Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 19, 2011

Mitigation is to resilience as storm cellars are to root cellars

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 19, 2011

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:

Resilience: Five principles of good practice

A Super-cell outbreak is one kind of complex threat: Do the principles of good practice apply?

Principles of good practice for advancing resilience: Awareness of complex context and connections

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 19, 2011 @ 4:14 am

Interesting post! I also believe that mitigation supports resilience. While FEMA does little in the way of support to research on disasters [it did so at one time]it does have documentation concluding that the poorer you are the more likely you will NOT perhaps not ever recover from a disaster, even if your life is saved. I believe mitigation costs money but very worthwhile. The funding both by individual and community is very important. There does seem to be a relationship between communities with strong building and zoning enforcement being more resilient. Is it because they do mitigation? Is it because they are richer? Is it because they are more educated? Professor Susan Cutting, PhD, is doing a terrific job studying social vulnerability and disasters. Her work is worth a read as to resilience for individuals and communities.

It does seem that both political parties now race to undercut resilience and the sinews of preparedness. Why one might ask as the research shows such high payoffs of benefits vis a vis costs? Is it because we don’t manage disaster relief as investment but instead as relief?

FEMA’s real job should be to help prevent disasters and promote mitigation and resilience. Unfortunately its basic organization is not set up to do that and yes mitigation is the red-headed step child.

Comment by John Plodinec

October 19, 2011 @ 8:59 am

Enjoyed the post! Resilience – like mitigation – is also a cost effective way to lessen the toll of a disaster. There is some excellent work by Rick Weil at LSU that points out that poorer citizens who were part of a social network (particularly the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and the Village L’Est Vietnamese fishing community) recovered about as rapidly from Katrina as the more affluent. As you say – “Resilience is being enmeshed in a dense network of human relationships.”

I tend to look at mitigation and resilience in terms of the classic loss-recovery curve. Mitigation reduces losses so that there are more resources left available for recovery. Resilience is essentially measured by the area of the curve. Thus, mitigation is an important part of resilience, but not the whole enchilada – er, tomato.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 20, 2011 @ 12:42 am

Susan Cutter apologies!

Comment by Amanda Shinn

October 24, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

“Resilience is the outcome of positive behaviors regularly practiced. Resilience is being aware and appreciative of your environment.” I would also like to add that people should not only appreciate it but also respect it. Environment has power and just because people “don’t believe in tornadoes anymore” doesn’t mean they can not take/harm human life. Regional areas need to recognize the threats that pose the most damage to their area and address ways the public can mitigate accordingly. People that have these cellars that could protect lives during natural disasters that do not use them in the appropriate times is a shame and shows an area of disconnect. Building awareness and emphasizing the importance of such procedures could reconnect people with safety plans and practices. Resiliency includes human life and even just simple practices like using storm cellars contributes to our nations resilience as a whole.

Your correlation between gardening and mitigation is interesting and enlightening.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 25, 2011 @ 4:31 am

Amanda, To be explicit, I think the biggest challenge for mitigation is to find a positive reason to mitigate. We are inclined to underestimate risks, especially less frequent and high consequence risks. Homeland security — and especially counterterrorism — tends to emphasize the negative. If my hypothesis regarding storm cellars and roots cellars has any validity, what can HS do to lead with the positive?

Comment by Amanda Shinn

October 25, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

I think innovation is key in ways that you mention steel reinforcement has been for buildings. Being technologically imaginative and using resources to their utmost potential could produce positive results-especially in the cyber-world. Producing more goods and services as a whole could aid in resiliency and affect other areas of government positively too. I think always being on the defense and countering contributes to the negativity in HS. I find it important for the public/private sector to take an offensive position and a way of doing so in regards to HS could be acknowledging the biggest posed threats while also incorporating ways of mitigating them that contribute to the success of their organization.

Comment by Patrick Casey

October 25, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

Mitigation and Resilience are “complimentary” in many ways and share some of the same core principles, however; resilience picks up where mitigation falls short. Preparing for what we can predict or safely assume, such as a tornado in tornado alley or a hurricane on the coast, is crucial to preserving our way of life. Resilience has long been the post event question mark; will a community, a region, a nation pull itself out of a tragedy, or will chaos and loss continue on? Precautions can be taken to strengthen or mitigate a tragedy such as, improving infrastructure or preparing shelters to address an unavoidable event. Still, the post-event is where the challenge will always be the greatest. Resilience absolute is dependent on human behavior and relationships both post and pre-event. Mitigation can lead to a false sense of security. People can become reliant on authorities or strong infrastructure or the absence of a tragedy over an extended period of time; this leads to humans not only being unprepared physically, but mentally. Being unprepared physically can be overcome by having mental resilience. Lacking mental resilience is almost impossible to overcome; therefore, the worst is still ahead of a person or society.

Discussing, educating, and demonstrating the importance of resilience is the best chance society has to getting back to normalcy after an event. Resilience is the need to always be prepared for the worse and unimaginable as well as, being ready to become self-efficient, and possibly a part of the responds. New York City was praised for being so resilient after 9/11 because so many outsiders and New Yorkers became part of the response to the attacks. New York demonstrated that responds was more than just uniformed officials. Such responders included stores and companies proving goods to assist with clean up, nutriment, treatment, and comfort of the responders as well as, volunteers that gave their time to help with the little things. While we have many Homeland Security stakeholders who are highly trained, good at their jobs, and do mitigate the next tragedy daily, resilience can be the job of all citizens.

Comment by Richard Pincus

October 25, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

Mitigation vs. Resilience: is something that weighs heavily on my mind. Ten years after 9/11 our nation is becoming more resilient than ever and we are more successful in our attempts to mitigate future attacks. So I like the fact that both are part of the same discussion. As a Security Professional and student of Homeland Security, I am asking myself the following questions everyday. Has our government done their part to protect our citizens? Has it learned from its mistakes in its ability to share information while paying closer attention to detail? Has the elitist approach of many of Homeland Security’s 22 agencies been cooperative in their efforts? Our nation’s resiliency in its adaptability for change over the past ten years created a new way of thinking at airports, sporting events etc.. We are getting closer to being more comfortable to our new way of life now more than ever. We’ve adapted to being a nation that is more prepared to go into their storm cellars, seal our windows and open a can of fruit than ever before. Your waitress from the coffee shop is similar to NYC in that she doesn’t think she needs a storm cellar. Before 9/11/01 NYC thought we did not need one on our Homeland either.

I understand how important mitigation is especially since I spend most of my day in NYC. While resilience is what NYC has been a model for I believe we have created a city that is constantly on alert. So the mix of Mitigation and Resiliency has now become our way of life.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 26, 2011 @ 4:00 am

Patrick, So what I hear you suggesting is that while related, mitigation is mostly a physical matter, while resilience is mostly a psycho-social matter. Have I heard you correctly? Is there an approach to mitigation that can/could advance resilience? Can we “mitigate” human behavior that results in more resilient individuals and neighborhoods? Even if we can, is this an appropriate task for homeland security?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 26, 2011 @ 4:05 am

Richard, In regard to your focus on being alert: How does being alert contribute to mitigation? How does being alert contribute to resilience? I think there are important connections, but I sometimes wonder if they require different sorts of attention… and the difference in attention may be crucial to the effectiveness of homeland security.

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