Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina was billed as a once-in-a-century event. Since then, over 200 disasters have each caused more than $1 billion in damage, says Saket Soni, the founder of Resilience Force and author of the new best-selling book The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America. Here, we talk about building resiliency into the core of climate disaster preparedness and response.
Konstanze Frischen: Saket, your focus as a social entrepreneur and now author is a new group of workers that you call the “resilience workforce.” It moves in when climate disasters strike. Who are resilience workers?
Saket Soni: To answer the question, let me take you to a disaster zone. Imagine you’re in central California after a wildfire, when firefighters have done their job. Or in the Southeast after massive rains, when the flood waters receded. What happens next is that homeowners need to come home, parents need to put their kids back in schools, yet homes aren’t safe and the schools can’t reopen. Mayors need to save their tax bases, which means they need to get local businesses reopened. They need the residents who were displaced, who are also the local workforce, to come back.
Frischen: And in this moment, everyone is under enormous pressure to rebuild and return – with money coming in through FEMA and the insurance companies, no doubt.
Soni: That’s right. Dollars are coming in for repairs, but where are the workers? Well, they’re driving in as soon as the roads reopen, in the middle of the night, and right now they’re parked at a Home Depot parking lot. They’re living in their cars. They’re sleeping in the streets. There’s no infrastructure for them. And although billions of dollars are flowing into the recovery, the workers doing the actual work of rebuilding are earning relatively little. They’re at the bottom of subcontracting chains working as independent contractors.
Frischen: How does Resilience Force bring these disconnected workers into a workforce?
Soni: We’re doing two things. One is we’re protecting the workers who are already out there. We’re building career ladders for them so that they can get trained and climb the ladder in terms of skill and salary. And two, we’re building the large-scaled workforce that disaster restoration will require – not just immediately after the catastrophe, but for climate adaptation and preparing for the disasters to come, so that homes, schools, cities are more resilient, better able to face adversity. These will be among our nation’s most imperative needs, and we need a much bigger workforce.
Frischen: You’re calling for a reappraisal of these workers – in terms of the appreciation they receive, and also in terms of renumeration.
Soni: That’s right. When you drive by a Home Depot in a hurricane-torn town, you see these workers standing around. Maybe you assume they are unskilled unemployed workers looking for a day job. That’s what most people see. Well, in fact, these workers, many of them migrants, have been rebuilding after hurricanes for, say, 15 years. They are incredibly skilled, and we want you to value them for the expertise they bring. When a crew of workers comes into a town and rebuilds homes and churches, there is an outpouring of appreciation and gratitude. Just like in the pandemic, there was appreciation for the nurses and doctors who were at the center of our healing.
Frischen: How does this appreciation translate into better wages?
Soni: We reposition these workers in this economy, which has a lot of money flowing in it. We work with large-scale disaster restoration companies that are embracing the idea that if they’re wanting to grow their business, they’ll need a qualified workforce. We work with mayors, whatever party they’re in, who know that the key to keeping their tax bases is to rebuild homes and schools and hospitals fast. In other words, we work with stakeholders who understand it is in their interest to get this workforce protected and paid better. On the worker side, we have built out an entire career ladder so that workers who start as laborers can go up the chain and become certified technicians in the restoration industry – a new professional category we established, to formalize and recognize their skills.
Frischen: You also point out the non-material gains the resilience workforce creates: empathy and neighborliness.
Soni: Wherever they go, resilience workers are building a new kind of American social cohesion. For example, there was a Florida family that put up a yard sign “Strangers Will Be Shot” after their roof had blown away. The lights were out, the electric grid had fallen apart. They lived in an unincorporated town and felt they had only themselves left for protection. Well, strangers showed up to their house by the dozens on a Sunday morning and offered to rebuild – for free. This was a group of immigrant resilient workers. They rebuilt the family’s house, and afterwards, they all had a meal together. That’s the way we can rebuild bonds, not just buildings, but bonds after American disasters. That’s the kind of thing this workforce is uniquely poised to do.
Frischen: Do you find this function of building new fabric goes beyond the anecdotal?
Soni: Our work and climate disasters more generally provide an incredible opening to break old narratives and replace them with new narratives. For example, we follow workers into parts of the United States where the voting population is against big government and against 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 narrative that was very sturdy the day before the hurricane, but now mindsets shift. Another narrative is about immigration. The sign that said “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 demagogue immigrants during election cycles. Well, right after a hurricane, immigrants come in to rebuild and that can turn into an opportunity, an opening to build a new narrative about immigration.
But these narratives don’t just arrive on their own. It takes all of us. It takes conversation and organizing to replace an old narrative with a new one. The biggest narrative out there that needs refurbishing is: we’re all on our own. That somehow after disasters, those of us who can self-fund our recovery will, and those of us who can’t afford it will just need to move somewhere else. A narrative of “we’re all in this together” is much better. A narrative about mutuality. You see how after disasters, there is an extraordinary web of mutuality. The hope is that that web turns into institutions that can change the pattern.
Frischen: Is there a blueprint in there that we can take and adapt to other areas of work?
Soni: Absolutely. Look, if you have a home or live in a home in America, you’re impacted by the possibility of climate disaster, and you need to prepare for a future that involves extreme weather. This is a unifying issue. And so you need a workforce that’s strong. But there’s more. Disaster recovery in America has become one of the greatest hidden drivers of inequality. The way we do recovery produces more wealth for the already wealthy and takes wealth away from the poor. We need a new blueprint that lets recoveries combat inequality rather than increasing it, at the same time recovery workers are getting good jobs, supporting families, and establishing long-term careers out of the work of rebuilding their own communities. That’s the blueprint I hope we’ll write together.
Saket Soni is an Ashoka Fellow. This interview is edited by Ashoka.