The Path to Longer-Term Resilience

On 4 May 2007 an EF5-rated tornado – equivalent to a category 5 cyclone – tore through Greensburg, Kansas, leveling 95 percent of the town and killing 11 of its 1,400 residents. Soon after the storm hit, Public Square Communities – a Kansas-based organization that helps towns build social capital through “positive conversations” about the future – assisted in a process that pulled together the town’s disparate groups to map a somewhat optimistic, but achievable, vision for recovery. The goal was to become America’s most sustainable and tornado-resilient town, deploying the most advanced clean technologies now available and encouraging other groups and organizations, as well as individual citizens, to join the effort.

The Greensburg recovery plan included an intensive 12-week process involving discussions between and among: long-term recovery planning teams; local, state, and federal officials; business owners; civic groups; and private citizens. As a result of that effort, Greensburg established a Sustainable Development Resource Office and assigned it the job of developing sustainable building programs and following the certification processes required to ensure that the new public facilities would be built to the highest standard and be powered by renewable energy. In an area that endures both bitter winters and very hot summers, several household energy alternatives also were developed to ensure affordability, but resilience of property, commerce, and community is at the heart of the Greensburg recovery plan.

Bushfires, Cyclones & Floods Down Under

Australia is exposed to climate change effects, both gradual and severe, given the continent’s hot, dry, and flood-prone terrain, combined with its exposure to cyclones, which are fueled by the warming oceans. Recent disasters that are not likely to be once-in-a-century occurrences include: (a) the 9 February 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires that killed 173 people and injured more than 400 more; (b) cyclones Larry in 2006 and Yasi in 2011; and (c) the 2011 floods along Australia’s eastern shore. Following disasters such as these, the initial goal tends to favor a fast and low-cost, or “value for money,” recovery.

However, a relatively quick recovery does not always address the longer-term needs of disaster victims. Following the devastation caused by Cyclone Yasi and other major disasters, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority was established (under the Queensland Reconstruction Act 2011), with the principal political purposes being to speed up the recovery and to keep costs under control. Then-Premier Anna Bligh (whose term in office expired in March 2012) stressed, “The authority would have the powers to cut through red tape and would be required to report publicly on its progress. We want to be standing here in twelve months’ time being able to say that the reconstruction task is proceeding as fast as humanly possible, not stuck in someone’s ‘in’ tray waiting for an approval.”

One early result of the Act was that students from all 93 of the schools affected in the state were back in by early March 2011. By August 2011, 92 percent of the state’s devastated road network had been reopened.

The Cyclone Larry recovery, on the other hand, was developed using an intensive community-engagement process outside the media’s eye – involving local leaders, civil servants, nongovernmental organizations, politicians, and private citizens. Instead of a command-and-control response, “circles of learning” were created to help public servants better serve their communities, and their own operational preferences, by: building legitimacy; creating the opportunity for a purposeful dialogue; sharing information; forging a common identity; and providing a voice to the general public. In return, the government was fairly responsive to the community concerns that emerged from the on-the-ground dialogue.

Speed, Costs & Long-Term Results

Deliberation takes time, but can enhance resilience. For example, in a 28 April 2011 article published by the BBC, Mayor Robert Dixson discussed Greenburg’s progress four years after the tornado. His advice to people making big decisions as they put their lives back together was, “Take your time. Don’t make life decisions quickly. Think of the long-term ramifications as an individual or a community. What is the legacy you want to leave? Make sure as you rebuild you are building a better, stronger community.”

Spending a bit more slowly and a little more upfront to save even more costs later makes sense when a community has to rebuild not only homes but also its infrastructure. However, that point is still at odds with the objective of avoiding extra costs to achieve faster short-term delivery results and the punishing, and politically potent, reality of the suffering endured by those who have already lost so much.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Soon after the bushfires of Black Saturday, the small Victorian town of Flowerdale held a number of community meetings to determine how the town’s residents could help develop a safer and more sustainable future. This inspired Green Cross Australia – an organization that helps people build sustainability and community resilience – to create the “Build It Back Green” initiative. In addition to community-rebuilding workshops, this initiative includes an online portal used by 25,000 people that features sustainable and bushfire-resilient products, services, and practices, and case studies inspiring bushfire-exposed Australians.

In March 2011, following the Queensland floods, Green Cross Australia joined 100 corporate and community partners and government representatives at a workshop designed to catalyze ideas for a sustainable flood recovery. Within months, though, the momentum toward environmentally resilient, exemplary, and cost-effective long-term projects was overcome by an urgent desire to replace like with like as soon as humanly possible. Obviously, there is still a long way to go, but case studies of eco-resilient retrofitted homes are emerging.

As mentioned earlier, Queensland students were back in class in record time after the January 2011 floods, and that was good for morale. However, haste has a price. Milton State School, which was damaged by floods in 2008, 2010, and 2011, has two room blocks located in a lower level of the school where water still builds up rapidly whenever it rains heavily for 20 minutes or so. The new rooms were not elevated or rebuilt to a higher level because doing so would have delayed the primary objective of getting the children back to school quickly and would have increased costs, as well.

The $60 million new investment in multi-purpose cyclone shelters – which will sit alongside schools – could have been designed to help communities reach a common ground on environmental resilience, as well as on economic, cultural, and community development aims. However, the pressing political pace took precedence, and work was assigned to the Queensland Government Department of Housing and Public Works and is on track for delivery in late 2012.

Engineering services and infrastructure companies are prepared to prototype new forms of transport and infrastructure that: (a) are more resilient; (b) create meaningful and connected places; and (c) help ensure strong sustainability outcomes. This combination of achievable goals would enhance the resilience in the event of future natural disasters. However, at this stage, no exemplary sustainable infrastructure projects have yet materialized in Queensland due to narrow rebuilding criteria. One promising sign, though, is that the state’s previously sub-standard roads are now being rebuilt to national standards during the current recovery process. (Unfortunately, those national standards may not set a high enough benchmark to be effective in many of Australia’s hazard-prone areas.)

Making resilience and sustainability primary goals demands a fundamentally different approach – beginning with new models of post-disaster community deliberation, including timescales and engagement models that fit the scope of each individual recovery operation. The difficulty with a one-size-fits-all approach is apparent when considering the Black Saturday bushfires that hit a relatively small area and the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi that covered three-quarters of an entire state. Moreover, achieving the best fit between local consultation and use of effective processes that minimize red tape is a challenge not well suited to the immediacy demanded by political goals (and media news cycles).

The bottom line: Expanding the scope of integrated recovery support to address the needs of the tens of thousands of Australians whose homes, businesses, schools, and communities are significantly affected, if not totally destroyed, by large-scale natural disasters can and should be considered. Residential recovery offers an opportunity to retrofit not only for resilience but also to meet various environmental concerns.

Broadening the existing “betterment” aspects of the so-called Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (through which the Australian Government provides significant national funding) would ensure that good money is not spent after bad as the recovery efforts from repeated natural disasters overlap. Currently, additional spending can be justified if a designated piece of critical public infrastructure is restored to a more disaster-resilient standard than in the past. This common-sense premise could be extended not only to support community development aims – including sustainability and public safety – but also to meet several policy objectives, beyond the provision of immediate humanitarian relief. In short, various goals could be addressed simultaneously to minimize additional funding.

In January 2010, the U.S. Institute for Sustainable Communities – a nonprofit organization headquartered in Montpelier, Vermont – convened an expert group funded by the Rockefeller Foundation (in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security). The group found that, after a disaster, “the focus of the federal government is [usually] on immediate response and rebuilding, not on assisting communities with sustainable long-term recovery.”

“The emphasis on the speed, rather than the quality, of recovery,” the group also found, “impedes the ability to integrate hazard-mitigation measures into rebuilding processes.” The solutions recommended by the expert group include the following: (a) institutionalizing processes that build community support around a common vision; (b) allowing communities to capitalize on opportunities that disasters present to rebuild better and minimize the impact of future disasters; and (c) integrating climate adaptation and mitigation to ensure that the new, and renewable, energy systems provided can withstand climate changes.

As the histories of the U.S. Midwest Tornado Alley and Australia’s flood-prone Australia’s eastern shore have amply demonstrated, communities hit by natural disasters can be encouraged both to share innovative recovery stories and to visualize what may be possible if environmental resilience is advanced. The desire to build back quickly can be tempting, but supporting communities that are willing to take the extra time needed to imagine, and then work for, a more compelling alternative can make all the difference in Australia and around the world.

This is an edited extract of an essay that originally appeared in Griffith REVIEW Ed 35: Surviving (Text Publishing)

For additional information on: The complete essay that this article is based on, “The Path to Resilience – More Haste, Less Speed,” by Mara Bún, visit

The final report of the January 2010 U.S. Institute for Sustainable Communities referred to above, visit

Mara Bún

Mara Bún is CEO of Green Cross Australia and a member of the Queensland Design Council. Born and raised in Brazil, she studied Political Economy at Williams College (1984) then worked in Morgan Stanley’s New York and San Francisco offices, specializing in high technology finance. She was consultant to an earthquake reconstruction project in Nepal before moving to Australia in 1991. Mara was Senior Equities Analyst at Australia’s largest investment bank Macquarie Group, and was Director of Business Development for Australia’s national science agency CSIRO before becoming founding CEO of Green Cross Australia. She is currently based on the Gold Coast.



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