Creating resilient communities in increasingly dynamic environments

By Joshua Shanley

Four major events frame last year’s unprecedented levels of disaster. First, the 2012 North American Drought is expected to be the most costly disaster in the history of the U.S.; encompassing 80 percent of the contiguous United States, it was a factor in 82 deaths across the country. Next, on June 29, a derecho (a fast moving, well organized line of destructive thunderstorms) hammered a large section of the Midwest cutting utilities to 3.7 million customers, killing 22 people and causing damage exceeding $100 million. Further, the 2012 wildfire season scorched an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, causing five deaths, ranking it as the third most destructive on record. Finally, Hurricane Sandy, nearly the size of the European continent, caused flooding and devastated critical infrastructure before colliding with a cold front resulting in snow more than 2 feet in some areas. In total, nearly half the country was affected.

Many have attributed the unusual scope of 2012’s sequence of events to climate change. And while the cause of climate change remains a politically contentious topic, the statistics and trends support that more severe weather and associated damage to critical infrastructure are on the rise. Even FEMA, which had previously been reluctant to embrace quasi-political issues, seems to have accepted that climate change is a reality with the release of the Climate Change Adaptation Policy. Given the generally accepted premise that there is a “new normal” and major storms will continue to disrupt critical infrastructure, what can be done to create more resilient communities?

Resiliency is not simply about making physical improvements to critical infrastructure that protects against severe weather. Municipal departments, state agencies and the general public alike need to think longer term. The path to designing and building more resilient communities requires a reworking of what has, until now, been considered adequate.

In a perfect world, mitigation efforts (recognition that emergencies will happen and building systems that reduce negative impacts and facilitate expedient recoveries) would be at a level where the overall disruption to day-to-day activity is minimal. In addition, adaptation efforts would also be implemented. However, solutions that address both mitigation and adaptation can often be discarded because of cost and the difficulty of obtaining cooperation of multiple stakeholders.

Therefore, proposals to tackle these issues should begin with cross-cutting strategies. That means recognizing the investment, priorities and conflicts of all parties; developing no-regrets policies that have limited downsides; and implementing safe-to-fail programs that take all of the associated complexities into account and can be considered successful even if only partially adopted by all partners at the table. That blended approach is required to move toward solving those complicated problems.

Natural resources must also be taken into account. On one hand, it is vital to recognize the importance of embracing renewable resources. On the other, it is vital to build systems that are designed to withstand changing weather patterns that test the extreme ends of the designed parameters of the existing critical infrastructure. By incorporating a combination of emerging technologies from the fields of civil engineering, architecture, energy and environmental science, communities can be built with systems that reduce risk and increase efficiencies.

It’s estimated that an investment of $2.2 trillion is needed just to bring current systems up to an acceptable level. When natural hazards increase in intensity, the impact to aging infrastructure is going to result in a longer, more expensive recovery phase.

The easiest emergency to manage is the one that doesn't happen. We must embrace an approach that is based on both mitigation and adaptation. Or, as the United Nations noted in the 2010 report on climate change, "avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable."

Joshua Shanley is adjunct faculty at Kaplan University in the School of Public Safety and has been a firefighter-paramedic for more than 20 years. He participated in the response to the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and again in 2001. He is currently the Emergency Management Coordinator in Northampton, Mass.

**(Editor’s note – This article was submitted prior to the tragic tornados which recently tore through Oklahoma. Omission of this disaster is due, solely, to the date of composition, and is not intended as an oversight.)

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 6, 2013

The current argument that tighter building codes are a unfunded government mandate on our citizens simply shifts the costs of disaster mitigation to emergency responders.

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