The new National Preparedness Goal is “a secure and resilient Nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.”
The upgrade given mitigation is arguably the most important policy shift represented in the NPG. Mitigate now joins Prevent, Protect, Respond, and Recover as “Mission Areas.” Once the red-headed stepchild of preparedness, mitigate has — at least intellectually — been fully accepted as a strategic priority.
According to the NPG several “core capabilities” are necessary to achieve the mitigation mission area, including:
- Community Resilience
- Long-term Vulnerability Reduction
- Risk and Disaster Resilience Assessment
- Threats and Hazard Identification
The details of these capabilities are not — yet — specified. The forthcoming National Preparedness System is likely to provide much more. All of these capabilities have significant pedigrees in both research and practice.
There has tended to be an engineering orientation to mitigation. Fifty-four of 77 examples in the FEMA Mitigation Best Practices Portfolio relate to flooding. A specific threat is identified, vulnerabilities related to the threat are assessed, risk is reduced usually through some change in the built environment. You can see this same logic embedded in the capability list. All of this is helpful and works for earthquakes, wildfires, industrial accidents, and terrorism too.
According to the NPG mitigation is, “The capabilities necessary to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters.” Unpacking the definition, this suggests that community resilience (see capability list above) contributes to mitigation.
As a strategic principle I would turn this around: mitigation contributes to community resilience. Resilience and mitigation can be complementary. But they are also quite distinct. The very best mitigation cannot ensure resilience. Nor does less-than-full mitigation negate the possibility of significant resilience. If I had to choose, I would choose resilience over mitigation.
Fortunately, we don’t have to choose. Attention to both mitigation and resilience is helpful.
The NPG defines resilience as, “The ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”
The use of steel reinforcement to allow buildings to sway with an earthquake is an example of both mitigation and resilience. The ability of the Internet to allow information-packets to find multiple open channels and opportunistically use whatever is available is another example of resilient design that can mitigate the impact of a threat.
But resilience and especially community resilience is much more than mitigating impact.
Last Thursday I was driving a narrow road through rural Virginia when the radio sounded a tornado warning. The rain and wind were already strong. At the first opportunity I pulled off at a convenience store to allow the tornado, about five miles ahead, to finish its run Northeast.
Paying for coffee and a cookie I asked the sales clerk if she had heard the tornado warning. Glancing at the rain lashing the windows she replied, “Nope. No radio. Grew up in Oklahoma thought I’d gotten away from ’em. ”
I showed her the tornado’s track on my smartphone’s screen.
“Funny thing. Both my grands (grandparents) had storm cellars, purpose built in the backyard,” she said. “We never did and no basement neither. Just a ranch house on a slab. Was like we don’t believe in tornadas no more.”
The storm cellars — my mother’s parents in Oklahoma also had one — are examples of mitigation. But as the sales clerk observed, before mitigation there was something the authors of the NPG would no doubt call “Threat and Hazard Identification” (this is tornado alley) and “Risk and Disaster Resilience Assessment” (I need a place to be protected from a tornado) which leads to “Long-term Vulnerability Reduction” (I will build a storm cellar). In other words, our grandparents actively acknowledged a realistic threat.
On May 22 the residents of Joplin, Missouri were alerted to a Tornado Watch at 1:30 PM local time. A Tornado Warning was br0adcast at 5:09. Sirens were sounded at 5:11. The killer tornado touched down southwest of Joplin at 5:34. According to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “The majority of surveyed Joplin residents did not immediately go to shelter upon hearing the initial warning.” There were 159 deaths and several hundred injuries.
“Was like we don’t believe in tornadas no more.”
I was never in a storm cellar during a storm. Several times I was in the cellar to retrieve a sack of potatoes or a jar of preserves. Most storm cellars were also used to store what was harvested from the garden. Every storm cellar I can remember was dug next to the garden.
You can argue that gardening is also a mitigation measure (against hunger). But that would squeeze all the joy out of it. My father’s parents owned grocery stores, but were also gardeners. I have never had such luscious tomatoes, fresh or canned, since they stopped gardening.
Here’s my hypothesis: As gardening declined and home refrigeration increased, storm (root) cellars fell into disuse, eventual disrepair, became a hazard themselves, and were filled in. The prospect of tornadoes was not sufficient to sustain the mitigation activity. The need for a cool dark place to store vegetables was a crucial indirect motivation for the mitigation.
We never really believed in “tornadas”, but once upon a time we believed in tomatoes (and green beans and peas and potatoes) and retrieving the taste of an August garden deep into February.
Resilience is the outcome of positive behaviors regularly practiced. Resilience is being aware and appreciative of your environment. Resilience is being enmeshed in a dense network of human relationships. Resilience is caring for yourself and others.
Resilience is about tomatoes. Mitigation is about tornadoes.
For a more technical take on resilience: