Community Response to Disaster

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, one thing is striking: the extent to which many of the best and first responders have been local.

From Brooklyn down to the Jersey Shore, Sandy has left its mark. But now, stories abound of community groups shoveling sand out of living rooms, feeding and housing the homeless, and arranging online help through listservs and crowdfunding. Somehow, communities have married the best of old-fashioned neighborliness to 21st century networking -- resulting in a steady flow of local energy against a sea of devastation.

Federal help is still critical. State and local governments can't respond alone to disasters of this scale. As comedian Steven Colbert quipped sarcastically, "Who better to respond to what's going on inside its own borders than the state whose infrastructure has just been swept out to sea?"

But when physical infrastructure is swept away, it reveals another layer of community: its civic infrastructure. And just as storms have a way of revealing deferred maintenance on bridges and levies, disasters also teach us the cost of neglecting civic participation, neighborly communication, and a strong citizen decision-making process -- qualities that FEMA and the Red Cross simply cannot replace.

Given that our world is likely to be threatened by more Katrinas, Irenes, and Sandys, it's time to appreciate not just our federal government agencies, but our local governance abilities.

This type of local governance can take its lead from the slow food movement, and is something we like to call slow democracy.

"Slow" is a nod to the priorities of slow food activists who argue that fast food is a symbol of centralization, top-down homogeneity, and much of what ails the world today. "Slow" embraces the local, rejects cookie-cutter solutions, and places an emphasis on relationships. And those relationships aren't just a "feel-good" concept; in fact, a key recommendation in many U.S. cities' emergency preparedness plans is that people get to know their neighbors. In short: Social capital saves lives.

Community democratic structures that are inclusive, deliberative, and empowered are a critical way to build trust and social capital. And in turn, those constructive personal relationships reinforce a functioning democracy. It's an upward, virtuous spiral.

Increasingly, communities understand that the best investment against crisis is to strengthen citizen leadership. Reliance on "experts," a leftover from the industrial revolution, is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing. Governments and citizens who collaborate, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki, create more responsive and resilient communities.

In recent decades, "citizenship" has too often meant just being a consumer of policy, or a spectator of political showmanship. But when we're treated as collaborative problem solvers, we show the value of local engagement. Like slow food, slow democracy is more sustainable and, ironically, often more efficient than its "fast" national equivalent.

After last year's Tropical Storm Irene, the town of Waterbury, Vermont (pop. 5,000) suddenly had a river flowing down the main street in the center of town, devastating homes, businesses, and town offices. Leaders acted swiftly and decisively in the hours and days that followed, moving their municipal center to dry ground, reaching out to citizens via listservs and electronic media, and holding daily action meetings in the elementary school gym to organize the other flood: the deluge of volunteers. Accustomed to governing themselves with empowered town meetings and school and town boards, Vermonters were ready to take responsibility.

In its devastating wake, Sandy is revealing similar stories. Areas of New York reporting the least crime and safest post-storm conditions are those where an unlikely mix of local police, nonprofit groups, and Occupy Wall Street activists have collaborated. At least at the local level, Americans are proving that they have not lost the key skills of leadership. Creative, collaborative decision-making, leading to well targeted action -- these are the qualities we want in our state and federal governments, too.

It's good to remind ourselves that government is not a "they" but a "we." And the skills we gain by governing ourselves year-in and year-out are powerful tools in a crisis. One of the most creative, low-cost ways to protect against problems -- be they meteorological, social, or even political -- is to empower community decision-making. We build community best by working together, over time, on common issues--in other words, local, sustained, slow democracy.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.