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Weathering the Storm, Together

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Of all the lessons from Hurricane Sandy, there is one that lingers in my mind. In the face of the disaster, neighborhoods with strong local networks were able to help each other, respond better, and bounce back more quickly. In some cases, people waited in vain for help from federal agencies and national relief groups -- but found food, shelter, and aid from local networks, like the "Occupy Sandy" effort, led by more than 2,000 local volunteers. The communities that fared best were the ones that had built-in resilience long before the storm struck.

This kind of resilience isn't a luxury anymore. It's what's needed to survive climate change. And it's especially important among the folks hit hardest by the effects of climate change: low-income communities and people of color.

The good news is that many of these communities already have the kind of networks that will help them prepare for disasters and severe weather. And there are a few key efforts that can reinforce this resilience even more.

In the weeks following Sandy, we saw a flood of stunning accounts of neighbors helping each other, like the man in Queens who was trapped in a flooding basement, only to be rescued by neighbors who hacked through floorboards to pull him out. And there are countless more stories about families who were welcomed into neighbors' homes to shower and eat, or folks who used extension cords to provide power to the people around them.

For me, these stories underscore the value of building relationships with the people who live on your own block or street. When neighbors come together to plant a community garden, they create a local source of food that helps when supermarket shelves are empty, as they were after Sandy. But it does much more than that. It creates a means for neighbors to work together and get to know each other -- something that will help them survive in the face of a hurricane or a heat wave.

One of the most important ingredients for community preparedness and resilience is good infrastructure. Sandy sent an urgent message that we need to move quickly to invest in infrastructure like sea gates that will protect us from the effects of climate change.

We also need to upgrade our basic infrastructure, like water and transportation systems, which are in decay and leave us vulnerable. In the months since Sandy, hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage leaked into waterways in New York and New Jersey, triggering a public health crisis. But it doesn't even take a storm to do this -- the EPA estimates that there are between 23,000-75,000 raw sewage overflows a year in this country, thanks in large part to crumbling stormwater infrastructure. That's a problem we have to fix. And if we do it right, by using green innovation, we build in yet another layer of community resilience.

Just take a look at Los Angeles. Studies show that African-Americans living in L.A. are twice as likely to die in a heat wave than other residents -- largely because they're the ones who live in the city's worst "heat islands" -- areas where temperatures are magnified by an abundance of concrete and asphalt. Simply including green stormwater infrastructure, like planting trees to manage runoff, would serve the added purpose of helping urban communities cope with extreme weather.

Even efforts to expand energy efficiency contribute to resilience. Initiatives like MPower -- which brings energy efficiency upgrades to affordable housing and apartment buildings -- help homes weather severe temperatures with better construction, stronger windows and insulation. Efficiency measures also help cities bounce back from power outages by reducing overall electricity demand. And when they're done right, using High Road Strategies, these efforts create local jobs and business opportunities -- reinforcing the economy and fabric of the local community even more.

The fact is, we will face an increase in storms, drought, flooding, and severe temperatures, even if we take the steps necessary to stop the worst effects of climate change. But we have solutions that will help us prepare and respond.

And climate change isn't the only reason we need this kind of resilience. When neighbors plant food together, or find jobs improving buildings on their own block -- when they create reliable, safe infrastructure and common green space -- they increase their odds of surviving all kinds of hardships, from storms, to divisive politics, to economic recession. Street by street, and block by block, when we work together, we can respond to even the most daunting challenges.

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