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Rebuilding for resilience in the face of future disasters

The immediate emergency may be over, but life in Sonoma County will never return to pre-fire “normal.” We are changed—certainly those who lost homes, but all of us to some degree. The question is, how shall we proceed?

Like it or not, we must anticipate more crises. Not just fires and climate-linked weather events, but earthquakes and human-caused disasters (failures of our energy and financial systems) as well. Overgrowth during the last century has set up human civilization as a whole, and Sonoma County in particular, for all kinds of “corrections,” as stock market analysts call them. Let’s rebuild our communities in ways that promote resilience.

The most obvious resilience fix would be a better early-warning system. Many county residents close to the paths of fires complained they had little or no warning of approaching flames (my wife and I were awakened at 3am on Oct. 9 by a neighbor; many were not so fortunate). Why not install a system of sirens? Japan’s warning systems for earthquakes and tsunamis have saved thousands of lives.

Also, rebuild fire-smart: require fire-resistant building materials like concrete, stone and brick; prohibit buildings on steep slopes, where fires move fast; and require homeowners to plant only vegetation that doesn’t easily dry out and catch fire.

Resilience implies the ability to adapt to changed circumstances while maintaining essential functions, and sometimes maximizing adaptability requires redesigning the system. For example, a resilient food system is one with more redundancy of suppliers and more distributed inventories. Just growing grapes while importing the rest of our food may be economically efficient and may help us compete in the global economy, but it sacrifices resiliency.

Since so many threats cluster around climate change, it makes sense to rebuild so as not to exacerbate global warming. Sonoma County could take a cue from Greensburg, Kan., a town devastated by a category five tornado in 2007. Greensburg decided to rebuild as “the greenest town in America,” with renewable energy and LEED-certified municipal buildings.

Crisis can be an opportunity, if we choose to see it that way.

Richard Heinberg is senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and a contributor to ‘The ‘Community Resilience Reader.’

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the ‘Bohemian.’ We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write [email protected].


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