What makes a "neighborhood disaster," and what do we gain by defining them?

August 23, 2016

 

As residents of Concord, MA, emerged from their homes early Monday morning, they knew that a powerful storm had swept through their town the previous night. Downed trees made many roads impassable, power was out (perhaps for days), and several homes and local businesses had sustained significant damage. (Thankfully no injuries are reported.)

 

As the day progressed, the damage remained the same, but the designation of the event that caused the damage had changed. “I’ve seen enough evidence. This was caused by an EF1 tornado,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham. That got us thinking: How do the terms used to assess natural events or human crises inform how we construct “disaster,” and in term the ability of neighborhoods to respond resiliently? As of the Boston Globe’s writing, Kurt Schwartz, Director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), was reportedly in the process of determining whether the damage qualified Concord for receiving disaster relief. Clearly, a lot rides on fulfilling the definition.

 

As Schwartz does so, he will be initiating the first of MEMA's sixteen step process from disaster event to closeout. Included in Concord's evaluation of eligibility for relief are such criteria as whether an executive-declaration of "disaster" has been made, and which claimants are location within "designated disaster area." Once a disaster is declared, it initiates a sequence that is designed to ensure a situation is adequately addressed and mitigated.

 

That might make since on a state or federal level where millions or even billions of dollars worth of relief is at stake, but what can local leaders learn from how large-scale events are handled when addressing much smaller events.

 

Stress events are often easy enough to spot, but we sometimes fail to completely define the geographic, demographic, or network-based area of impact. As there is for regional events, perhaps local municipalities can develop criteria for neighborhood-level events that, once identified, initiate a similar multiple step process to help define the extent of any particular problem, stop any further damage, and seek to restore pre-event conditions. By creating such a trigger, cities can ensure that responses take the necessary step toward improving the resiliency of effected communities, rather than stopping at a quick fix. 

 

How would you define the criteria for a "neighborhood disaster," and what City Departments would you place in the workflow? 

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