Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 5, 2010

Real-life Resilience

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on September 5, 2010

We have talked often about resilience on this blog in recent months. Some of you have commented that these discussions have often tended toward the theoretical if not the ephemeral. Many of you have asked for real-life examples of resilience in practice. Fortunately, the people of Christchurch, New Zealand are showing us what it really means.

The M7.1 earthquake struck New Zealand’s second largest city at 4:36 AM on Saturday. Emergency services immediately swung into action. People shaken from their beds quickly assessed their damage and checked on their neighbors. And a few businesses opened their doors to offer emergency supplies — in some cases below cost if not free — to those who had not prepared in advance.

Well-practiced plans ensured a preliminary damage assessment was conducted quickly and the information relayed to emergency operations centers at the local, regional and national levels. National-level resources were put on standby to provide specialized support and relieve Christchurch-based crews. International relief organizations and the U.S. military quickly offered their support, but none was accepted as no evidence of unmet need was evident.

As daylight came and the damage became evident, people got to work helping one another clear debris and cover holes in roofs caused by falling chimneys. People worked together to store potable water and assemble supplies that might be needed in the days ahead.

Grocers who could open their doors did so. Other businesses received support from vendors and telecommunications companies to get their electronic funds transfer systems up and running so they could open and supply customers’ needs.

The former state-owned telecommunications company, Telecom, made 300 public payphones free for local, regional and national calls. Other telecommunications providers worked together with Telecom and local emergency managers to ensure continuous communications was available via cellphone, especially for those using short-message service (SMS or text messaging).

The company responsible for local transmission of electrical power had restored service to 90% of customers by nightfall on the first day. Nearly all rural customers had power restored by the end of the second day.

Four welfare centers opened to receive people whose homes were too badly damaged to stay in and those who were simply too scared to return to their homes as aftershocks continued. By the close of the second day, though, only 220 people had stayed in shelters overnight. Most people sought shelter with family, friends and neighbors.

Roads and bridges suffered significant damage as did in-ground infrastructure, especially piped services such as water and wastewater. Air and rail transportation were disrupted initially, but the international airport reopened by early afternoon and rail service was restored in many areas the next day.

The prime minister, minister of civil defence emergency management and local MPs flew into the city on a military transport to offer central government support for the local and regional responses. Initial media criticism of the time lag between the quake’s occurrence and the formal declaration of a state of emergency has subsided as people have come to realize how effective the initial response has been and how little external assistance was required to deal with the initial effects of the temblor.

Post-earthquake fires have been few and far between. About 500 buildings have been heavily damaged. No deaths occurred, and the local hospital treated about 100 serious injuries with only two requiring critical care.

The biggest ongoing problem may well be the geological damage to the aquifer. Significant flooding has resulted from the displacement of the layers of earth that separate the top level of the aquifer from the surface soils. Large parts of the city and adjacent small towns now resemble marshland.

Estimates of the cost of recovery are still being tabulated. Some initial estimates, which seem conservative, put the losses in the vicinity of NZ$2 billion. The country’s Earthquake and War Damage Commission has assets in excess of NZ$15 billion to cover many of the uninsurable public and private costs.

Gratitude that no one lost their life in this disaster has been tempered by the realization that a great deal of work lies ahead. People with whom I have communicated by text and email since the earthquake struck have made it clear that people there have the spirit to get the job done.

The surest sign of hope was the good humor with which people greeted the challenges they face. Several joked about their new circumstances in Facebook posts and a playlist of earthquake themed music was quickly compiled. Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up topped the list.

Resources:

New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management

Environment Canterbury >> Earthquake Update

Christchurch City Council >> Earthquake Update

Disruption Follows Quake >> The Press (Christchurch)

Christchurch Earthquake Photos

Twitter Trendsmap

Christchurch Rocks >> 13 Lessons Learned from the Earthquake

Canterbury Earthquake News and Information

Christchurch Earthquake Map Mashup

CrisisCommons >> Christchurch Quake Wiki

Google Earth Blog >> Christchurch Earthquake Visualization

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21 Comments »

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

September 5, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

Hi Mark:

I have been watching with interest the outcome in ChristChurch also. See my blog today (http://recoverydiva.com) for the posting regarding the mandatory residential structures ins. that New Zealand has. It will be interesting to see how the funding for recovery unfolds — hopefully, they will set a good example for the U.S.

Pingback by New Zealand Earthquake – government-insured residential losses « Recovery Diva

September 5, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

[…] comments re resilience in NZ in the posting today by Mark Chubb on his site: Homeland Security Watch. from → Earthquake, New Zealand, Resilience ← New Zealand Earthquake – update […]

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 5, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

Thanks, Claire, for the kind words and the link back.

As you may know, I was fire chief in Christchurch form 2001-2007. The response seems to have unfolded largely as we had planned.

The EQC will play a large role in funding recovery. This fund is essentially a government chartered reinsurance program. All insured properties pay into the fund. (This may be the mandatory program to which you refer. Homeowners and businesses are under no government mandate to insure their properties against loss, but all are liable for Fire Service levy, which is assessed against the indemnity value of at-risk properties.) Central government has made it clear they will backstop the funding required to restore damaged infrastructure.

I think one of the bigger questions to emerge will have to do with rebuilding in areas vulnerable to liquefaction, especially those that have suffered flooding due to the displacement of the aquifer.

Poor weather over the next few days could also compound losses. The district north of Christchurch is now on flood watch.

I am sure we will have many more opportunities to draw lessons in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Comment by Art Botterell

September 5, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who was against resilience. As with many theological conversations, the trouble doesn’t start until one starts to explore the precise nature of the virtue in question. And things don’t get really ugly until the discussion turns to the question of who gets to decide.

Of course, resilience isn’t directly measurable; it’s a meta parameter that describes the behavior of some other metric, comparable to, say, statistical variability. Systems don’t exhibit variability, or resilience, although their particular parameters may. Thus it’s hard to have a serious conversation about resilience unless we agree as to “resilience of what?”

Looking at Christchurch in terms of its insurance scheme implies a working answer to that question: We’re talking primarily about insurable real estate. Generally speaking the metrics of insurance are financial, and individual property owners are free to reinvest their insurance pay-outs either to restore the status-quo-ante or to tear down and rebuild in some other form or even some other location. (Specifics of the insurance program and local land-use controls may mitigate that freedom somewhat, of course.) The outcome can be unpredictable for the community as a whole (e.g., if everyone decides to relocate out of a neighborhood) but there’s no argument involved.

When we turn to public infrastructure, though, things get trickier. The “rebuild or do something else?” debate can pit various interests against one another and strain the available conflict-resolution mechanisms. An example would be the relocation of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland after part of it collapsed in a quake in 1989. Local community groups mobilized to force the state to reroute the freeway, at great incremental expense.

And when we start to talk about the resilience of things as complex and hard to measure as “community” I’m afraid we’re entirely at sea. Just the other day I noted an article (somewhere, I’ve lost track) arguing that the emphasis on insurance pay-outs in New Orleans had served property owners better than renters. I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that, but the form of the discussion seemed familiar. Whose resilience counts, and who gets to count it?

I, for one, stand foursquare for resilience. And against sin. But I’m not clear how useful either term is in making policy.

Still, the folks of Christchurch are in my thoughts and I hope they all experience the sorts of resilience they need.

Comment by John Comiskey

September 5, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

WOW!

Christchurch -Emersonian individual and communal self-reliance incarnate.

Mass urbanization and babying our young has contributed to a ridiculous dependence on government: why do for yourself when the government will do near everything for you -the epitome of the nanny state.

So far, not so for Christchurch.

New paradigm/smart practice for resiliency -Christchurch 2010.

Thank you

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 5, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

Art, I agree for the most part that resilience is an intangible quality that come to the surface in how people respond to the choices before them. It is the nature of focusing events like this to make us somewhat oblivious to such choices in the dynamic and complex environment of response. As the population shifts to recovery, I think you’re right, we will see the true test of resilience.

One of the ways we can assess resilience when the choices are not so evident is the speed with which people address their basic needs and those of others, including people who have not taken time to prepare before the event. In this respect, I am very impressed by the available evidence.

The resolute, realistic and good natured way people have engaged their present circumstances and the speed with which they seem to be setting the table for the response-recovery transition gives me hope that they will overcome the challenges that lie ahead. People seem committed not only to working together but also to assuming the best about one another’s intentions, including the motivations and intentions of the local and central governments.

Time will tell … in the meantime we’ll see whether their faith in government is well-placed.

Comment by Art Botterell

September 5, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

I don’t think resilience is inherently intangible, Mark, except when it’s used to describe something intangible. But it has no measurable existence in itself, and so when the term is used in the abstract it’s a fairly empty bit of language.

Complicating things further, there are two distinct senses of the word. As used in engineering, resilience refers to a material’s ability to recover to its previous state after being stressed. But in psychology the term refers to an individual’s ability to regain a dynamic balance (“homeostasis” is the technical term) in a complex and changing world.

Thus the question becomes whether we believe the goal of resilience is the restoration of the status quo as it existed before the stressful event, or instead the achievement of a “new normal” that may be significantly different from the status quo ante. That debate has a long history in disaster recovery circles; adding the word “resilience” hasn’t made it go away although it may temporarily have obscured the problem to some eyes.

Anyway, the Heroic Period of disaster response is always inspiring to see. For a few hours or a few days, at least, people are generous and self-sacrificing and just generally the way we wish we were all the time. It’s the experience that, in my experience at least, “hooks” serial responders. Certainly I saw it during the first disaster I was ever involved with, and it’s a state of being that I’ve chased ever since.

But inevitably, regrettably, the Heroic Period is of finite duration. After it comes the Disillusionment Period, sometimes known as the “where’s my check?” phase. Unfortunately, a lot of important recovery choices get made during that less pleasant part of the disaster lifecycle; it’s frequently not so pretty at all.

Eventually there’s a Reintegration Period, during which people start to gain traction in the post-disaster environment and begin to construct a new normal for themselves. Whether they want the new normal to recreate the old normal depends largely on how well that old normal was working for them. Whether they’re able to achieve the new normal they want depends on politics, economics, psychology and luck.

Without tying the term resilience to any specific metric, I suspect that the term is largely used as a general “goodness” value describing satisfaction with that new normal. But since different individuals and groups can have very different judgements of any particular outcome, that very flexible use of the term can, I fear, reduce it to little more than a rhetorical trope.

Comment by HISTORY DETECTIVE

September 5, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

“Whenever companies start hiring freely again, job-seekers with specialized skills and education will have plenty of good opportunities. Others will face a choice: Take a job with low pay — or none at all.” AP

Head for NZ. Plenty of work for years. Stay in USA and wither, unless you can get on corporate welfare fraud gravy train. The companies aren’t free now. Need to stop more people from breathing if you have specskills, that’s where the money is. Killing business and business is great. Honey we killed GM today, so you can get a job as a zombie. Pay sucks, actually it’s none at all and all for none.

Comment by HISTORY DETECTIVE

September 5, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

Before 9-11 it was all how do we help keep people breathing. After it it became how do we stop them. They won’t need a check after they check out. Don’t get disillusioned. As usual government is better at getting people killed than killing people cost effectively. All the security failed all at once, so the old normal is unacceptable.

The new normal is better if it’s profitable, so what does government do? Cuts huge checks for every failed corporation in the world. Reward failed security to gain more security. Hold your breath and turn blue, you’ll get a check too. Crime now pays with them running it. See how long it runs before something smashes into something else.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 6, 2010 @ 12:29 am

Art, I am familiar with each phase of the disaster lifecycle to which you refer. Sadly, I have experienced all three in various roles, including disaster survivor, responder and researcher.

My post was an attempt to move from the fairly abstract treatments of resilience that have provoked skepticism among readers who asked for something a bit more focused and concrete to describe what we mean. The situation in Christchurch is quite familiar for me and as such I am watching it quite closely for the signs you describe, but in the meantime I think these initial observations can help focus my thinking and initiate a productive discussions of this topic among our readers.

It’s clearly too early to tell how people are doing adjusting to their new normal. But the loss and damage has been less than many if not most expected, so people are somewhat more hopeful than we had anticipated they would be when I lived and worked there. (Does a more resilient than expected infrastructure make it easier for people to display the sort of resilience psychologists look at? Probably.)

If the heroic phase passes quickly, as it seems it has or soon will, how, if at all, will that affect the duration and intensity of the disillusionment phase? People there are clearly getting tired. The adrenaline is wearing off, and people now realize they have a lot of work to do. But they have many resources available to them and feel like they have rediscovered a sense of community they can rely on as things become more difficult.

Commentators and friends have remarked on how well the response went yet they still have few expectations of making a quick recovery. They have shared very realistic assessments of their situation with me and my wife, and seem to have very pragmatic and indeed practical steps laid out for themselves in the days ahead.

This all sounds very familiar to me from my experience of disaster as a youngster in Xenia, Ohio in 1974 when my town was hit by an F-5 tornado that wiped out about half the buildings in town. We had no FEMA. The National Guard came to town to secure the city and help clear debris from roads. We received help from many places far and wide, but ultimately had to depend on ourselves and one another to do the hardest work. People pulled together and the city bounced back. Things clearly changed and not always for the better, but we were alive and we were grateful and we were in it together.

It is my fervent hope that this discussion makes it clear that I very much want to avoid seeing resilience slip into trite usage. Understanding resilience in an ecological sense, which strikes a balance between the two definitions you referenced from engineering and psychology, strikes me as good way of achieving this. This usage allows us to discuss metrics without losing a sense of the essential qualities that distinguish adaptation and evolution in ways we have not witnessed before and therefore are unprepared to measure.

As I watch my friends and colleagues in Christchurch over the days, weeks and months ahead, I intend to remain particularly alert for unexpected and surprising changes that reflect learning and growth. They have already proven they can take a punch. Now let’s see how this shapes their strategies for the fights that lie ahead.

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