Those of us involved in emergency preparedness in Seattle, along with thoughtful planners in other cities and the federal government, have realized that the immediate response to an emergency like an earthquake or a major storm is only the first step in dealing with it.  It is critically important to have first responders who can provide food, shelter, medical attention, and other assistance in the first few hours or days to ensure survival.  But that is not enough to manage the impacts of a disaster.

As the long struggle to recover in New Orleans has graphically illustrated, recovering from a disaster can take years or even decades.  Making that happen requires an emergency plan that is built around resilience – having buildings that are designed to minimize damage, having the conditions in place that support communities ability to renew themselves, and having a plan to ensure that damage can be assessed, repaired, and restored as rapidly as possible.  Otherwise the economic and social impact of a crisis can lead not only to billions of dollars of economic losses, but disastrous consequences for people who cannot restore their health, vitality, and living circumstances.

Seattle is continuing to develop three initiatives that will help us to achieve more resilience.  We are working with communities, organizations, and neighborhoods to build capacity to respond to the impacts of disasters.  We are identifying steps that will reduce destruction and allow buildings and facilities to resist fatal damage and be ready to go back into use.  And we are creating a Post-Disaster Recovery Plan that will provide guidance on what to do in the wake of a significant disaster.  In the 2013-2014 budget, I secured funding for two specific projects:  developing a set of incentives to complement proposed regulatory requirements for our most vulnerable buildings, those made of unreinforced masonry, and developing the Post-Disaster Recovery Plan.

At the recent National League of Cities conference in Boston, I attended a session where presenters discussed new approaches to developing resilience.  They agreed that natural disasters in most parts of the world are becoming more intense due to climate change (since earthquakes are our most significant risk here, this is less so for Seattle, but the approaches are similar).

The core words that characterize a resilient city are:

  • Responsiveness – being ready to take action
  • Resourcefulness – having the confidence, training, and capability to act when resources are limited
  • Flexibility and diversity – people and facilities that act proactively and are not centralized
  • Learning – constantly open to new understandings and responding effectively
  • Redundance and Modularity/Robustness – multiple pathways to resources and response
  • Safe failure – designing facilities and systems that can contain failures and prevent them from bringing down the whole system

The biggest risk to resilience and recovery from a disaster, panelists agreed, is poverty.  People with limited resources will have great difficulty in developing and exercising these characteristics.  A poverty reduction program is important for so many reasons, but is also a critical factor in disaster response and recovery.

The federal government has changed since Hurricane Katrina, as the response to Hurricane Sandy showed.  One of our panelists was the Mayor of Joplin, Missouri, where a devastating tornado created a path of death and destruction a year ago that resulted in three times as much debris as the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center.  In both these cases, the federal government responded quickly and efficiently to help manage the immediate disaster and put the areas on the road to recovery.  But panelists emphasized that this response is not enough, and that only emphasizing institutional and community resilience and recovery planning will ultimately allow devastated cities to restore themselves.  Fortunately, we have grasped that lesson in Seattle, and are working to build our capacity for renewal for the disaster that we know will happen – the only question is when.