What Does a Resilient Community Look Like?

Residents of Solebury Township, PA, and many other Pennsylvania communities recently suffered through a multi-day power outage following a severe ice storm. Blown transformers and sub-stations caused power surges in homes, damaging heating systems, computers, televisions and appliances. People turned to wood-burning stoves for heat and visited their fire houses for WiFi and showers. And they waited, for days on end, for someone to let them know when life would return to normal. All this took place as many Southern states experienced unusual back-to-back snow and ice storms and California prepared for water rationing.

If events like these were rare, we could be excused for commenting on the crazy weather and then returning to our lives once power was restored. But we all know that extreme weather has become the norm. The Delaware River Valley has endured three lengthy power outages in as many years. And when we’re not experiencing violent weather here, we’re witnessing it on the news as yet another reporter says “Hundreds of thousands of residents remain without power for days” following snow storms, thunder storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, mud slides and other biblical-size disasters.  

Getting resilient

No, we can’t change the weather. But we can do much more than grumble during a crisis and try to forget about it afterwards. Municipalities and first responders surely have some role to play in helping tax-paying residents during these crises – and in finding ways to reduce their frequency and duration in the first place. And each of us can help make our communities more resilient by doing just one small thing.

Here are a few ideas.

1. Speak out. Residents of communities that have experienced repeated storm-related power outages or other problems (e.g., road closures due to downed trees and power lines or local flooding) should contact their municipalities as well as state representatives to express their concerns. Only when a sizeable number of people express the same concerns to those in a position to help will anything change. New Jersey citizens spoke out after Sandy and it triggered a substantial (if not perfect) response from the State and its utility companies.

2. Expect more. We should expect – and yes, demand – that our municipalities review what steps they can take to ensure that the local power grid is fortified. Many newer developments have underground power lines. It may not be affordable to place power lines underground in older neighborhoods. But it should be possible for municipalities to help ensure that utility companies properly maintain and modernize power lines and electrical equipment so that the system is reasonably resilient during extreme weather events. Where trees are a significant factor, plans should be put in place to allow residents to vote or otherwise decide on the need for some tree removal or pruning.

Townships also could help by urging utility companies to 1) improve how they update residents about power restoration schedules; and 2) increase the number of crews brought in to do the work.

3. Get involved. FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team program trains volunteers to help out during crises in their communities. These “Cert Teams” can help get things done when emergency workers haven’t yet arrived on the scene. They could also help ensure that residents with special concerns – the elderly, disabled, or families with infants – are not left in a vulnerable situation during a lengthy crisis. Their work can literally help save lives.

To learn more, contact your local fire company and go to: http://www.fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams

4. Go federal. Infrastructure is a federal issue. A proposed private-public infrastructure bank, which had bi-partisan support, has languished in Congress. It may seem futile, but we can all consider urging our representatives to:

  • Pass an infrastructure bill.
  • Provide funding for electrical grid modernization.
  • Create a specialized response team to provide back-up resources to utility companies during crises.

By taking a few steps like these we may all be able to help make our communities more sustainable and resilient… and more like true communities.