that the city, often called the Houston of the North for its oil and gas industry, fund and develop renewable energy sources. The citizens anticipated that the city could face oil and gas shocks in the future, and they felt it important to stem climate change. And because glaciers, a major source of the region's water, are already shrinking as a result of climate change, the group has recommended that the city institute targeted water conservation strategies for the coming 100 years.
Other Canadian "Imagine" groups, such as Envision Halifax and Imagine B.C., along with Cities Plus in Vancouver, B.C., have also been looking ahead 20, 30, and even 100 years.
"Imagine B.C.," based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., has sponsored public dialogues so that experts in a range of fields can "get out of their silos [of specialty] and find common solutions," says Joanna Ashworth, the group's director. Artists have joined forces with economists, for example, to illustrate a range of individual and collective economic behaviors and their impacts on the environment years ahead.
"We know that the government is listening because they've quoted our materials," says Ashworth. "The culture of dialogue is starting to permeate public policy."
This kind of thinking has reached Canada's capital, too. "We were intrigued by the idea of planning for 100 years out, like Vancouver," says Ned Lathrop, who manages planning for the city of Ottawa. The city was planning to update its emergency operations and at the same time to plan for growth, Lathrop says. So the city decided "to marry" resiliency with sustainability. "After all, the more sustainable you are, the more resilient you will be," says Lathrop. "The more you conserve, the less resources you will need."
Francesca Lyman, author of The Greenhouse Trap, a book about global warming, is a writer living in Seattle.