Resilience: leaning in to recovery after a disaster
Communities, regions, state work collaboratively to mitigate fallout
It is Josh Bruce’s job to plan for the worst. As program director of the Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience, Bruce and his University of Oregon team help communities all across Oregon prepare to respond to and recover from potential disasters. Earthquakes. Forest fires. Floods. His team even worked on an economic resiliency plan addressing the effects of a massive influx of tourists for 2018’s eclipse. But a global pandemic? Not so much.
“We talk so often about the need to prepare for anything, but a global pandemic was not top of mind for me,” Bruce says. “Now that it’s happened, communities are dealing with the ever-changing situation and its ramifications.”
Without effective business-oriented recovery efforts, the impacts on businesses are sure to be devastating. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 40% of businesses do not reopen after a disaster. Of those businesses that do reopen, roughly 25% fail within one year, and the Small Business Administration estimates that more than 90% fail within two years of a disaster event.
Despite the potential economic and social fallout, Bruce sees the current situation as a golden opportunity. “As bad as this is,” he says, “we have the luxury of having power and water and transportation — all the critical infrastructure we are concerned about losing with some disaster scenarios.
“We have an opportunity to identify the gaps and work to fill them, so we are ready next time.”
The resiliency muscle
One area of opportunity, Bruce says, is in the need of addressing recovery in parallel with initial response. “Regardless of the disaster, best practices suggest that when you set up an emergency operations center to respond, you need to launch recovery efforts at the same time. That is the piece we haven’t really seen happening.”
For example, in this crisis, Bruce says, tracing and testing is actually a recovery strategy. “Aligning these activities mean we can reopen sooner, which allows us to recover sooner.” Bruce calls it “building the recovery muscle” and says it is imperative that communities stretch and exercise that muscle, even in the absence of an event.
Bruce points to the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, working collaboratively with the state’s Regional Solutions Center, as an example of an area that leaned early into recovery. The devastating Eagle Creek fire in 2017 meant area leaders already had built a little muscle around economic recovery.
MCEDD’s close partnership with Regional Solutions, as well as a resiliency assessment plan funded by a grant through Business Oregon’s Local Economic Opportunity Fund, helped the region get a running start when COVID-19 hit communities on both sides of the Columbia Gorge.
Throughout the crisis, the region has been a leader in collaborating with partners from all sectors of the community, sharing information, and providing training to help businesses deal with the current environment.
Nate Stice, Gov. Kate Brown’s Regional Solutions coordinator for the Columbia River area, worked with Jessica Metta, MCEDD’s executive director, to quickly mobilize the Mid-Columbia Economic Resilience Team — a group of economic stakeholders from seven counties in Oregon and Washington. Stice is one of eight coordinators around the state, each of whom has stood up similar COVID-19 economic recovery teams in their regions. “The governor calls us her boots on the ground, and she quickly deployed us to provide capacity as needed during this crisis,” Stice says.
Trust, social capital
“The plan and MCEDD and Regional Solutions are all based on trust and social capital,” says Metta. “Strong partners and well-cultivated relationships helped us to set a collaborative table.”
Larger meetings share state guidance and identify coordination strategies, while a smaller leadership team meets weekly to do a deep dive into specific issues, such as broadband, school re-openings and the agricultural economy. As a direct result, MCEDD recently sponsored a training for businesses on preparing for workplace outbreaks (see page 10).
The team’s work benefits more than its immediate region. Information collected from the field is shared at the state level, and the team also compiles a daily digest of information, which is deployed across Oregon through Regional Solutions.
Josh Bruce and his University of Oregon team are working with The Ford Family Foundation to increase the capacity of rural communities to respond to disasters such as COVID-19. Through the AmeriCorps Program, six Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE)students are embedded in economic development districts across the state.
“There is a tremendous need in rural areas and we are trying to provide capacity through our RARE appointments,” Bruce says. “All of these folks working together in a cohort will share lessons learned, leverage their relationships and elevate the successes we see in rural Oregon.”