Exploring Community Resilience published

This new publication from Fiery Spirits CoP gathers a mix of experience and academic insight into how local communities are learning how to cope – and even thrive – through difficult times.

Written in an accessible style its stories highlight experience from Cumbria to the Scottish Highlands, and from New Orleans to Tooting, London. Web links direct readers to topical references, and a practical guide shows how to run a community workshop on the topic.

Download it here.

Below, we present a brief excerpt of the publication:

Case Story: resilient responses to the Cumbria floods of 2009

On Thursday 19th November 2009 over sixty Cumbrian communities experienced a torrential downpour. Each has a story to tell of those days when British records were broken two towns in particular – Cockermouth and Workington – were thrust into the spotlight as the national news media streamed dramatic pictures of the Cocker and Derwent rivers as they broke their banks, plunging businesses, shops and homes under water. In Cockermouth levels rose to 2.5 metres (8ft 2in). As the waters rushed downstream, PC Bill Barker lost his life as the Northside Bridge collapsed and not long afterwards two further bridges collapsed, splitting Workington in two. 1200 properties lost their electricity supply and people were stranded but local volunteers and emergency services quickly rose to the challenge. While RAF helicopters from three bases rescued 48 people, the RNLI deployed forty-one volunteers within five hours in nine inshore lifeboats, rescuing about 300 people, Mountain Rescue volunteers worked tirelessly. The full extent of the voluntary effort could be glimpsed at Christ Church, in the town’s South Street, which became a local hub of operations. Cumbria Voluntary Agencies Committee and Cumbria Constabulary worked side by side to ensure the immediate response was co-ordinated and effective.

Margarette Driscoll, writing in the Sunday Times (18th July 2010), described how “some volunteers were handing out tea and cake; others were organising teams to go into flooded homes and rescue precious pieces of furniture or photo albums. The Red Cross was on hand for medical emergencies, Age UK was helping with shocked and shaken elderly people and a new organisation, Street Angels, was just being set up to offer support when the waters subsided and people attempted to return to their homes.”

A few days later in Workington, Royal Engineers set to
work building a new footbridge, to be named after PC
Barker. On its completion, the BBC interviewed Inspector
Mark Wear (Workington Police): “This footbridge is a
tangible symbol of how we are starting to rebuild the area
and getting back to normal”.

As soon as news broke of the impending bad weather, the Cumbria Community Foundation had initiated plans to set up a Cumbria Flood Recovery Fund. The fund raised more than £1m. Deb Muscat, co-ordinator of the fund testifies that Cumbria’s “strong volunteering ethos and density of activists” has been a very significant factor in enabling the recovery of the region. She is working with third sector partners from across Cumbria to research the contribution the sector has made to both easing hardship in the immediate aftermath, as well as the longer term work of rebuilding social networks, enabling dispersed friends to connect regularly, supporting businesses and clubs with insurance claims, improving flood defences… and sustaining the psychological health people who, after three months of living away from home (perhaps with the relatives), are showing signs of stress. Revisiting her initial story several months later, Driscoll wrote another story that sought out an angle on the ‘Big Society’. She interviewed Cockermouth GP John Howarth about how the “most extraordinary upsurge of community spirit” following the floods had enabled his surgery to initiate some changes in the way his practice delivered better health outcomes: offering Age UK a peppercorn rent to share premises, Howarth advocates that co-location enables Age UK’s volunteers to support more older people to stay in their homes, cutting down on expensive hospital visits. The idea is that money saved by the NHS will go to support further health-related initiatives such as the local University of the Third Age, “a big social network” which runs courses which are “a good alternative to antidepressants for someone who’s lonely and depressed”. We then discover that Howarth and colleagues have found inspiration for some of this innovation in John McKnight’s ideas about asset-based community development: “He’s given us a different view of the community that we serve, and that was crystallised during the flood, when so many people came forward and were willing to help”.

There are many more stories of Cumbrian resilience to be learned from. Terry McCormick of Action with Communities in Cumbria has noted that “Keswick had/ has one of the best emergency plans in place in the UK and this enabled a ‘bounce-back’ to ‘Keswick is open for business’ in a matter of days”. In our conversations with Cumbrian activists and volunteers, we picked up a determined urgency to their continuing work, now focusing on building on and sharing lessons from what has been achieved so far: the question on their minds is when, not if, more shocks will arrive. The sector has been assisted in this task by the Big Lottery, which has demonstrated considerable foresight by pro-actively funding local organisations to capture lessons learned. The Northern Rock Foundation has also been notably active supporting learning and the recovery work of local organisations.

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