Covid-19: Disasters Have Direction

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

Sun Tzu

This is an updating of an old post.  The original did not have any specific examples; I think Covid-19 provides a good one.  I’m sure the concept “Disasters Have Direction” is obvious to many of you, but I’ve never seen it articulated.  As I try to show in the discussion of the pandemic, it can be a useful construct as we think about a community’s resilience.

For a few years, FEMA and DHS have championed the idea of an “All Hazards – Maximum of Maxima” approach to planning.  The basic premise is that if a community plans for the worst of the worst, then it will be prepared for whatever may actually happen. This is a deceptively simple tautology that I think deserves a little more analysis than it usually receives, especially in terms of community resilience.

Let’s start by looking at an idealized community.   A community can be thought of as an ecosystem.  There is a “human layer,” made up of individuals and families.  There is an institutional layer, consisting of private businesses and other economic institutions, and all of the other “human-serving” organizations in the community.  Then there is the physical, environmental, layer – containing the built and natural environment.  All of these are held together by the social capital within the community (some may argue whether the physical layer is bound to the community by its social capital, but that’s a subject for another post!).

Of course, this is an ideal community; real communities may have a strong economy but be weak in the human element.  Some have a decaying infrastructure but a flourishing natural environment.  Thus, we can depict a real community as follows.  This real community would be relatively weak in terms of its community institutions, have a somewhat stressed natural environment, but have a robust built environment.

Now let’s assume the community is hit by a pandemic.  There is no immediate physical damage.  Any that occurs most likely happens because the humans who normally maintain things –infrastructure, for example – are not able to do so.  This disaster has attacked individuals and families, and – because they are closely tied to the human layer – the community organizations that meet social needs.  For a pandemic, hospitals, clinics and the public health department would certainly be included.  Since, in this case, there is relatively little capacity in the community institutions (e.g., a rural community), they will be particularly hard hit – most likely overwhelmed. 

But what happens in a natural disaster?  The initial impact on the community is going to be on the physical layer; buildings are going to be blown down, debris will be strewn about, flooding may occur. The other parts of the community will be impacted because of these physical blows.  In our notional real community depicted above, there would be relatively little damage done to the built environment, but the natural environment would experience much greater damage (at least in relative terms) because it is weaker. 

A severe economic downturn attacks the community from another direction.  Businesses lay off workers; some close.  Many individuals and families experience severe economic hardship.  There is no immediate impact on the other parts of the community ecosystem.  Eventually, however, all will be affected.  In our example community, the economic impacts are less severe than for a community with a weak economy, or already burdened individuals and families.

Thus, disasters have a direction, as shown in the next graphic. It must be stressed that the graphic points out the initial point of attack.  If the magnitude of the initial impact is huge, or other parts of the community are weak, then the disaster is likely to ripple throughout the community with cascading impacts.

This simple concept is consistent with the idea that vulnerability to a threat depends on weakness at the point of attack.  This is shown in the next figure.  Threat X indicates a potential health crisis (e.g., a pandemic), while Threat Y is primarily a threat to the community’s economy.  As depicted, Threat X is more likely to lead to disaster than Threat Y because the greater relative strength of the community to withstand an economic downturn.

This simple picture of a community also has meaning in terms of recovery and community resilience.  If community resilience is measured by how fast – and effectively – resources are deployed to achieve community restoration and recovery, then the social capital within the community plays a crucial role.  Suppose Threat X above actually materializes.  The vulnerable part of the community has few available resources.  It is the community’s social capital – its connectedness – that provides the pathways for resources to be shifted within the community.  It is the community’s social capital that determines whether resources from outside the community are effectively brought to bear.  In a very real sense, it is the community’s social capital that determines whether the community actually recovers from disaster.

If we look at Covid-19 through this lens, clearly the pandemic attacked individuals and families, and community health organizations.  Its magnitude varied from community to community, but – initially – dealing with the pandemic exceeded the resources (e.g., PPE, ventilators) available to most communities, i.e., it was a disaster and it had a direction.  Communities had to rely on their connections (bridging and linking social capital) to others in the region and to the state (and, for the biggest cities, to the federal government) to get the resources they needed.  In a later post, I’ll outline a methodology that, if used, could have reduced the impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Our response to the pandemic triggered an economic disaster.  For those of you who remember my old post “Of Ice Storms, Interdependencies and their Impacts on Running a Bar” I pointed out that the number of businesses which could reopen after a disaster depended on how long they were closed.  In some places, the Covid-19 lockdowns lasted for months – and the economic consequences have been devastating.  I intend to update that post as well and expand upon it a little based on the knowledge we’ve gained from the pandemic.

Dan Alesch once said that we recall a disaster by the name of its triggering event, but remember it because of its impacts.  If that’s the case, Covid-19 will join the Dishonor Roll with Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, the Great Recession and so many others.  Each of these disasters were daggers that first pierced specific parts of the community, i.e., they had a direction.  Their impacts were determined by communities’ strengths at the point of attack and the force of the dagger’s thrust.  A community’s social capital determines how rapidly resources can be brought to bear to heal the wounds.  However, those who are not connected – without significant social capital – have to recover on their own:  resources won’t flow where messages don’t go.  In this way, the community’s social capital plays a crucial role in its recovery – and thus is a key component of the community’s resilience.

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