Economic Resilience Is Key to Disaster Recovery

By Maria Flynn, President and CEO, JFF

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

As we begin to emerge from a time during which our lives were deeply shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now abundantly clear that crisis, and crisis recovery, has become a dominant national theme for the foreseeable future. Whether it is a hurricane, a wildfire, lack of access to quality health care, or our national reckoning with racial injustice, crisis is a given in our society, and in many cases, crises can compound, with one making the others worse and complicating recovery. Left unchecked, crises can undermine the stability and promise of our democratic society. Almost invariably, the most vulnerable members of our communities end up bearing the brunt of the impact.

With the generous support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, JFF has released a Disaster Resilience Toolkit, which draws on extensive research on rural southern communities to offer local leaders a plan of action for not only putting people back to work and restoring economic activity in the wake of a disaster, but also building long-term resilience to disasters. We chose to focus on the South because states in that region are threatened by the increasingly frequent, and increasingly severe, storms that form in Hurricane Alley, a stretch of warm Atlantic water known for generating hurricanes. We chose to focus on rural communities because they may lack the infrastructure and resources of their larger metropolitan counterparts and are often overlooked in the national dialogue about disasters and how best to recover. Despite this targeted focus, we believe that much of the recommendations in the toolkit are applicable to more urban communities and areas that are located outside the U.S. South.

The toolkit focuses on steps local leaders can take to help their communities recover from disasters faster and more thoroughly than they may have in the past, and it looks beyond the typical acute early stages of recovery, where the primary concerns are ensuring residents’ safety and meeting basic needs, to include a longer-term lens on recovery that incorporates efforts to rebuild regional economic vitality. The report also recognizes the importance of effective coordination among local, regional, and statewide leaders in recovery efforts, and it specifically explores the intersection of local ecosystems — tight-knit networks of municipal and county leaders, first responders, community-based organizations, and educational institutions — and broader ecosystems that include state and federal governments and national service providers.

We recommend that leaders use the following three-phase framework for thinking about the stages of recovery:

Phase 1: Prepare — Mitigate risk, develop stabilization and recovery plans, and address longstanding or unresolved preexisting crises.

Phase 2: Stabilize — Go beyond just meeting residents’ needs for safety, shelter, and other basics and address barriers that are keeping people from getting back to work as quickly as possible.

Phase 3: Recover — Adapt to the post-disaster economy, create incentives for employers to invest in the region, and prioritize job training to ensure that workers will have the skills employers will be seeking in the future.

Within that framework, the toolkit offers a number of specific strategies that will help local leaders in rural communities recover from and prepare for disasters. Here are some examples:

  • Set up mutual aid agreements with nearby communities (Prepare)
  • Invest in off-the-shelf or homegrown applications to provide real-time coordination with residents (Prepare)
  • Work with local employers and training providers to create career pathways that offer workers in low-wage jobs opportunities for economic advancement (Prepare)
  • Help displaced workers secure “lifeboat jobs” — occupations that become available as a result of disaster recovery efforts, but which aren’t always filled by local residents (Stabilize)
  • Bring employment supports directly to residents via mobile units or in facilities where multiple emergency service providers are co-located (Stabilize)
  • Communicate using culturally relevant messaging (Stabilize)
  • Build pathways that enable residents who found jobs during the post-disaster “boom” to transition into more stable, long-term work (Recovery)
  • Align the local economy to broader national employment trends, like the post-COVID spike in remote work (Recovery)

At a time when many of us are often overly focused on social media and other virtual distractions, it is critical to remember the intrinsic importance of communities and the role they play in the economic advancement of their people — and, by extension, in the economic health of our country as a whole. We hope you find the content of toolkit helpful as you prepare to weather future storms, natural disasters, and other crises.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org