Building economic resiliency
Solar eclipse, fires offer researchers study opportunities
Forest fires. Floods. Earthquakes. Ice storms. There’s no way to predict when potentially catastrophic events will test the economic resiliency of a community. But as astrophysicist Carl Sagan once put it, “the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.”
That’s the intent of several studies being done across Oregon right now that measure the impact of recent real-life events, with an eye toward producing data that will aid long-term economic recovery while also identify strategies to help mitigate future events.
“We are learning how to build economic resiliency tools for state economic development agencies to use for major events that may impact our communities,” says Kathleen Flanagan, The Ford Family Foundation’s senior program officer for Community Economic Development.
At the University of Oregon, the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement (formerly the Community Service Center) is about halfway into a two-year economic resiliency study measuring the impact of the 2017 summer solar eclipse to the Central Oregon area. While not a catastrophic event, the eclipse offers the team of student researchers a unique chance to study the before and after status of numerous social systems that might be affected in a disaster.
“It offers an opportunity for tourism and economic development officials to look at what happens to our critical infrastructure if we get a million people moving around the state. It might be a proxy for a major earthquake or a similar event,” says Program Director Josh Bruce.
Chetco Bar fire
In Southern Oregon, the South Coast Development Council is partnering with the City of Brookings to put numbers on the devastating effects of 2017’s Chetco Bar fire.
The fire burned 192,000 acres in the Brookings area, with economic consequences that went far beyond suppression costs or loss of timber. Hotels, restaurants and golf courses went empty, with resulting job losses. Recreation trails (almost 50 miles of them) were destroyed. Many Brookings residents, of which more than half are retirees, left the smoky area for health reasons; a lot of them are not coming back.
“We need to be able to show how devastating the fire was on a local, regional, and state level ,” says Sam Baugh, SCDC’s executive director. “We also want to develop strategies on moving forward, how to prevent it from happening again, and, if it does, what to do differently.”
The biggest takeaway for Bruce so far in his eclipse research? There is a clear advantage to bringing economic development professionals to the table.
“A lot of times when we talk about resiliency, the focus is on emergency management, which tends to be focused on preparation and response,” he explains. “But business represents a huge amount of post-event recovery that needs to be taken into account.”
Several other economic development organizations in Oregon have undertaken similar studies. The Cascades West Economic Development District has developed an economic resilience appendix, with the goal of developing a new regional framework for engaging businesses in economic risk reduction and recovery planning. And Bruce’s team worked with The Ford Family Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a blueprint for building social and economic networks along the Oregon coast in the context of natural hazard resilience and recovery.
The next stage of the UO eclipse research will focus on developing resiliency tools that can be shared with communities around the state, such as business recovery centers that provide advice and resources to get storefronts quickly reopened.
“It’s been refreshing; we’ve been at this work a long time and the emergency management angle hasn’t gotten us very far in terms of improving economic resilience,” Bruce says.
“I’m bullish looking forward about aligning economic development, tourism and business in collaboration with emergency management.”