Disaster Resilience: Reflections from a National Conference

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Disaster Resilience: Reflections from a National Conference

For three days in January 2013, a thousand scientists, policy experts, and disaster-prevention practitioners gathered in Washington, DC to develop strategies to make communities more resilient and sustainable in the face of more frequent and severe environmental disasters.

Most of the authors in this issue of Solutions were present at this conference. As conference Chairman, I will highlight a few cross-cutting ideas that emerged from synthesizing nearly 200 recommendations from 23 workshops, as well as a special symposium on resilience and sustainability led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and chaired by Joseph Fiksel and Alan Hecht.

Boundaries and Bridges

Everyone is aware of the importance of working across traditional boundaries; engaging not just with scientists, engineers, policymakers, and practitioners, but also with those folks who are directly threatened by environmental problems. The heroes who make their communities resilient are the same ones who make them worthwhile places to live, and magically appear in a crisis to rescue, heal, calm, and help rebuild—your neighbors. “Bridging” organizations and processes work over the long term to produce resources such as preparedness plans for the next hurricane/tornado/drought/flood/earthquake—you name it. When anticipating those possibilities, communities that actively engage science, policy, practice, and social capital become more and more resilient. January’s gathering produced many specific examples of how this unfolds in different situations, but at their core is a recognition of the boundaries that exist and a deep commitment to bridging them.

Resilience’s Wisdom Hierarchy

Resilience is wisdom applied to communities. We have all seen the pyramid—data is the base, then information, then knowledge, and at the apex, wisdom. If only it were that simple. The complexity arises because many different people, processes, and organizations are involved in each section of the pyramid. The wisdom of resilience requires integration of data and knowledge (just among government agencies would be a great start). Scientists and other scholars mine the data to discern patterns and extract information. When they work together with practitioners (say biologists with urban planners) then the knowledge of “how to” is revealed (like how to use a wetland for storm protection). When they share that knowledge through public education, wisdom flowers—even politicians get smarter. Suddenly wetland “buffers” appear in zoning ordinances and your basement stays dry when the next storm hits.

Research and Development, Resilience and Seed Corn

Who builds the lower levels of the “wisdom pyramid”? Just as farmers invest in seed corn to plant, successful societies invest in research and development because it creates the data, information, and knowledge needed to make a community resilient (as well as safe and prosperous). While much of this involves scientists working in academia or government labs, critical parts of it involve practitioners and communities. Think about research on construction in fire, flood, earthquake, and coastal zones; or on infrastructure risk and vulnerability; or on lifeline services like electricity, water, and food.

The Time and Tide of Resilience

Disasters are usually short term “surges” atop long term trends—the storm surge atop sea level rise; the wildfire atop long term suppression of fire; the drought atop increased aridity from climate change. Resilient communities match these trends and surges through long term adaptation and preparedness for emergencies.

Remember the Serenity Prayer? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Resilient communities recognize that while they must accept things like population growth, climate change, and dysfunctional politics that exist above their scale of operation, there is much—in fact, a great deal—that they can change. By planning, preparing, and adapting, and by enhancing and tapping the natural and social capital of their communities, they will become more resilient.

As the old Chinese proverb reminds us, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The journey to resilience will be many, many steps. Those who gathered in January identified and committed themselves to taking steps together. The pages of this issue of Solutions include many additional steps. It is our time to walk.