What Is Disaster Resilience?

Here are a couple definitions for you to consider.

by Eric Holdeman / December 10, 2014

I expect that what is meant by disaster resilience will be fought over for many years and there will never be total agreement as to the meaning. So to add fuel to the fire here are two different definitions for you to consider. One short, another longer.

For the shorter of the two consider this National Academy of Sciences definition that comes from the study Disaster Resilience, A National Imperative. In the executive summary there's this: "Resilience is the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to adverse events." I like the use of the word "absorb," something I've not seen used much. And tagging on "adapt" at the end is where I am today on resilience. It is more than just bouncing back to our current fragile state.

Then David Maack, a local emergency manager from Wisconsin, sent me his musings on the topic. See the following:

Resiliency is a hot topic. It’s being talked about in emergency management circles and conferences are being planned around that theme. Even the Rockefeller Foundation is on board. They are awarding $100 million to cities willing to create chief resilience officers to prepare for and recover from disasters that have increased in frequency and intensity due to climate change.

But what is resiliency? What does a resilient community look like?

According to the Rand Corporation, resilience is the ability of communities to withstand and recover from disasters as well as to learn from past disasters to strengthen future response and recovery efforts. In other words, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative describes a resilient city as “one that learns from the past, rebounds quickly, operates flexibly and maintains vital resources.”

On paper that makes sense but in reality, is it practical? From complacency to dwindling resources, there are barriers in every community which hinder resiliency. Resilient communities learn from the past. However, if one perceives that they live in a “disaster free zone,” apathy and complacency can set in. However, I have also seen communities that experienced a major disaster who thought that now that they had their “big one,” they were no longer vulnerable.

A resilient community is aware of the risks around them and they understand their vulnerabilities. They in turn take the steps to prepare, adapt and make the changes necessary to withstand the “storms” that may come their way. They have learned from the past, mitigated vulnerabilities and built redundancy into their processes.

According to emergency management blogger Eric Holdeman, "redundancy is the built-in capability to continue operations when people and systems are stressed and begin to fail.” In other words, a resilient community is built on no single point of failure. That’s why we back up computer files or have more than one way to warn a population. However, redundancy can often be mistaken for “duplication.” While they may appear to be similar and some may use those words interchangeably, they really have two different meanings.

It is a given that we do not want to “duplicate” efforts, and it makes no sense to have people tripping over each other trying to do the same thing. Processes can be streamlined and made more efficient, even in the aftermath of a disaster. However, “just in time” and “lean principle systems” can also be a hindrance to recovery if goods and supplies are unavailable when needed. Finding a balance is essential for a community and an organization to be resilient. That’s where strong partnerships and relationships are essential.

A whole community approach must be utilized and community resources leveraged to address the issues a community faces, especially during the recovery phase of a disaster. A resilient community recognizes that a top-down approach will not work. Instead, it is a partnership between the public and private sector and non-government organizations, including faith-based groups.

Finally a resilient community remains flexible as it “springs” back from a setback. It adapts to the new normal and takes the opportunity to strengthen the health, environmental, social and economic systems.

While there are challenges to becoming a resilient community, the payback will be measurable as a community rebounds from adversity.

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