Community-Driven Disaster Preparedness – Lessons From Cyclones and Floods in SA

Strengthening community disaster preparedness requires establishing effective decision-making processes and supporting the mobilisation of existing self-organising systems that can plan, respond to and rebuild after disasters. This involves identifying and linking community organisations, leaders and volunteers.

This requires a framework informed by complexity and community development theories. It needs to recognise that networks are dynamic, multifaceted and fluid.

1. Identifying Vulnerabilities and Capacity

Community participation in disaster preparedness is receiving increasing attention, especially as a response to climate change. However, the challenge lies in enabling community-driven efforts in practice, particularly in the most affected countries and communities. This is because of the structural inequalities that are exacerbated by these disasters.

This translates into identifying those sections of the community most likely to be vulnerable in an emergency, and providing them with the information and training they need to prepare. A key step is to identify and support existing self-organising initiatives. These are common in Australia, where communities self-organise around responding to and recovering from disasters (Handmer & Maynard 2022).

Identifying what resources are available within the community is essential for successful engagement in community preparedness activities. This includes material and intangible resources such as knowledge, access to funds and time. It is also important to consider how these are accessed and distributed, particularly when it comes to engaging with communities in rural areas where the distribution of these resources can be an issue.

Facilitating local involvement in preparation is critical for minimising losses and the suffering experienced by citizens in the hours and days after a natural disaster occurs. In addition, community volunteers are often the first responders and can provide essential support during the immediate recovery phase.

A key challenge in this respect is the need to balance community-driven decision-making processes with the formal structures of emergency services and other government organisations. This can lead to conflict between these processes, and an understanding of how to strengthen this process needs to be developed. An approach informed by complexity and community development theory could help to address this.

2. Identifying Resources

Identifying local community resources and assets is crucial for developing a community-based disaster preparedness (CBDP) program. Communities that have a wealth of locally-based resources, such as construction equipment and volunteers, are better able to respond rapidly to post-disaster recovery efforts. Locally-based resources include physical, informational and human assets. For example, an early warning system provides the opportunity to alert people to impending hazards such as floods. This information is crucial in enabling people to make the appropriate decisions and take the necessary precautions before it’s too late.

This information can also be disseminated through traditional communication methods such as radio and village meetings. Using a multi-channel approach ensures that the information is received by everyone who needs it. The development of trusted information sources through ongoing discussion that involves community members is key to effective dissemination.

Another important resource is a local disaster information system that identifies available community resources for emergency response purposes. This is typically a database that is maintained by a local community such as a Red Cross chapter. It allows local communities to enter their own resources that are associated with a specific jurisdiction and then accessible by authorized users such as the public.

Research has identified that poverty and natural disasters are interlinked. It is therefore important that poverty reduction initiatives include disaster preparedness. To improve the effectiveness of poverty reduction interventions, they need to be integrated with CDD initiatives and focused on building community capacity. This requires a multi-disciplinary approach that takes into account the social and economic dimensions of vulnerability, resilience and capacity. A holistic approach informed by complexity and community development theories offers a theoretical foundation for such an integration.

3. Developing a Plan

A community must have a plan in place before disasters to ensure everyone can participate and that the community’s needs are taken into account. Plans help communities envision what they want to achieve, select effective ways to do it, and communicate their expected outcomes. They also shape the way a community mobilises, allocates resources, and operates during a crisis. A plan must be regularly reviewed and updated, and it should include training and exercises.

Developing and supporting information systems and networks are vital to community-led disaster preparedness. This includes communication pathways and protocols, localised maps and databases, a repository of emergency supplies and documents, and community-based organisational structures and mechanisms that empower citizens to mobilise and lead community efforts.

While the importance of information is clear, it is essential to note that information should be understood as a process rather than a product, as there are several domains that affect the production and use of information in a community. In particular, it is important to understand who generates and uses information in a community and how it is used. Mapping these processes is useful for strengthening community-led disaster preparedness.

Decision-making processes are important to realising community-led disaster preparedness and include the ability to make decisions in a deliberative manner, with transparency and accountability. This includes formal and informal organisations, local institutions and government units. It is important to recognise that there are significant differences between command and control systems and organic grass roots processes and that these should be respected.

A self-organising community has the ability to manage and respond to a crisis, even when resources are scarce. This can be achieved by identifying, supporting and integrating existing self-organising systems during preparation. This will also build resilience in communities so they can respond and recover from disasters faster.

4. Developing a Response Plan

A disaster response involves actions to help people recover from or cope with an event. This can be done through prevention, mitigation, preparedness and response. Prevention refers to activities that reduce the risk of an emergency occurring and focuses on actions such as evacuation plans, building codes and environmental planning and design standards. Mitigation aims to limit the impact of unavoidable emergencies by reducing their effects. This includes the development of barriers and sandbags, establishing warning systems, and implementing emergency management plans. Preparedness involves developing and testing a community’s capacity to respond to hazards, based on its vulnerabilities, capacities, resources and organizational structures. This includes training, equipping and preparing a community to respond to hazards, and identifying roles and responsibilities for both state and non-state actors in a coordinated response (Perry and Lindell, 2003).

The disaster responses of the community impacted by recent floods and cyclones are an example of how a community can organize to prepare for a natural or man-made disaster and take action to minimize negative impacts through effective precautionary measures. These initiatives are an opportunity for volunteers and community organizations to make a significant contribution towards the well-being of a community, and contribute to broader disaster resilience.

Individuals can also take steps to be prepared for emergencies, such as assembling an emergency supply kit and creating family communications plans. They can learn how to shut off water, gas and electricity and keep important documents safe by storing them in a sealed container in the garage or a locked cabinet. They should also know their evacuation routes and designate a meeting point, and find out whether they have access to flood insurance.

5. Developing a Recovery Plan

Developing a recovery plan is a critical element in disaster risk reduction efforts. This involves a series of activities that examines a community’s susceptibility to hazards (vulnerability analysis), identifies human and material resources available to cope with them (capacity assessment) and defines the structures by which a coordinated response can be made in the face of such threats (plan development).

While deaths from natural disasters have declined, they are still devastating for many communities, causing loss of livelihoods, property and life. The damage caused by disasters can also impact the financial stability of families. It is therefore essential that disaster recovery plans are developed and implemented to minimize the damage of disasters, increase hope and resilience, and reinvest in the community.

A key component in developing a recovery plan is to involve residents in the planning process. This helps to clarify priorities, establish points of contact and procedures during a crisis, and ensures that clients’ needs are met. It is also important to test the plan regularly and in a variety of scenarios.

In the aftermath of a disaster, residents can help to reduce social disruption and rebuild their lives by providing essential services such as cleaning and clearing debris, caring for children, feeding the hungry and restocking supplies. They can even take on more demanding tasks, such as restoring sewage systems, roads and utilities. This is why community-driven disaster preparedness is so valuable – it empowers communities to respond to and recover from natural and man-made disasters. It also ensures that local voices are heard, local struggles recognized and the dignity of local people is respected. These are the most valuable assets for a successful recovery effort.