Chief Resilience Officers: Coming to Your City?

Chief resilience officers begin to guide cities toward a future that’s better prepared for physical, social and economic challenges.

by / September 15, 2014
San Francisco was one of the first cities to hire a chief resilience officer as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge. Shutterstock

Resiliency is a difficult term to pin down. Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s chief resilience officer, the first under the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, in reflecting on the foundation’s message, defines it this way: “It’s how a city continues to thrive and bounce back from acute shocks and chronic stresses.”

Those shocks and stresses come from a multitude of factors and situations, including hazards such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods to poverty, terrorism and violence. By sponsoring a two-year grant for a chief resilience office, the Rockefeller Foundation is offering the chosen cities an opportunity to help mitigate those shocks and stresses. Ten of the 32 cities named so far are in the U.S.

In San Francisco, seismic activity is, of course, the No. 1 stressor, while in nearby Oakland, violence and social inequity are major issues, along with earthquakes. East Coast cities like Norfolk, Va., and New York City are vulnerable to flooding from tropical storms, while El Paso, Texas, is susceptible to drought and resource scarcity. Those are examples of the challenges the new chief resilience officers will be wrangling with as they try to improve their city’s resilience.

The Rockefeller Foundation received nearly 400 applications from cities across six continents for the program, which will provide the resources for the resilience officer and technical support for two years.

Otellini (pictured at left) was hired this spring, the first among the 10 chosen U.S. cities. He was a natural fit, having served Mayor Ed Lee as director of earthquake safety since 2012, and prior to that having worked on the city’s Soft Story Task Force, an effort to retrofit vulnerable San Francisco buildings.

He said the new position, although a boon to the city, is a step in the direction he was already traveling. But it’s not just retrofitting vulnerable buildings so they don’t fall down in an earthquake. There are social and economic components to it and that’s part of developing a resilient city.

“It’s not about the government coming in and telling a private property owner, ‘Hey, you need to do this retrofit,’ because that in and of itself is not a compelling enough reason,” Otellini said. But, he said, consider that shelter capacity in San Francisco is 60,000 residents and if the city were to lose just the structurally weak buildings, those shelters would be full. If those 60,000 people could shelter in place, it would make recovery and a return to normalcy much faster.

Economically there are 2,300 small businesses that employ 7,000 people in those buildings, and those are the kinds of businesses that may not have continuity insurance or a viable way to recover if they lost operations for a month.

Those soft story buildings are the “low-hanging fruit” though. What Otellini hopes will come from this campaign is a comprehensive long-term recovery plan. “We have great response plans here but we are not prepared yet for a major recovery that takes two or three years and that’s where I think it’s a real advantage for San Francisco to be a part of this network.”

It’s not just about earthquakes but also overall resilience, and that’s where being a part of a network is beneficial. “A big cornerstone of our strategy is sea-level rise,” Otellini said. “It’s going to be a major impact to the Bay Area considering we have an eastern seawall that’s not ready to deal with what we anticipate sea-level rise will be in the next 50 or 100 years.”

That’s where collaboration with other chief resilience officers can come into play. “I’m not an expert in sea-level rise but it’s my job and duty to be a conduit to the right people,” he said. “What’s helpful is the Rockefeller Foundation vetting these people at a very high level so when we’re talking to these platform people, they’re offering us something as part of a network.”

While each officer will have different challenges, they will collaborate on how each goes about the job. “We’re all thinking the same thing but we’re seeing how we apply it locally,” Otellini said.

And in a big city like San Francisco, where government can sometimes work in silos, part of the job will be to reach across those silos to make things happen. Otellini reports to Mayor Lee, which will let him go directly to people at the department head level rather than jump through all the “strata” if he were based out of another department. 

Working with the private sector will be paramount to success and that means speaking to companies on their own terms, including business continuity and conveying to them that participating in a resilience plan could mean saving their business.

“They’ll ask, ‘Why should I do that?’ I’ll say, ‘What does it cost to be out of business for a day or a week or a month?’” said Otellini. “Even if you look at one day, that cost is usually offset, it’s twice what it would be to do a seismic evaluation of the building.”

That’s been a successful approach to getting businesses to think about getting back to normal after an earthquake, Otellini said. “You can show them the math — that every dollar spent now saves four after a disaster.”

Economic and Neighborhood Resilience

On the other coast, Norfolk, Va., hired Christine Morris for the same position in late June. Norfolk’s attraction is the water but that’s also the threat: the potential for catastrophic flooding from tropical storms. The threats differ from San Francisco’s, but the framework, goals and missions are similar: empower the community so residents aren’t helpless when shocks and stresses occur.

During her first four months on the job, Morris will be identifying community assets related to coastal, economic and neighborhood resilience.

Norfolk thrives, in large part, because of its relationship with water, but that must be managed to mitigate catastrophic flooding. Managing it doesn’t mean finding a way to disperse the water, but living with it. The idea of resilience is to manage water in a way that it mitigates the expected increase in sea rise and at the same time maximizes access and enjoyment of the resource.

One aspect of creating resilience is dealing with poverty. That doesn’t directly relate to tropical storms or flooding, but poverty can reduce a community’s resilience to disaster. “Resilience as defined by the Rockefeller Foundation is the ‘capacity of individuals and communities and systems to survive, adapt and grow in the face of stress and shocks and even transform themselves when conditions require it,’” Morris said. Poverty restricts those capabilities, so job options, living wages and financial resources all affect people’s ability to adapt to a changing environment.

“You may say that because you can keep the electricity on, you are resilient, but if your citizens can’t pay their bills, access services and contribute to the economic fabric of the community, you aren’t going to be able to weather the storms coming your way,” she said.

Norfolk’s resilience method will be a whole community one because, as Morris said, sometimes each individual neighborhood knows better than a city official what makes that community thrive. For the campaign to be successful, city leaders must know and understand their communities and what changes residents see as best to make it more resilient. Morris said that’s the whole point of the Rockefeller framework: to understand the community, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and then address each appropriately.

Work has already been done in Norfolk to spot community assets and strengths that can be accessed during a disaster. Morris listed as potential assets the Navy, universities, hospitals and other organizations.

“Taking that whole community approach as we evaluate our resiliency is going to reveal that we have even more assets than we realize and that we can integrate them into the plan by revealing those assets and bringing them onboard as partners,” she said.

For instance, generators located across the city could be used to temporarily maintain the power grid and facilitate critical functionality in a neighborhood. “If we need refrigeration for medicine or food at the neighborhood level, we have to figure out where those generators are, where the power is likely to be on and how we can make sure people have access to it.”

The definition of resilience has been outlined by the Rockefeller Foundation, but Morris said it’s important to reach out to the community and get its definition. “We really have to go to our stakeholders and say, ‘What does this mean to you and how are we going to achieve it together?’”

The long-term goal is to transform a well managed government into a well managed and resilient one going forward 20, 50, even 100 years. To do that, Morris said, everyone has to feel as if they are a stakeholder.

“My job is to make sure that resilience is a part of every director, every line worker, every resident’s thinking. I’ve got two years plus to really begin the conversation and say, ‘This is a really good way to look at problems, and it’s worthwhile to think we can make our systems as strong as possible not only in case we have a shock but so this framework can help us thrive and plan for the future.’”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management.

Jim McKay Contributing Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.

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