Guest Commentary

Judith Rodin: Preparation can prevent extreme weather disruptions from becoming disasters

By Judith Rodin

The Rockefeller Foundation

The 2011 Joplin tornado gave birth to a massive rebuilding project.
The 2011 Joplin tornado gave birth to a massive rebuilding project. File Photo

It seems like not a week goes by without a major disruption hitting U.S. communities – from super storms, to floods, to tornadoes, to extraordinary heat waves and droughts. The states of Missouri and Kansas have seen more than their share.

From the floods of 2011 that destroyed and damaged more than 1,000 Missouri homes to summer storms in both states in 2013 that caused over $30 million of damage, Missourians and Kansans have felt the effects of these disruptions. Of 219 counties across the two states, 170 experienced major disasters between 2011 and 2013. Of course, these events aren’t always preventable, but there are often steps we can take to change how we prepare and respond. With the right preparation, not every extreme weather disruption has to become a disaster.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive path, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and The Rockefeller Foundation found a silver lining. We asked the question: What if we focused on planning and preparing as much as we do on disaster reaction and response?

The result, “Rebuild by Design,” is a competition that brings together engineering and design experts with public, philanthropic and community organizations. The goal is to rebuild in ways that make communities—like those affected in New York and New Jersey—more environmentally and economically resilient.

Now, this idea is growing to the national stage. The $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition, led by HUD and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, encourages local businesses, community development organizations, non-profits, and local and state governments to rethink how cities plan and build in the face of the accelerated trend of disasters, and Missouri and Kansas are two of 67 eligible jurisdictions.

In November, a summit of leaders from the competing states, cities, counties and parishes was convened, including representatives from Missouri and Kansas. Now, your local officials and community leaders as well as engineers, architects and urban planners will participate in “boot camp”-like resilience academies to understand best practices before submitting a proposal. The Great Plains academy is being held this week at the Hotel Phillips in downtown Kansas City.

The National Disaster Resilience Competition’s billion-dollar investment turns the traditional idea of disaster relief on its head.

For years, states have received federal recovery funds after the fact—when they were knocked on their heels. Unsurprisingly, this is an overly expensive way of doing business.

This new approach will ultimately save communities millions in long term costs. FEMA estimates that every dollar we invest in resilience before a disaster saves $4 after the fact. So in a way, this is an idea that we cannot afford to ignore.

We call the philosophy behind this competition the “resilience dividend,” and it pays off by improving our everyday lives in the good times, too.

Following the devastating Joplin tornado in 2011 a non-profit, Rebuild Joplin, has helped to provide long-term recovery. The work of more than 10,000 volunteers has provided 180 safe and affordable homes for displaced residents.

Rebuild Joplin is truly illustrative of the resilience dividend, providing access to affordable housing for those in need in the short term while also ensuring that Joplin’s housing stock is more resistant to future stresses.

Through the National Disaster Resilience Competition we can put these principles to work across the Great Plains region, proposing innovative projects that will transform your communities.

Resilience provides common sense solutions that lend us common ground to work together and make Missouri and Kansas stronger, and the time to embrace resiliency is now. The National Disaster Resilience Competition is the right first step.

Judith Rodin is the president of The Rockefeller Foundation in New York City and the author of The Resilience Dividend.