Preliminary observations on disaster resilience in rural, remote coastal communities

By R. S. Cox, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Royal Roads University

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. –  Charles Darwin

In Canada, approximately 20% of our population lives in rural locations.[1]  How do, and would, these people and their communities manage in a disaster?  What are their strengths and vulnerabilities?  How would they withstand and recover from a disaster?  How can they identify and build on their strengths to make them more resilient to adverse events?

This article provides a brief overview of the preliminary findings of a project that explores these questions.  Building Disaster Resilience in Rural, Remote, and Small Coastal Communities is a multiyear[2] national applied research project sponsored by the Justice Institute of British Columbia in partnership with Royal Roads University, Public Safety Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Rural Secretariat of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and funded by the Department of National Defence.[3]

There is a good deal of research on disaster risk reduction and resilience, but very little of it has focused on how rural communities fare during and after natural and human-caused disasters.  Despite the lack of research, many of us would be inclined to suspect that the people who live in rural or remote areas may be more resilient than residents of larger centres.  In recognition of these fundamental assumptions, the project goals are two-fold — to learn more about resilience from these communities while simultaneously developing tools that support their ability to enhance their disaster resilience.

What People Are Telling Us

Early in the project, field research involved conducting a series of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with residents of eight BC communities in the Pacific Rim region of Vancouver Island and the Cariboo-Chilcotin.  Interviewees included first responders, community-emergency managers, formal and informal community leaders, Emergency Social Service volunteers, and other community members interested and involved in disaster preparedness and response in their respective communities.  These interviews investigated key-informants’ perspectives on resilience, their understanding of the meaning of resilience, and their opinions about what supported or eroded disaster resilience at the community level.  A total of thirty-seven interviews, each approximately 60-90 minutes, were recorded, three of which involved focus groups with from three to seven participants.

One of the most striking findings of these interviews was the almost unanimous view of rural dwellers that they and their communities are already very resilient.  This perspective was based on their emergent understanding of resilience as closely related to the self-reliance and interdependence that are cornerstones of rural living.

Many of those interviewed felt that their geographic location, often in communities with single-road access and limited government services, resulted in greater self-sufficiency than people living in urban communities.  As one individual commented:  “We’re very used to not having any outside help….there’s no emergency crew that rushes in or anything when there’s something catastrophic here.”  Or as another individual commented:  “…our safety net is really made up of ourselves.  You know, we hold hands and do things together and try to come together as often as we can and look after one another.”  We heard that people in these communities think of themselves as flexible, adaptable, and used to making do with less.  In these communities, residents were also of the opinion that trust, personal connections, practical skills, and a sense of shared responsibility for others contributed to their personal and collective resilience.

With a fondness for outdoor activity that may have brought them to rural communities, and a recognition of the need for self-reliance, most householders also described having stockpiles of food, fuel (e.g., wood, propane) and equipment (e.g., oil or propane stoves and lamps) that regularly supported their capacity to manage during winter storms and frequent power outages.  They pointed out the importance of knowing their community, who had what and who might need help, and emphasized mutuality and interdependence as additional key cornerstones of resilience.

In terms of defining resilience, it was particularly notable that more than one interviewee described resilience in terms consistent with more recent definitions and models that focus on adaptive capacity rather than simply bouncing back.  One participant observed, for instance, that after a life-changing event, “it’s a brand new normal you end up with” not a return to the previous condition.

What emerged from the interviews was a strong sense of participants’ beliefs in community self-reliance, self-knowledge, and confidence in the ability to manage in adverse circumstances.  In the interview process the notion of community resilience itself became a compelling idea for some interviewees and was an important factor in communities’ willingness to participate in the next phase of the project — piloting two key project outputs, the Rural Resilience Index and the Integrated Resilience Enhancement Planning process.

Integrated Resilience Enhancement Planning and the Rural Resilience Index

A central component of this project is the Rural Resilience Index (RRI), a tool that is being developed primarily to assess disaster resilience in rural, remote and small coastal communities.  Most often an indicator provides a quantitative measurement of a process and outcome (e.g., voter turnout) that inform an assessment of a construct that itself cannot be measured directly (e.g., citizen engagement)[4].  One of the potential weaknesses of using indicators, therefore, is the tendency to focus on those things that can be measured while ignoring those things that may be as or more relevant but for which data is unavailable[5].

An index and/or indicator must be suited to its purpose.  The identification of indicators and construction of the RRI is being guided by two principles.  First, we recognize the importance of combining the insights of researchers and experts in disaster resilience and those of experts on rural living (people who live in rural and remote environments); second, we appreciate the importance of producing knowledge and tools that are useful and meaningful to rural residents.  The RRI reflects this synthesis by drawing on a set of indicators identified in a systematic analysis of the academic research on community disaster resilience and on the comments, stories, and examples of resilience shared by interviewees in the BC pilot communities.

The index is being designed for use as a community-based monitoring tool, a way of building capacity in communities and local decision-making bodies that enables them to actively participate in assessing resilience and taking local actions to improve their resilience.  The index is also designed to provide rural communities with information they can use to partner with and make recommendations to external stakeholders and decision-makers (e.g., regional, provincial/territorial governments) in order to inform public policy and target needed resources.

The RRI combines interval-based multiple choice questions (i.e., Likert scales) and qualitative and quantitative indicators.  The language, scope, and design of the instrument are intended to allow communities to assess their resilience with or without the technology and expertise that is typically used to assess risk and resilience in urban environments.  As one step in an objective-driven, flexible, five-step community-based resilience enhancement planning process, using the RRI allows community-based teams to focus their assessment of resilience on resources, priorities, values and capabilities specific to their community.

The RRI development process is iterative and will be informed by feedback from community-based researchers and community residents involved in piloting the instrument and process, specifically Bamfield and Horsefly, BC and communities in other regions of Canada (i.e. Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia) who will field test the refined instruments.  In this way, the project hopes to produce tools and educational materials that reflect the best of academic research on community disaster resilience with the insights and expertise of those living and working in rural, remote and small coastal communities.  The project field work continues from 2011 through the spring of 2012.  Once finalized, the RRI and Integrated Resilience Enhancement Planning process will be made publicly available and will form the basis of a Virtual Community of Practice website designed to provide rural communities with the ability to share information, resources, and lessons learned with each other, and continue to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of community disaster resilience and the practice of disaster resilience enhancement nationally and globally.

The Rural Disaster Resilience Project (RDRP) acknowledges the contribution and support of its Funding Partners (Centre for Security Sciences, Public Health Agency of Canada and Justice Institute of British Columbia) and its Project Partners (Justice Institute of British Columbia, Royal Roads University, Pearces 2 Consulting Corporation, Natural Resources Canada, Centre for Security Sciences, Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Rural Secretariat of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).

Principal Investigator: Carol Amaratunga PhD (JIBC); Co-Investigators: Robin Cox PhD (Royal Roads University); Laurie Pearce PhD (Pearces 2 Consulting); Murray Journeay PhD (Natural Resources Canada); Colleen Vaughan MEd (JIBC).

[1] Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population, 1851 to 2006.  Note: The rural population for 1981 to 2006 refers to persons living outside centres with a population of 1,000 AND outside areas with 400 persons per square kilometre.  Previous to 1981, the definitions differed slightly but consistently referred to populations outside centres of 1,000 population.

[2] 2009-2011

[3] Grant CTRI 07-0135 RD. Building Resilience and Rural Health System Capability for Pre-Disaster Planning and Preparedness

[4] Bowen, S., and Kreindler, S. A. (2008). Indicator Madness: A cautionary reflection on the use of indicators in healthcare. Healthcare Policy, 3(4), pp. 41-48.

[5] Ibid.