Reducing Your Community’s Vulnerability
Comprehensive all-hazards emergency management starts with mitigation – day-in and day-out efforts to reduce vulnerability of people and communities by lessening the probability of a disaster, or minimizing the effects of unavoidable disaster.
People and communities have come to rely on help after a disaster rather than learning about risks and taking feasible prevention and mitigation steps. Prevention and mitigation measures may seem costly at first glance. But emergency managers, increasingly, understand mitigation as the foundation of emergency management – for people continue to live in harm’s way without mitigation, which reduces vulnerability of communities to hazards.
You can see from the disaster cycle chart that Mitigation, Risk Reduction, Prevention and Preparedness are closely related. So, does Mitigation always come before Preparedness? Maybe. But it may come after the Response and Recovery phases are completed or well underway. You may not be aware of a hazard until it has already caused a disaster. In that case, you must use the lessons learned from that event to mitigate the possibility or a repeat or similar event in the future. Mitigation – before or after a disaster – goes hand in hand with preparedness.
Mitigation starts with:
- Hazard analysis to identify natural or technological threats to a community.
- Vulnerability analysis to define the human and economic losses that can occur and special populations likely to be affected by disasters.
Mitigation tools include:
- Laws and ordinances related to zoning, building, public health, fire safety, hazardous material handling, inspections, traffic control
- Community and economic development, including job-creation and housing programs
- Structural measures — levees, elevations for homes, etc.
- Financial incentives that promote health and safety and disincentives that discourage the creation of hazardous conditions
- Public information and education programs that motivate citizen action
- Land use planning
- Monitoring and inspecting potentially hazardous facilities
- Insurance coverage
Politics and Religion
As you can probably surmise, much of what are described in this lesson, and in other material from Church World Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, are mitigation measures requiring advocacy and influence in government affairs. Both these organizations have a global reach and must deal with all manner and levels of governments, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Thus the need for hands-on political action. But to what level?
Proceed cautiously. There are rules about what your church can and cannot do in the political arena. The following is posted on the PCUSA web site:
“As a federal tax-exempt, 501(c) (3) organization, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), at all levels (i.e., General Assembly, synod, presbytery and particular congregation), is permitted to engage in a limited, insubstantial amount of witnessing or lobbying activities which attempt to influence legislation or issues.
“It is strictly prohibited, however, from engaging in political activity which includes, but is not limited to, participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office. Violation of these limits may result in the revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
PCUSA, October 26, 2013.
What Congregations Can Do
Congregations can encourage their communities to ask – and answer – these important questions:
- Are existing disaster prevention and mitigation programs adequate?
- Do people know whether they are vulnerable to particular hazards?
- Are natural or technology-caused hazards considered when plans are made for new structures in the community – especially essential facilities such as hospitals and utilities?
- What kind of building codes does the community have? Have the codes been updated in recent years? How strictly are they enforced? Do people who purchase new properties know about the codes? Monitoring and controlling land use may be one of the most effective ways to prevent a hazard from becoming a disaster – especially as related to housing.
Through peer, neighborhood, and community pressure at a personal level, congregations can work to implement and enforce land-use planning, controls, and sound flood plain/seismic zone/beach front management practices. Zoning, building codes, and lending institution policies influence the use of hazardous areas.
In working to reduce vulnerability of communities to disasters, local congregations can also:
- Make sure their buildings are safe by adhering to construction codes, installing smoke detectors and fire alarms, and taking other appropriate measures
- Obtain adequate insurance for their buildings
- Foster understanding among community and service organizations about the human-caused component in disasters and what people can do to lessen the impact of a potential disaster or prevent a disaster altogether
- Encourage members and people in their communities to seek training from the American Red Cross and other agencies in first-aid, fire suppression, light search and rescue, disaster management, crisis intervention, spiritual/emotional care, etc.
- Map existing and potential hazards — possible sources of explosion, contamination, and radiation — and identify possible exposure during natural disasters
- Learn the history of natural disasters in their area
- Develop allies among community groups, public officials and civil servants, government agencies, and business concerned about environmental, technological, and public violence
- Participate with others in identifying and advocating for the needs of the most vulnerable and working for a just, disaster-resilient, sustainable community
- Visit local agencies and corporations, express concerns, ask questions about public safety, and plans to respond to emergencies
- Advocate for adoption and enforcement of structural measures that assure soundly constructed residential housing schools, hospitals, churches and other critical facilities to withstand the effects of hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes
- Capitalize on enhanced awareness following a disaster to advance hazard reduction policies and practices
- Support programs aimed at eliminating hunger and poverty and advancing human rights
- Advocate for the environment — recycling programs, water and energy conservation, etc.
What Members Can Do
Congregations should also encourage their members to reduce the vulnerability of their homes. As individual families in the congregation implement mitigation measures to reduce their own vulnerability, they increase the resilience of the congregation and wider community and their capacity to recover following a disaster. Some basic steps they can take:
- Churches should acquire adequate insurance that reflects current value of property, meets minimum requirements of the Presbytery or their mortgage holder, covers costs of recent additions, high-value items such as stained glass, temporary rental of facilities if damages require relocation and housing for clergy staff if their residences are affected
- Conduct regular (annual at least) inventories of all church facilities.
- Relocate or elevate appliances and electrical service entries on the lowest level of the house
- Retrofit their homes and plan any new construction with disaster mitigation in mind
- Depending on the type of home and geographic location:
- Create safe rooms for protection from tornadoes
- Learn about factors that make a home vulnerable to wildfires and take appropriate action to reduce vulnerability
- Anchor mobile home to protect against high winds
- Minimize concrete and paving around homes to prevent water run-off from property
In the long-run, action that gets people and property out of harm’s way is the best way to protect people and communities from disasters rather than a detailed warning and evacuation system.
Of course, despite our best efforts at mitigation, bad things can still happen. So we need to be prepared to respond and recover. In Lesson 4, you will learn about Preparedness and Planning. After you look back over this lesson, read on.