What does it take to bend not break?
November 16, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.
Are we a resilient community? What does that look like?
A year ago this week, Whatcom County experienced the largest natural disaster in its history. Catastrophic flooding caused by severe wind and rainstorms killed one resident, displaced more than 500 and caused more than $150 million in confirmed damages; an elementary school was destroyed and 2,000 homes — including 80% of those in Sumas — were damaged. FEMA approved more than 1,500 applications for financial support with awards totaling $5.6 million.
As part of the private, community-based response in both official and unofficial roles, we were there. And we’re here to tell you: Resilience looks like community — neighbors helping neighbors, chipping in, stepping up and Macgyvering their way through troubled waters to help people reach high ground, and then doing it again and again until neighbors are not just safe, but made closer to whole, physically, emotionally, financially.
Of course, resilience is also robust infrastructure, flexible resources, strong leadership, sharp communication, clear roles and established protocols. Resilience is having a plan, along with the courage and imagination to change it to meet the moment.
Above all, resilience depends on relationships, ideally forged during ordinary times to lean on for the extraordinary moments when community support is the difference between bending and breaking. We cannot emphasize this enough. Trusted relationships — between public, private and nonprofit leaders, among neighbors and community partners — ensure respect, speedy action and allow for creative solutions, whether that be rescuing your neighbor’s cows, figuring out how to get people sheltered or deciding where to donate your time or money.
The fact is, we weren’t prepared. We couldn’t help people fast enough. Government money is slow and covers a fraction of recovery costs. The Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group (WLTRG, formerly Whatcom Strong) reports 590 families are still requesting disaster aid; 48 still need permanent housing. Damages are expected to exceed $200 million in the months ahead as buyouts and pending flood mitigation go forward. Recovery is expected to take three years.
Community Foundations in the United States typically play an essential role in disaster relief and recovery, and the Whatcom Community Foundation is no different. With knowledge of the area’s strengths and challenges, community foundations are useful philanthropic partners during disasters.
The Whatcom Community Foundation set up the Resilience Fund several years ago with the idea that it would be ready and activated during a disaster. Nearly $3 million was granted to area nonprofits for COVID relief. Then came the floods. As of mid-October 2022, the Community Foundation has granted $2.6 million for flood relief and recovery. These heroic numbers are all thanks to the stunning generosity of local businesses and neighbors like you, as well as people from far away with a heart for humanity. Neighborliness in action. Resilience.
Resilience Fund dollars initially addressed humanitarian needs, then shifted to recovery efforts, including supporting WLTRG disaster case managers. While lasting solutions for housing, infrastructure and business recovery hinge on public funding, the WLTRG formed as a nonprofit dedicated to recovering and rebuilding following not just this, but all disasters.
Because there will be more. Experts predict that heavy rainfall events — like the “atmospheric river” rainstorms that led to flooding last year — will be more frequent and severe. Then there’s “the” earthquake or another pandemic or something else. Based on experience here and nationally we know:
- Community members often lead rescue work, relief and recovery.
- Disasters disproportionately affect marginalized people — 2021 floods included.
- Disasters widen the wealth gap and create further inequities.
- Middle-class families whose homes are severely damaged face the threat of a cascading cycle of poverty due to the hardship of being displaced and the demands of rebuilding homes and businesses.
- The Resilience Fund model works; local donor resources offer the swiftest relief and are essential to helping stabilize people.
- Disaster may be short-lived; recovery is not. Funding for long-term recovery is harder to attract and, in the case of last November’s flood, desperately needed for mold remediation, rebuilding, appliances and repairs.
Right now, we’re raising money for the Resilience Fund because the flood isn’t over for many in our community, and because we need to prepare for the next crisis. Will you or someone you love need help?
Building a community that bends without breaking is an all-hands effort, addressing everything from policy and infrastructure, to temporary housing and food solutions and household preparedness. And it starts and ends with good relationships.
We’re all neighbors. County or city; red or blue; brown, black or white; rich, poor or neither. None of that matters when your house is on fire. What does resilience look like? You. And me. Us. The more we prepare and care for each other now, the better off everyone is when disaster strikes.
When we strengthen relationships — across the street, across sectors and across the county — we bolster our ability to support each other equitably before, during and after a disaster or crisis. That’s what resilience looks like. Please join us to build the Resilience Fund for Whatcom County.
Mauri Ingram is president and CEO of Whatcom Community Foundation; John Perry is mayor of Everson.