‘Asymmetric’ Helps Define Disaster Resilience (Column)

What does it really mean to obtain disaster resilience, and what does resilience look and feel like?

by / March 28, 2014

The word “asymmetric” is most typically associated with “asymmetric terrorism” in today’s emergency management vocabulary. However, I see the word “asymmetric” as being helpful in defining what we mean by disaster resilience.

Resilience is a fairly new word that’s become almost as popular as “paradigm” was years ago. People drop it into their conversations and writings regularly. My day job even has the title “director of regional disaster resilience.” Sounds good, but what does it really mean to obtain disaster resilience and what does resilience look and feel like?

Resilience isn’t easily defined or executed. It’s the combination of many factors and actions by multiple individuals and groups. Typically it’s not the No. 1 priority for any institution or government, yet taken as a whole, the investments in resilience pay huge dividends when disasters do strike.

Resilience has most frequently been used for the disaster recovery phase of emergency management. Well trained and exercised people make better decisions faster, thus speeding up the response and recovery process. Mitigation measures, when implemented before the disaster, can eliminate or minimize damages from natural and technological disasters, thus providing resilience.

Disasters are becoming almost routine from a news perspective. In the last three years, the federal government has spent an average of $85 billion each year. The number of annual billion-dollar disasters is escalating. While severe weather accounts for most disaster costs, there are other human-caused disasters lurking. Consider that one estimate of the physical damage and economic impacts from the 9/11 terrorist attacks is $178 billion.

You can’t pin the disaster resilience responsibility on just one function of society. Responsibility for resilience is also asymmetric. Governments at all levels, the private sector, nonprofits, tribes, neighborhoods, families and individuals all have responsibility for achieving a measure of resilience. Ever since 9/11, the burden of government funding of preparedness and disaster resilience has shifted to the federal level. While extensive federal grant funding wasn’t supposed to
supplant state and local funding, you only have to look at the budgets of many states and local communities to see that it has replaced state and local dollars that were there before. Now with the drawdown of federal grants, the pinch in emergency management budgets is being felt severely. From a funding standpoint, disaster resilience will suffer until all parties share the funding burden.

Public-private partnerships are also critical if a community and region are to become truly resilient. The significant concentration of critical infrastructure in the private sector begs us to have closer working relationships and plans. The interdependencies between infrastructures and a functioning economy require us to work more harmoniously and to put aside jurisdictional rivalries to achieve stronger regional collaboration. 

While individual deeds are appreciated and single-discipline actions that work to build capabilities enhance resilience, group action that’s multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary becomes a force multiplier when it comes to disaster resilience. To achieve resilience will require “bending” the stovepipes to allow for better coordination and eliminate duplicate efforts.

Lastly, resilience is asymmetric because the path to resilience isn’t predefined. It has many shapes and sizes, all defined by the actions taken, or not taken, by people and institutions as they make their choices in building and designing for the future. 

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

Platforms & Programs