Building Disaster Resilience

Unfortunately, often the use of the word resilience is used as an excuse to not do any mitigation.

by Eric Holdeman / March 19, 2018

Resilience is a buzz word currently being tossed around and twisted to meet the criteria of the writer, grant proposal or academic looking to publish a paper. One could argue that you are looking to establish resilience in every aspect of the four phases of emergency management. In reality, resilience is added to a community only when there is a singular focus on disaster mitigation. Unfortunately, often the use of the word resilience is used as an excuse to not do any mitigation.

Today, our emergency management system is being caught in the whirlpool of disaster response and recovery. These two elements of the emergency management system are sucking all the energy, in the form of time and funding out of people and organizations. 2017 saw FEMA chasing its tail, going from one disaster to the next, shifting people, resources, and priorities from one disaster to the next.

The only phase of emergency management that can end this cycle of destruction and rebuilding, in the same way, in the same place—is disaster mitigation. While mitigation may have some funding, compared to the costs of disaster response and recovery, they swamp what little funding is available for mitigation.

To break this hold on disaster response and recovery it would be wise to reexamine a previous program that was ended when one presidential administration replace another and the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. This program was named Project Impact.

The following key elements are what made Project Impact a success:

1.    The program was envisioned by and supported in a consistent manner by the then FEMA Director.
2.    Maximum flexibility was provided to grant recipients in using the funding, as long as the money was spent on disaster mitigation.
3.    Public – private sector partnerships were encouraged. In actuality the program could have been called Project Partnership.
4.    FEMA Regions provided technical assistance and partnered with the local jurisdictions selected to receive funding.
5.    Funding was use for planning, events and program elements, not for the purchase of equipment.
6.    One major aspect of the program was the building up of human capital within a community by grass roots efforts. These people to people contacts built social capital, and an understanding of the value of mitigation among those who could benefit most from it.
7.    FEMA hosted a national meeting each year at a Washington, D.C. hotel where communities exchanged information on their projects and there was a celebration awards dinner and program that capped off the week of sharing.

Project Impact was kicked off by the awarding of $1 million grants to six cities. Subsequent grants were smaller, but the funding in that era was significant, e.g. $300, 000 per awardee. Event at its zenith, the national program was only approximately $20 million per year. Communities that participated in the program had strong ownership for the efforts that were extended in the community. Ironically, the program was ended on Feb. 21, 2001, a date that coincided with the Western Washington Nisqually Earthquake. Even with the discontinuance of the Federal program, many communities continued their mitigation efforts.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks and new leadership at FEMA and then the Department of Homeland Security turned all efforts, federal, state and local toward terrorism. This priority of funding was not semi-corrected until the failures of Katrina became evident and the pendulum swung back to a more balanced all-hazard approach. Mitigation has never become the focal point that it had been for a period of approximately five years during which Project Impact existed.