Climate disasters and the emergence of a new workforce

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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was announced as a once-in-a-century event. Since then, more than 200 disasters have each caused more than $1 billion in damage, says Saket Soni, the founder of Resilience Force and author of the new bestseller The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America. Here we are talking about building resilience at the core of preparing for and responding to climate disasters.

Constance Frischen: Saket, your focus as a social entrepreneur and now author is a new group of workers you call the “resilience workforce.” It retracts when climate disasters strike. Who are Resilience Workers?

Sake Soni: To answer the question, let me take you to a disaster zone. Imagine being in central California after a wildfire, when firefighters have done their job. Or in the southeast after heavy rainfall, when the floodwaters receded. What happens next is homeowners have to come home, parents have to send their kids back to school, but houses aren’t safe and the schools can’t reopen. Mayors need to save their tax bases, which means allowing local businesses to reopen. They need the displaced residents, who are also the local workforce, to come back.

Frischen:And right now everyone is under immense pressure to rebuild and get back – no doubt with money coming in through FEMA and the insurance companies.

son:That’s right. Dollars are coming in for repairs, but where are the workers? Well, they drive in as soon as the roads reopen, in the middle of the night, and now they’re parked in a Home Depot parking lot. They live in their cars. They sleep on the street. There is no infrastructure for them. And while billions of dollars are pouring into the recovery, the workers doing the actual work of rebuilding earn relatively little. They are at the bottom of subcontract chains and work as independent contractors.

Frischen:How does Resilience Force bring these disconnected workers into a workforce?

son:We do two things. One is that we protect the workers who are already there. We build career ladders for them so that they can be trained and climb the ladder in terms of skills and salary. And second, we are building the large-scale workforce needed for disaster recovery – not just post-disaster recovery, but also for climate adaptation and preparedness for the coming disasters, so that homes, schools and cities are more resilient, better able to face adversity to act. This will be one of our country’s most pressing needs, and we need a much larger workforce.

Frischen:You argue for a revaluation of these employees – in terms of the appreciation they receive, but also in terms of remuneration.

son:That’s right. If you drive past a Home Depot in a hurricane-torn city, you’ll see these workers. You may assume that they are unskilled unemployed looking for a day job. That’s what most people see. In fact, these workers, many of them migrants, have been rebuilding after hurricanes for about 15 years. They are incredibly skilled and we want you to appreciate them for the expertise they bring. When a crew of workers enters a city and rebuilds homes and churches, there is an outpouring of appreciation and gratitude. As during the pandemic, there was appreciation for the nurses and doctors who were central to our healing.

Frischen:How does this appreciation translate into better wages?

son:We’re repositioning these workers in this high-money economy. We work with large-scale disaster recovery companies who embrace the idea that if they want to grow their business, they need qualified personnel. We work with mayors, regardless of party, who know that the key to preserving their tax bases is to rebuild homes, schools and hospitals quickly. In other words, we work with stakeholders who understand that it is in their best interest to protect these workers and get paid better. On the employee side, we have built an entire career ladder so that employees who start out as laborers can move up the chain and become certified technicians in the restoration industry – a new occupational category that we have created to formalize and recognize their skills.

Frischen:You also point out the non-material benefits that resilient employees create: empathy and neighborliness.

son:Wherever they go, resilience workers are building a new kind of American social cohesion. For example, there was a family in Florida who put up a sign in their yard that read “Strangers Will Be Shot” after their roof was blown away. The lights were out, the power grid had fallen apart. They lived in an unincorporated town and felt they had left only themselves for protection. Well, strangers came to their house by the dozen one Sunday morning and offered to rebuild it – for free. This was a group of immigrant resilient workers. They rebuilt the family’s house and then they all ate together. That’s how we can restore ties, not just buildings, but ties after American disasters. That’s the kind of thing that this staff is ideally placed to do.

Frischen:Do you think this function of building new fabric goes beyond the anecdotal?

son:Our work and more generally, climate disasters provide an incredible opening to break old stories and replace them with new ones. For example, we track workers to parts of the United States where the voting population opposes big government and government spending. But after a hurricane, those are the very people who need government spending. They need FEMA to come and help. That’s an example of an old story that was very strong the day before the hurricane, but now the mindset is changing. Another story is about immigration. The sign that says “Strangers Will Be Shot” is part of a fear-based sense in this country that we don’t want outsiders. That fear has been used to demagogueize immigrants during election cycles. Well, right after a hurricane, immigrants come in to rebuild and that can become an opportunity, an opening to build a new immigration narrative.

But these stories do not come naturally. It costs us all. It takes deliberation and organization to replace an old story with a new one. The biggest story that needs redoing is, we’re all on our own. That somehow after disasters, those of us who can fund our recovery ourselves, and those of us who can’t afford it, just have to go elsewhere. A story of “we’re all in this together” is much better. A story about reciprocity. You see how an extraordinary web of reciprocity emerges after disasters. The hope is that that web will turn into institutions that can change the pattern.

Frischen:Is there a blueprint that we can take with us and adapt to other areas of work?

son:Absolute. Look, if you own a home or live in a home in America, you’re hit with the possibility of climate catastrophe and you need to prepare for a future of extreme weather. This is a connecting issue. And so you need a workforce that is strong. But there’s more. Disaster recovery in America has become one of the greatest hidden causes of inequality. The way we do recovery brings more wealth to the already rich and takes wealth away from the poor. We need a new blueprint that allows recovery to fight inequality, not increase it, while at the same time recovery workers get good jobs, support families, and build long-lasting careers out of work to rebuild their own communities. That is the blueprint that we will hopefully write together.

Saket Soni is an Ashoka Fellow. This interview has been edited by Ashoka.