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June 30, 2023 Feature

Introduction: The Community Resilience Handbook

John Travis Marshall

Community resilience might seem a well-covered topic. Some would even characterize resilience as an overused concept.1 What is the need, then, for a handbook devoted to creating more resilient communities? The answer to this question may be as straightforward as it is disheartening. Much has been written and theorized about resilience, but jurisdictions throughout the United States struggle to incorporate disaster resilience strategies into their planning and practices.2 If we stop and consider the two-decade-long string of major disasters that have ravaged communities across the United States, it is not hard to appreciate why the idea of resilience has received so much attention and yet remains an elusive goal.

The twenty-first century has produced a steady stream of shocking disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Iowa Floods of 2008,3 Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey, a series of gigantic Western wildfires, and most recently, Hurricane Ian. There have been 246 disaster events that inflicted more than $1 billion in damages on communities since 2000.4 The costs incurred by the federal government have proven particularly staggering.5 If the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City is included, five of the nation’s most consequential disasters, in terms of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public assistance aid to impacted local governments, have occurred in the last twenty years.6 The 2017 hurricane season alone is responsible for three of the costliest hurricanes in the nation’s history.7 At any one time, dozens of communities nationwide are clearing a disaster’s wreckage, planning for a new future, or rebuilding homes, neighborhoods, cities, and entire regions. Some find themselves so often in disaster’s crosshairs that recovery from one disaster is upended by the next catastrophic event.8

In the wake of these disasters, we have paused again—and again—to consider how these catastrophic events could have been prevented or their impacts mitigated. Increasingly, we have invested government and philanthropic grant funds to help ensure that the affected communities can rebuild so that they not only bounce back from future events but “bounce forward.”9 During this time, practitioners, scholars, governmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations have explored many dimensions of resilience. They have crafted guidance on resilient infrastructure, resilient laws, resilient buildings, climate resilience, resilient historic resources, and disaster resilience (to name just a few).10 Your favorite web browser can transport you instantaneously to a list of digital materials that gets longer by the day. Numerous are the podcasts, op-eds, blog posts, press releases, academic articles, think tank reports, and advertisements for associated services.11

With abundant resilience-related information at our fingertips—and so much of it that can be reviewed and consumed quickly—what need might there be for a new volume devoted to creating more resilient communities? The need springs from an apparent disconnect.

A significant gap seems to remain between lessons generated by this century’s great disasters and the incipient understanding that local government, business, and nonprofit leaders have of their communities’ vulnerabilities, as well as the systems that must be created to secure more resilient futures.12 The threats posed by climate-related hazards continue to grow, but communities and businesses remain prone to costly mistakes. Even local government resilience and municipal management officials who help lead the nation’s largest communities describe vividly the challenges they continually face to incrementally advance community progress toward a culture of resilience.13

The coronavirus pandemic confirmed this troubling divide between the rhetoric of resilience and its on-the-ground practice. COVID-19 exposed significant deficits that persist in both our knowledge of threats to community welfare and the implementation of the most basic resilience-related laws, policies, and practices.14 For instance, the pandemic confirmed that communities nationwide struggle to understand that during and following disaster events many residents live just a paycheck (or two) away from economic dependence on assistance from government, nonprofit, and philanthropic helpers.

A conversation recently overheard not too far from my home in Atlanta underscores one particular dimension of this broad failure to confront and correct basic threats to a community’s or organization’s resilience. It was July 2021, and the pandemic-era, work-from-home policies were still the norm.

I was having ice cream with my son in the local village center when two parents and their children sat down at an adjacent park bench. One of the parents, who worked for a local company, quickly launched into a story about what he considered an unbelievable conversation that he had with his firm’s chief financial officer (CFO). The CFO had been asked to consider preparing a disclosure of the company’s exposure to climate-related risks, including natural hazards. The CFO believed that the company had nothing to disclose. The parent, on the other hand, could not comprehend how the CFO was inclined to draw such a conclusion. Calling to mind the 2021 wildfires in California and the catastrophic floods that befell Germany and China,15 he responded incredulously to the CFO, “All I could say is: ‘What do you mean there’s no risk?! It’s not as if the Western U.S. is on fire and Germany and China are under water . . . . Of course, there’s risk!’”16 The parent shared that the CFO then asked if he “could provide her evidence of the risks the company’s facilities face.” He recounted, “I told her that ‘the risk may not be easy to quantify with precision but that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential risk that bears disclosing.’” With some resignation and amazement, the parent added that “the problem with our company is that it had never before assessed risk to natural hazards.”

The parent in this story is right: businesses, just like local governments, must focus on addressing the needs of their stakeholders, including shareholders, board members, vendors, and their employees. Although most recent major disasters seem to reveal yet another local government that has inadequately prepared for potential casualties from natural hazards, it is alarming that large businesses and the professionals who work with them—and for them—may be similarly unprepared. Many local governments, after all, are understaffed and underfunded. It is somewhat understandable that they focus only on their pressing day-to-day concerns: roads, traffic, trash collection, and public safety. But my witness to this surprising July 2021 conversation reminded me of the importance of educating both key public and private stakeholders. That is, there remains a significant need for resources that not only make the case for resilience investments and policies but also provide blueprints for those stakeholders to follow.

The American Bar Association’s The Community Resilience Handbook is both well-timed and well-calibrated to address prevailing shortcomings in community recognition of vulnerability and local implementation of resilience-related initiatives. With a pandemic raging in the background, the Handbook’s editors pressed forward with finalizing a twenty-one–chapter playbook for pursuing more resilient futures. Published in the fall of 2020, The Community Resilience Handbook is grounded in the goal of providing even under-resourced businesses, local governments, and community-based organizations with a roadmap for implementing resilience measures. The Handbook makes four important contributions to helping communities identify and integrate opportunities to promote more resilient futures: it presents concise arguments for communities to pursue resilience-related strategies; it frames resilience as an ongoing process of planning and implementation; it highlights the important role that attorneys can play in promoting resilience; and it explains the reasons why enduring resilience flows from building more equitable communities.

From boardrooms to statehouses, to commission chambers and chambers of commerce, communities are increasingly fluent in their discussions of resilience and sustainability. It would seem that this trend has only accelerated over the past three years. Few would disagree that sustainability and resilience and their associated concerns are a part of the broad civic and commercial lexicon. But as the saying goes, “Talking the talk” is not the same as “Walking the walk.”

COVID-19 has highlighted—for local, state, and federal governments—some of the most serious vulnerabilities that communities can and will face. Many communities have responded with programs that have aimed for greater equity, efficiency, innovation, and prudence in preparations for and recovery from disaster events. However, just as many—or more—communities have made little effort to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to pivot to more resilient futures.17 Some believe that they lack the necessary leadership; some remain unconvinced of the importance of adopting sustainability practices and systems resilient to shock or stressor events; and others report that they have very limited resources to pursue this work. These views reflect that adversities face our cities nationwide, but they also represent a major liability for local governments, business organizations, and their stakeholders. As communities emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a vivid understanding of their most vulnerable members, the time is right to correct course and to refashion and improve the historic systems that have made communities vulnerable and inequitable.

The chapter that follows speaks directly to those local governments who believe that they lack the time, staff, and other core resources to increase community resilience to disaster events.

[Book Excerpt PDF Download]


1. International disaster scholars describe the concept of resilience as a potentially problematic catchphrase, lacking precise definition. See Lisa Grow et al., Disaster Vulnerability, 63 B.C. L. Rev. 957, 963–64 n.13 (2022) (noting “considerable inconsistency, variation, and even contradiction in the way the terms ‘social vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ are used in the social sciences literature and about how to conceptualize the relationship between the two”) (citing Susan L. Cutter et al., A Place-Based Model for Understanding Community Resilience to Natural Disasters, 18 Glob. Env’t Change 598, 599–600 (2008)); Abigail Abrash Walton et al., Building Community Resilience to Disasters: A Review of Interventions to Improve and Measure Public Health Outcomes in the Northeastern United States, 13 Sustainability, no. 21, 2021, at 3 (“There is no commonly accepted working definition of community resilience.”).

2. Mary Comerio, Disaster Recovery and Community Renewal: Housing Approaches, in Coming Home After Disaster 3, 4–5 (Alka Sapat & Ann-Margaret Esnard eds., 2017) (enumerating five continuing problems that “make implementing forward-thinking ideas on resilience and recovery problematic”).

3. Flood of 2008 Facts & Statistics, Cedar Rapids, (last visited Nov. 17, 2022).

4. Nat’l Ctrs. for Env’t Info., Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters, Nat’l Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin., (last visited Nov. 17, 2022) (332 billion-dollar disasters since NOAA began tracking the cost associated with severe weather and climate-related disasters).

5. Alice C. Hill, Reducing Disaster Costs by Building Better, Council on Foreign Rels. (Apr. 2, 2020), (“From 2005 to 2014, the federal government obligated almost $280 billion for disaster assistance. In 2018, in a period of six months, Congress shelled out $140 billion in aid—an amount that was nearly triple the annual budget for the Department of Homeland Security and that contributed almost 20 percent to the total federal deficit for that year.”).

6. Flood of 2008 Facts & Statistics, supra note 3.

7. Leeja Miller, Note, Certain Destruction: Pre-Disaster Mitigation in a Post-Maria World, 12 N.E. Univ. L. Rev. 549, 551 (2020) (explaining that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were “[t]hree of the five costliest hurricanes in United States history,” causing approximately $265 billion in damage).

8. See, e.g., Nathaniel Rodriguez, Bridge Placed by Hurricane Maria Washed Away by Hurricane Fiona’s Flooding, WFLA (Sept. 19, 2022),

9. The Island Press & The Kresge Found., Bounce Forward: Urban Resilience in the Era of Climate Change (2015),

10. See, e.g., Mikhail Chester et al., Post-Disaster Infrastructure Delivery for Resilience, 13 Sustainability, no. 6, 2021 (“The field of infrastructure resilience is evolving in response to the complexity and uncertainty associated with emerging challenges such as climate change.”); Sara C. Bronin, Law’s Disaster: Heritage at Risk, 46 Colum. J. Env’t L. 489, 512 (2021) (discussing the state of Connecticut’s efforts to plan for more resilient historic resources).

11. If you type the words “resilience,” “community,” “local government,” “laws,” “ordinances,” and “policies” into your favorite web browser, it returns thousands in less than a second. A Google search returned 220,000 results.

12. John Travis Marshall, Resilience Re-examined: Thoughts on the COVID-19 Pandemic’s Lessons for Communities Preparing for Disasters, 5 J. Comp. Urb. L. & Pol’y 43, 61 (2022) (noting that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed that local governments of all sizes “struggle to maintain a detailed understanding of the vulnerable populations in their midst”).

13. See, e.g., The Inclusion of Equity in Community Resilience with Sheryl Sculley, Nat’l Acad. of Pub. Admin. (Aug. 23, 2021), (describing persistent efforts to ensure that San Antonio’s approach to resilience is explicitly equitable through commitments to community collaboration, “a culture of response,” and an “ethic of continuous improvement”); Podcast: Community Resilience & Climate Response with Jennifer Jurado, Engaging Loc. Gov’t Leaders (June 25, 2021), (describing Broward County’s efforts to promote a local and regional ethic of resilience through its “resilience dashboard” and “resilience scorecard”).

14. See Marshall, supra note 12; see also John Travis Marshall, Cost-Effective Local Initiatives to Promote Resilient Disaster Recovery, in American Bar Association Resilience Handbook: Making the Case for Community Resilience 343 (George Blaine Huff Jr., Edward A. Thomas & Nancy McNabb eds., 2020). Although written before the COVID-19 pandemic began, this chapter argues that there are low-cost or no-cost interventions with which even poorly resourced local governments can pursue disaster reliance objectives. The chapter is reprinted below in its entirety. See infra.

15. See Warren Cornwall, Europe’s Deadly Floods Leave Scientists Stunned, Sci. (July 20, 2021),; Daniel Victor, Flooding Kills 21 as Thousands Escape to Shelters, N.Y. Times (Aug. 13, 2021),

16. Three of California’s then-largest fires on record occurred in 2021. See 2021 North American Wildfire Season, Ctr. for Disaster Philanthropy, (last visited Nov. 17, 2022).

17. See id.

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John Travis Marshall

John Travis Marshall is Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director at the Center of the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth at Georgia State University College of Law. Mr. Marshall had the privilege of contributing a chapter to the American Bar Association’s The Community Resilience Handbook. He is also co-editor of the 2022 Cambridge Handbook on Disaster Law and Policy with Ryan Rowberry and Susan Kuo. Mr. Marshall teaches environmental law and land use law. His work focuses on how local laws and heightened capacity of local governments can improve resilience to disasters.