Building Community Capacity and Fostering Disaster Resilience

Virginia Gil-Rivas and Ryan P. Kilmer

University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Objective: To describe, within an ecologically grounded framework, key principles, and recommen- dations for community-level intervention to build community capacity and promote disaster resilience. Method: Using an ecological framework, this article describes community resilience and related con- structs and key principles for community-level disaster preparedness and response. Results: Cur- rent research suggests the importance of focusing on bolstering resources that promote wellness and facilitate individual and community resilience in the face of disaster. Conclusion: We advocate for using an ecological framework grounded in such values as collaboration, social justice, empowerment, and an appreciation of diversity to guide disaster work with communities. We highlight the need to: (a) focus on building community-specific capacity for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery; (b) emphasize increasing the capacity and supportive potential of community members’ natural set- tings to promote wellness; (c) address power and resource inequities; and (d) enhance capacity to ensure contextually and culturally appropriate structures, methods, and interventions. C© 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J. Clin. Psychol. 72:1318–1332, 2016.

Keywords: disasters; community; resilience; building capacity

Disasters are frequently defined as potentially traumatic events that are often overwhelming and sudden and experienced collectively (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies [IFRC], 2013; McFarlane & Norris, 2006). Natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes, tornados, fires, floods) affect a large number of individuals in the United States and around the world every year. Indeed, between 1980 and 2014, 178 natural disasters occurred in the United States alone, with an estimated cost of 1 trillion dollars (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015). Worldwide, approximately 2.9 billion people were affected by a disaster and 1.2 million were killed, and disasters led directly to an estimated 1.7 trillion dollars in damage between 2000 and 2012 (United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, 2013). Importantly, disasters have the potential to disrupt the lives of individuals, families, and entire communities at multiple levels in their immediate aftermath as well as in the longer term.

A significant literature has documented the negative effect of natural disasters on individuals and communities. In the short term, disaster exposure can elicit psychological distress (Norris et al., 2002), somatic complaints (Jiao et al., 2012; Kim, Plumb, Gredig, Rankin, & Taylor, 2008), sleep problems, and psychosocial and behavioral problems (Norris & Elrod, 2006). In the longer term, some individuals may develop posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions (Norris & Elrod, 2006). This extensive body of work suggests that disaster vulnerability is best understood as the result of the combined effects of characteristics of the individual, group, or community, as well as the social, economic, and political factors that influence their capacity to anticipate the disaster, cope, and recover from the event and its aftermath (Galea et al., 2007; Kilmer & Gil-Rivas, 2010a; Norris et al., 2002; Norris & Elrod, 2006; Weisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2004).

Notwithstanding the documentation of heightened risk for diverse emotional and mental health concerns, only about 30% of those exposed to disasters report symptoms that require intervention (Norris et al., 2002). Others report low to moderate levels of psychological dif- ficulties that diminish in the first few months postevent, suggesting a pattern of recovery. Of

Please address correspondence to: Virginia Gil-Rivas, Associate Professor and Director of the Health Psychology PhD Program, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC. 28223-0001. E-mail:

JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 72(12), 1318–1332 (2016) C© 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library ( DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22281



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relevance, many report low levels of symptomatology and normal levels of functioning and have been labeled as “resilient” (Bonanno, Brewin, Kaniasty, & La Greca, 2010).

An ecological framework is particularly well suited for identifying factors and processes that may relate to resilience and facilitate positive adaptation of individuals (Kilmer & Gil-Rivas, 2010a; Weems & Overstreet, 2008) and communities (Trickett, 2009). At the level of the individual, this framework views development, coping efforts, and adaptation as occur- ring within dynamically interacting systems and contexts, ranging from the family, school, and workplace to the community and the larger society (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). At the community-level, functioning and well-being are best understood as the result of transactions across multiple settings (e.g., schools, social service agencies) and levels of influence (e.g., cul- tural, historical, environmental, political) that change over time (Kelly, 2006; Trickett, 2009). This approach accounts for the influence of contexts in which one engages in direct interaction (e.g., families, work groups, classrooms), as well as broader organizations and structures (e.g., schools, coalitions, local business groups), localities, and macro-level forces (e.g., societal values and belief systems, mass media; Kloos et al., 2012). In sum, this framework underscores the need for multiple levels of analysis and multiple levels of action; unitary solutions are inadequate.

Further, efforts to promote disaster resilience require moving beyond an exclusive focus on dysfunction to a focus on wellness and primary prevention (Norris, Stevens, Pfefferbaum, Wyche, & Pfefferbaum, 2008). Wellness was conceptualized by Cowen (1994, 2000) as encom- passing healthy functioning (i.e., academic, work, parenting), behavioral patterns, and a sense of well-being (i.e., self-efficacy, sense of hope, belonging, and purpose) at the individual and the community level. In the context of disasters, this approach is relevant not just for addressing the needs of those deemed to be at “risk,” but it is also appropriate for enhancing the capacity of individuals and communities to manage future adversity successfully (Norris et al., 2008). This perspective also acknowledges the need for disaster response efforts to go beyond a focus on the event itself, to consider the social, economic, historical, and cultural factors that shape the lives of individuals and communities and their capacity to cope (Kilmer & Gil-Rivas, 2010a; Norris et al., 2008; Weisner et al., 2004).

An ecological community approach is crucial for reducing vulnerability and fostering commu- nity resilience, as both formal and informal community organizations and groups are frequently the first to provide assistance to those affected by disasters (Aldrich, 2012; World Health Orga- nization [WHO], 2010). Among their central objectives, these efforts should aim to ameliorate the impact of the disaster, restore important resources, and build the coping capacity of the individual and the community (Hobfoll et al., 2007; Norris et al., 2008; Trickett, 2005).

Grounded in an ecological perspective and the resilience and disaster literatures, the following sections (a) provide a brief overview of community resilience and related constructs, (b) discuss key principles and values to guide community-level disaster response, and (c) put forth actionable strategies and recommendations for working with communities.

Community Resilience and Selected Relevant Constructs

Over the past decade, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers have begun to shift their attention from a sole focus on dysfunction to the factors and processes that may increase the capacity of individuals and communities to manage effectively the demands associated with a disaster (e.g., Bonanno et al., 2010; Gulf Research Program, 2015; Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters, 2012; Norris et al., 2008; Trickett, 2005). Indeed, federal and nongovernmental organizations have endorsed a resilience framework for guiding different aspects of disaster management (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], 2012; WHO, 2010; also see Abramson et al., 2015).

Although the construct of resilience has garnered increased attention, there is some lack of conceptual clarity. At the individual level, resilience is best understood as a dynamic process that allows for successful functioning and adaptation despite adversity (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000; Masten, 2001; Masten & Narayan, 2012). A similar notion holds at the community level: Community resilience has been defined as “a process linking a set of networked adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation” (Norris et al., 2008, p. 131).



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Overall, this body of research has underscored the notion that resilience reflects normative adaptive processes at work at both the individual (Bonanno et al., 2010; Masten, 2001) and the community level (Norris et al., 2008).

Facilitating resilience at the community level necessitates collective and coordinated efforts from a variety of groups, organizations, and social institutions to enhance key resources, namely, economic resources, social capital, communication and information systems, and competence (Norris et al., 2008). Economic resources such as stable employment, adequate income, housing, access to clean water and sanitation, availability and access to health and social services, and a strong and diverse financial system are important for reducing vulnerability. The strength of these resources depends on their number and diversity, and the way in which they are distributed in a society. Indeed, prior research indicates that the greatest human loss (Kahn, 2005) and psychosocial difficulties often occur in low-income communities and among disadvantaged groups (e.g., ethnic/racial minorities, those with disabilities, women, the elderly) who have limited access to economic resources and power (Canon, 1994; Inter-Agency Standing Committee [ISC], 2007; Norris et al., 2002; WHO, 2013; also see Cutter, 2006; Elliott & Pais, 2006). For example, race and poverty were associated with disaster preparedness and response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Specifically, African Americans were less likely to evacuate (Spence, Lachlan, & Griffin, 2007) and more likely to die compared to Whites, and the majority of those who died were over the age of 75 (Jonkman, Maaskant, Boyd, & Levitan, 2009). Further, those living in poverty and from minority groups experienced more severe damage to their homes and were displaced for longer periods compared to their more affluent counterparts (Fussell, Sastry, & Van Landingham, 2010). These disparities may reflect the difficulties poor communities often have in initiating collective action to respond to disaster and in accessing necessary resources (Aldrich & Sawada, 2015).

Human and social aspects of communities are also key resources in the face of disaster. One relevant concept, social capital, refers to the existence of organizational networks that have reciprocal, supportive, and trusting relationships; have moderate levels of overlap with other networks; are able to form new associations with other social networks; and have the ability make joint decisions in a collaborative manner (Putnam, 1993). Social capital also encompasses supportive social relationships and networks (Aldrich, 2012). For example, in the face of disaster, individuals frequently turn to their families, members of their social net- work, and trusted organizations for information, support, and guidance. Consistent with that tendency, family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are frequently the first to help those af- fected by disaster (Aldrich & Sawada, 2015; WHO, 2010) and play a crucial role in guid- ing governmental disaster responders (Bestor, 2013). Social relationships and the behavior of community members hold salience beyond the provision of postdisaster aid: Social connec- tions and the actions of community members can