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How the Shocks of Disasters are Impacted by the Stresses of Social Issues

Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, addresses resilience.

by Jim McKay / February 8, 2017

Michael Berkowitz is the president of 100 Resilient Cities, the Rockefeller Foundation program that facilitates the adoption and incorporation of resilience in cities to shocks, such as earthquakes, fires and floods, and stresses like poverty and other social issues. The 100 cities chosen include 23 in the U.S. and represent 48 countries across six continents.

Berkowitz was previously the global head of Operational Risk Management for Deutsche Bank, and from 1998 to 2005 was deputy commissioner for the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Q: Can you give me a progress report on how 100 Resilient Cities is going?
What I would say about the U.S. cities is that because we get such chronic natural disasters — whether it’s earthquakes in the West or the hurricane belt or tornado alley or wildfires — we’ve got it all, and because of that people understand why cities need to be more resilient. That has been an easy sell in that way. The second thing is, in the U.S., unlike other places in the world, you have strong cities and strong mayors, generally. Because you have strong, active, innovative mayors, they’ve really taken the challenge of making their cities stronger, safer, more sustainable, more resilient.

Q: Is there a way to measure progress to this point?
The answer is sort of. What we’re trying to do is make it so cities have better outcomes when they face disasters, and not just the sudden disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorism, hazmat things, but also the slow-burn disasters like long-term food, water and energy shortages, high levels of crime and violence as you’re seeing in several U.S. cities now, or shifting macroeconomic trends.

Think of Detroit, the one city that’s almost been wiped off the face of the map that wasn’t because of Hurricane Sandy or Katrina or the Loma Prieta earthquake. The city was almost wiped off the map because it was overexposed to a single industry — the American automobile industry that became less competitive. So when we think of resilience we’re thinking about this in a very broad sense, and what we want are better outcomes to all of these events, and that is hard to measure.

There are two answers to where the measurements are going. One is at a city level, a system-of-systems level we’re rolling out. One is called the City Resilience Index. It’s 150 or so variables on 12 drivers, and it’s based on the City Resilience Framework on our website. It recognizes all the interdependencies between what actually helps cities survive disasters that is a good public health and emergency response, but it’s also cohesive communities that have strong institutions where neighbors check on neighbors, where people trust the government institutions that serve them, and where law and order is administered in a fair and equitable way. It’s good infrastructure, the built environment, but also the natural environment; it’s integrated planning with strong stakeholders at the table. All of those things help cities survive disaster.

The City Resilience Framework and the Index help measure that. And that’s early days and it’s complex, and even though it’s well crafted, it may not show us the things we want it to show us. To understand how this thing is working, we have much more tactical measurements. The question is, do cities hire chief resilience officers? Do they place them in the right place, close to the mayor?

Do they do good, holistic, resilient strategies? Do they execute on the initiatives outlined in those strategies? Do they use those strategies to catalyze funding and other resources and from the federal government, the private sector, state actors? Do the cities, once our funding runs out, rehire the chief resilience officers or let that go? Do they empower the chief resilience officers?

Our assumptions are, if they do those things, then yes, they will have better outcomes. But it’s not until you measure it at the highest level — the City Resilience Framework and Index — that you really know.

Q: You mentioned the interdependencies. Can you address the relationships between some of the challenges, such as poverty and violence and natural disasters like floods?

I’ve been in this business a long time, and it wasn’t until this job that it really struck me that the risk of New Orleans to natural hazards, specifically coastal storms and hurricanes, is as much related to how warm the Gulf of Mexico is, how far below sea level the city is and what strength the flood protections are that the Army Corps of Engineers set up — as it is the fact that New Orleans has large populations that have poor access to jobs so transportation almost always requires a car. Until recently the city’s institutions were failing its citizens; until recently you had poorly performing schools and so on. What you saw after Katrina was every bit as related to Katrina as it was to the fact that Katrina happened.

That’s on the risk side. How do we see those things as connected and then pivot to the intervention, the opportunity side? One of the things that New Orleans is trying to do is to diversify its job base away from petrochemicals because the city is incredibly reliant on the oil industry in the Gulf. Ultimately that industry is going to change, and then what will happen to those parishes around New Orleans?

One of the things they are doing, and they outlined this in their resilience strategy is to say, “We get chronic flooding and we need to better manage water events and flooding events in our city, both the catastrophic ones like hurricanes and also the year-in, year-out severe chronic flooding that comes from rainfall and so on. We’re going to incubate a water management industry much the way the Dutch did it, and that’s going to help fix both our flooding problems, and innovate new ways to deal with flooding through green infrastructure and export.

There are many thousands of cities around the world that struggle with that as well, and we can also wean ourselves off the petrochemical industry.” That’s a connection between both trying to protect yourself from a natural hazard like flooding as well as solving some of your social and economic issues. That’s what we call the resilience dividend. You do it for one thing, to reduce day-in, day-out flooding in New Orleans, and you get this other benefit of providing a bigger, more diverse middle-class job space.

Another story is this tale of two blackouts in New York City. There was a big blackout in 1977, Summer of Sam, when New York was really at one of its lowest points in generations. And there was also a blackout in 2003, and I ran the EOC that night.

In 1977 you saw rioting and looting for days, if not a week, and things went very poorly. In 2003, I was in the EOC eating Fig Newtons and drinking American Red Cross coffee, but many people report checking on their neighbors, bringing the old lady up a bag of groceries because the elevator was broken, getting a bottle of wine and going on the roof, and that’s the difference — it’s the same shock and yet there were two totally different outcomes.

When you look at where the city was in 1977, it had just gone bankrupt, you had crime at 3,000 murders a year, you had infrastructure that was falling apart, schools that couldn’t perform. Fast-forward 20-odd years later to 2003 and the city is in a much different place. It has better infrastructure, transportation is in better shape, the schools are better, the macroeconomic outlook is better, and the other thing is we’re only two years removed from 9/11, and there was a sense of unity in the city with people looking out for each other.

I remember in the EOC in 2003, there was a pizza place around the corner that pulled cars up onto the sidewalk to shine the lights in so they could fire up the ovens and make pizza for the EOC. It’s that kind of togetherness that is really the differential between cities.

Q: It seems like years ago we were having discussions about how there wasn’t enough emphasis on recovery after natural disasters. That changed to resilience, and the discussion seems to be going back and forth between those two. How do we reconcile those two? Are they the same, different?

I think of resilience as most closely related to mitigation, rather than recovery. You could make mitigation plans by putting up money for seawalls or berms or house elevation, and that’s all good, but if you look at the most progressive mitigation plans across the country, they look a lot like resilience plans. They are trying to marry the stuff you do in the communities — where your cooling centers are, how you can engage with residents ahead of the disaster, where the CERT programs are. All of that is risk mitigation.

Cities don’t often spend a ton of time looking strategically. Even with a high-functioning city government like New York, you’re still just fighting fires going from one crisis to the next. And what resilience thinking tries to do is allow city officials to take that step back. The chief resilience officer is often one of the few people in city government empowered and charged to take a more strategic look and say, “How can we connect what’s already going on in emergency management and transportation and the department of buildings and community development, and connect that in the right way that mitigates the most risk?”

But mitigation is still connected to recovery. You can’t think about recovery after the fact.
Regardless of how prepared you are, you still are going to be impacted by events, and what we’re trying to do is, as my boss says, manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable. No matter how much risk mitigation we do up front, we will still be impacted by events. What resilience and recovery try to do is manage those in a way that reduces the impact as much as possible.

Q: Are there challenges getting people to the table? It takes quite an effort from a lot of different entities to make things move I would think.

We had a thousand applications for the 100 spots, and we got to be more and more selective in which cities we picked. And we picked cities that had mayors that are really interested in doing this kind of work. This wasn’t going to be easy. Silos exist and they’re powerful and strong. What emergency managers and resilience practitioners try to do is bust those silos, and that isn’t easy, but it’s a lot better if you have a mayor who’s committed.

We got to cherry-pick the best 100 cities where the mayors were committed, and even then it’s a struggle. One trick that’s been really interesting is to put goals out there that aren’t silo based.
In one New York City resilience strategy that we helped create, they had a goal that all New Yorkers would live within a 40-minute sustainable commute — bus, walk, train, not car — of 40,000 good jobs. And they had a way of measuring that metric. That’s not just a problem for the housing department or transportation or economic development. It’s thinking about all three of those things.

Maybe the solution is to push economic development out of the two central business districts, which are midtown and downtown, into the boroughs to make the jobs actually closer to the people. That has lots of benefits for resilience and risk mitigation because you start to diversify the tiny Manhattan clusters. Maybe it’s around housing or transportation.

Getting those people to think about a single goal in that kind of way helps. Getting a mayor or first deputy mayor to come in and hold people to the fire on it is the special sauce.

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