The following post is by Andrew J. Phelps. I invited Mr. Phelps to “respond” to my post above which was a reaction to his comment last week. His response is considerably more than a response-to-a-response and deserves this separate posting. (Philip J. Palin)
I have no idea what the title of this post means. I don’t know if I could accurately define or describe “synergy”, “resilience”, or “paradigm”. I have ideas of what they may mean and I have used them all, probably incorrectly, in talks, presentations, and my writing. I have a problem, however, with the word resilience. So much so that I jumped at the opportunity to dig a little deeper into my derision for that word when asked by the folks at Homeland Security Watch.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s recently announced 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge is aimed at creating 100 local CROs (Chief Resilience Officers) “to oversee the development of a resilience strategy for (their) city”. Reading about this well-intentioned initiative made me wonder if the concept of “resilience” is truly understood by the policy-makers asking communities to become more resilient. I do not believe it is. My two-part understanding of resilience in the context of disasters and catastrophes in a community is this:
- One, the ability of a community to quickly begin recovering from a disaster and continue the provision of services;
- and two, a community’s capacity to return to its pre-disaster “shape” (a rubber-band is resilient, in that as it is pulled and stretched, it always returns back to its original size and shape. Unless it breaks. In which case, it is beyond repair and perhaps lacked sufficient “resiliency”).
My first understanding of resiliency speaks to two critical components of emergency planning: Recovery (both short and long-term) and Continuity of Operations/Government. My second understanding just sounds like a bad idea to me and one I would not be comfortable explaining it as an optional path following a disaster to my elected officials:
Governor: Our state has been devastated by XYZ disaster. We need to show we are resilient.
Emergency Manager: How would you like us to demonstrate that?
Governor: By returning everything to how it was before the disaster.
Emergency Manager: Okay. But doesn’t that mean we will remain vulnerable to this same disaster in the future? Apparently “normal” wasn’t doing the trick and we had this horrible disaster. Maybe “normal” isn’t where we want to be…
Governor: Good point. So… we need to show we are beyond resilient; that we are forward-thinking and vow to re-build stronger than before so we won’t have to go through this again. I shall convene a blue-ribbon panel of experts to devise a strategy that will allow-
Emergency Manager: Governor, if I may, we have already done that. It’s our Hazard Mitigation Plan, full of project ideas designed specifically for that purpose. Why don’t we look at some of those projects that will allow us to be “beyond resilient” and rebuild our community so there is less of an impact next time and we don’t need to do as much “bouncing back”?
I think the idea of a resilience officer duplicates the current efforts of emergency managers to build a collaborative space in which subject matter experts from government agencies across all levels of government, the private sector, non-profit organizations, and the community served by the emergency manager develop plans, strategies, training and exercise initiatives, and resource acquisitions to address what it sounds like the Rockefeller Foundation envisions being addressed by a Resilience Officer.
Here is what I believe:
Communities are inherently resilient.
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been recovering, even in light of a national economic down turn and a second disaster, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak. I understand New Orleans has not fully recovered, however a study released in February, 2013 showed that between 2010 and 2011 it was the fastest growing city in the US and as of July, 2011 (5 years after the disaster) had 90% of its 2000 population. That same study showed the New Orleans metro area had a 0.6% increase in jobs while the rest of the country had a 3% decrease between 2007 and 2012. The referenced study does show some areas where New Orleans is not doing so well, especially in terms of violent crime and affordable housing, but it certainly is not allowing itself to wash away into the Mississippi delta. I imagine that New Orleans is not seeking to resiliently return to its pre-Katrina condition, but to recover to a state better than its pre-Katrina condition.
There is no community in the US that I can think of that has been impacted by a disaster in the last 100 years that has not recovered. After a disaster, our communities are not abandoned. They come back. Some quickly, some slowly, but they come back. West, Texas will come back. Moore, Oklahoma will come back. Who will be leading those comebacks? It won’t be a Chief Resilience Officer. It will be planners, SMEs from all corners of government, the private sector, non-profit organizations, and members of the community.
Resilience is the new All Hazards
Most every profession has a short-hand (even the NIMS-indoctrinated, plain-text homeland security crowd). As I began my pursuit of a career in Emergency Management everyone was talking about an All Hazards approach. Of course, it didn’t mean we were planning for every hazard under the sun; it is shorthand meaning that we were planning for all of the hazards that could impact our community. I recently mentioned the all-hazards planning approach while giving a talk to a community organization where I live and work in New Mexico. A puzzled audience member asked why we would be preparing for all hazards when things like tsunamis and hurricanes wouldn’t really impact us. It occurred to me that the words we use and concepts we understand are not necessarily understood by people outside of our field, though that does not prevent elected officials, policy makers, or philanthropists from using them, regardless of their own lack of understanding. The further we get from the meaning of our own shorthand, the more cloudy our mission becomes, both to us and our communities. Instead of throwing around a term like “resilience” or “all-hazards” and assuming people know what we are talking about, let us break those concepts down into its individual parts and really explain the role of hazard and risk identification and assessment, mitigation, recovery and operational continuity planning and its importance. People are smart and don’t need us to “Reader’s Digest” everything into small words. These are big and important ideas. Let’s not throw them away.
I do not know that a CRO is sustainable, but believe sustainability is critical to resiliency.
The Rockefeller Foundation wants to distribute $100 million among 100 cities with the goal of making communities more “resilient”. My math can be shaky, but since I have time to use a calculator I have figured out that this comes to $1 million per community. The idea is that this money will be used to fund a Chief Resilience Officer charged with overseeing resiliency initiatives like a resilience plan and improvements to infrastructure to increase their resilience. If the recent FEMA Community Resilience Innovation Challenge is any indication of what some of those projects may be, we will see the creation of mobile communication vehicles and the purchase of emergency generators, but likely with even less accountability than current homeland security grant programs that have already given hundreds of millions of dollars to projects just like those. And in the blink of an eye, the community has blown through their million dollars, has a new position they either need to pay for or get rid of, and another plan tucked onto its already-too-full shelf; a plan that is in all likelihood a mash-up of existing continuity of operations, hazard mitigation, recovery and emergency response plans. And Harold Hill has moved on to the next town.
I also question how a community could assess the return on investment of a CRO, but I suspect that it could be measured in much the same way the return on investment can be measured for emergency managers (grant funds brought in to a community, contact with citizens during preparedness presentations, more efficient response times, etc.), in which case, what would be done by a CRO that is not already being done by someone. We also need to be adaptable to a changing world and maintain our ability to improvise to dynamic situations like disasters, but I don’t think we need a Director of Adaptability or Improviser in Chief.
Blog posts are the new psychotherapy, a chance to work through demons. The difference is the opportunity for strangers to comment on how well, or how poorly, you’ve done. I am grateful to Philip Palin and the HLS Watch for providing me an opportunity to have worked through my deep-seated hatred for the word resilience. I look forward to a continued exchange of ideas. We emergency managers, mayors, governors, fire and police chiefs, urban planners, corporate executives, community organizers and concerned citizens need to incorporate the concepts that are commonly understood as contributing to a community’s resilience into our planning. This means looking at climate change as a hazard to be mitigated and above all else, ensuring our communities can continue to progress, not regress or remain static, following a devastating tornado, wildfire, or pandemic. Many communities already do this formally, I believe all do informally.
Resilience is not a bad word, and the Rockefeller’s Resilience Challenge is not a bad idea. It has perhaps given emergency management a hair cut, so now people will look at emergency management in another way and say “you look… different. Good, but different.” And emergency managers should say “thank you” and keep doing what we are doing, but perhaps with a little more money in our budgets and, even better from the perspective of my office chair, more understanding and support of what we are trying to accomplish.