Coastal Processes, Hazards, and Society

Dimension 3: Adaptive Capacity


Dimension 3: Adaptive Capacity


What can community leaders and all community members do to build their resilience to coastal hazards?

The adaptive capacity of a community is its capacity to cope with, recover from, and adapt to hazard events. Coastal communities around the world are focusing on ways to adapt to increased risk in the face of amplified coastal hazards such as extreme weather and sea level rise.

The term resilience is often used to describe the ability to cope or bounce back after a setback such as a storm surge, or to cope with ongoing challenges such s more frequent tidal flooding. Resilience can be thought of as a measure of a community’s adaptive capacity. As we mentioned before, communities can increase their adaptive capacity and resilience by learning from a disaster or hazard event. New Orleans is certainly a good example that we will examine in a case study.

Our case studies of coastal hazard events around the world throughout this course have highlighted how the issues of social inequity in communities can impact the speed with which and how well certain groups of people are able to recover and bounce back from a setback such as flooding from Katrina or Sandy, or a tsunami such as the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Those things we mentioned in the section on sensitivity that make people more sensitive to the disruption and harm caused by an event such as these – age, health, poverty, and race all can be major obstacles to the ability to bounce back – recover and rebuild homes, lives, and livelihoods after a major setback.

See caption.
National Hurricane Preparedness Week Information Booth
Credit: North Charleston from North Charleston, SC, United States via Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Who are the most vulnerable?

As we have touched on already, there is a strong link between poverty and vulnerability. Why is this? First, the data show that lower-income Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods prone to chronic flooding and to live in housing that is more susceptible to damage from storms. Second, lower-income people have lower levels of resilience because they do not have the economic cushions that help to reduce the shock when disaster hits. For example, poorer families are less likely to have flood insurance policies and have a harder time finding the resources to rebuild and get back on their feet. This has been clearly shown for families in New Orleans, who even a decade after Katrina were lagging behind wealthier counterparts in economic recovery. Adding to these facts, in many locations, including New Orleans after Katrina and Houston after Harvey, the communities of color were the ones of lower economical means and therefore have more difficulty recovering from the shock of these events. Longer-term effects of flooding also include health impacts and again, lower-income people and people of color tend to struggle more due to lack of access to high-quality healthcare in some cases. For example, after Katrina, houses that may not have been very badly flooded were rendered unlivable due to the black mold that grew in the hot, humid climate. It is much harder for a poor family to address more insidious long-lasting impacts such as these, and they can lead to chronic health issues such as high levels of childhood asthma.

As we work through the remaining modules of the course, keep in mind the need to find equitable solutions to the issues we are examining. If we, as a society, cannot address the need to increase resilience for everyone, the future is going to be very challenging for many people[d1].


Hurricanes hit the poor the hardest