Building U.S. disaster resilience.

Prologue: With each passing day, the Puerto Rican disaster reveals its true extent. It’s no mere disaster (a word cheaply tossed about), but a dire – and deepening – humanitarian crisis. Three million islanders need help now with food, water, power, sewage, basic medical care, and necessities. What’s more, there seems to be little reasonable prospect of returning to business-as-usual in any useful time frame. A hollowing-out comparable to that of New Orleans following Katrina seems inevitable. Many Puerto Ricans – perhaps a majority – will need to resettle on the U.S. mainland. Recovery – not a true recovery, but a return to some new normal – will take decades.

 We owe the people of Puerto Rico (and for that matter, many others in Texas and Florida) the fullest measure of assistance in the days ahead. As for the long term, we owe them more than a promise “to rebuild as before;” we owe them some hope, if not assurance, that “this will never happen again.”


The fact is, we owe this assurance not just to the people of Puerto Rico, but to ourselves. Virtually all of us live along other vulnerable coastlines; in riverine floodplains; in seismic zones, at risk from earthquake or tsunami; in tornado alley; or with sunbaked drought and the threat of wildfire. Each of us are familiar with our local hazards and live with a chill reality: our turn is coming.

We need a ratchet, to incrementally work down our risk.

In fact, two ratchets would be twice as good. Here they are:

1.Something old… something borrowed: the U. S. Department of Commerce. When Theodore Roosevelt established the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 (Labor was calved off in 1907), he envisioned it as the Nation’s statistical agency, in charge of all statistics except for things agricultural (a decade older, the USDA was already a formidable political force by then). Evidence of this origin still remains, in the form of the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, The Economics and Statistics Administration, etc. Throughout the Department’s history, even as other agencies such as the Weather Bureau (now morphed into NOAA) and the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) were added, the measurement of things difficult to measure – the U.S. population, GDP and balance of trade, fish stocks, global temperatures, the length of the standard meter, the duration of the second of time, etc. – has been the unifying intellectual thread.

But along the way, the Department was repurposed into something more, in effect borrowed for a bigger job. Its components, in addition to their myriad other uses, today comprise a powerful national tool for maintaining business and community continuity in the face of hazards. NOAA can warn of the hazards – and today takes that one step further for businesses and communities through Impact-based Decision Support Services (IDSS). Census keeps track of vulnerable populations – the poor, the aged, the infants, the underrepresented groups most at risk from hazards, as well as the employees who operate and maintain critical infrastructure. NIST helps make construction and critical infrastructure more resilient through its wind, fire, and seismic engineering programs. FEMA and HUD may help hazard survivors find housing, but DoC’s Economic Development Administration helps communities stitch back their regional economy and restore and create needed jobs post-disaster.

Match these capabilities with the LOTRW resilience-policy list:

  • Learn from experience? NOAA’s climatological data and models summarize past weather, water, and climate threats as well as provide a glimpse of the future. NIST analysis of building successes and failures points the way to improved designs and codes for structures and for infrastructure going forward.
  • No adverse impact? NOAA’s hazard information combined with Census data and NIST capabilities provide the raw ingredients needed to assess implications of nationwide economic development, construction, and land use for future U.S. vulnerability.
  • Keep score of disaster losses? Made to order for Census, ESA, and BEA capabilities. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences specifically recommended in the 1990’s that Commerce take on this job.
  • Public-private partnerships? Business (aka commerce) is in the Department’s name. The Chamber of Commerce is just across Jackson Square. The Business Roundtable is up by the Capitol. Hundreds of more specialized trade organizations are within a stone’s throw.

Three observations. First, it should be evident that there’s much more that could and should be added by way of detail to extend and flesh out what Commerce really has to offer. This brief list just hints at the possibilities.

Second, because these Commerce capabilities have been developed organically within the separate components of the Department, rather than through any strategic, integrated vision for a Commerce business- and community continuity portfolio, to date the whole is little more than the sum of the parts.

Third, these ideas have been around for a while, dating back at least twenty years. Outsiders who don’t bother to look under the hood see Commerce as “old.” Long-term Commerce stakeholders and some former Commerce Secretaries[1] have been blinkered to see only U.S.-Trade-Representative-envy, remaining perennially vexed by fisheries lawsuits, the decennial need to grow staff by a factor of ten to meet Census needs, and other “distractions.” To many, looking at funding constraints for Commerce as a whole, to “borrow” from established mandates in order to meet the nation’s needs for business and community continuity has seemed a big leap.

2.Enter something new, something (big?) blue. Big leap indeed. But the biggest leap needed is one that would convert Commerce data into actionable information, into impact-based decision support that’s truly useful: lifesaving, cost-saving, money- making, across the whole of the national agenda. If we look only at yesterday’s tools, prospects look dour. But if we look to tomorrow’s tools, the future looks considerably brighter.

The tool that matters most? Hands-down it’s the set of capabilities represented by Big Data, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive computing (and also known by other names). The progress already made in this arena is little short of amazing, and that’s before exascale computing is starting to come on line. Problems beckon for attention from these tools across the whole of the national agenda (there’s certainly plenty to do elsewhere, as IBM’s work with Watson in the healthcare realm demonstrates).

But Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria make a compelling case that building community and business resilience to hazards, and emergency management in its broadest sense, should be in play. Big Data and the Commerce Department could make great progress by working in concert. Returning to the above list:

  • Learn from experience? Cognitive computing might take a while to “bone up” on the root causes of disaster, and make many mistakes early on, but its signature trait is learning from such experience versus repeating past errors. It would get better rapidly.
  • No adverse impact? Cognitive computing can rapidly and tirelessly assimilate NOAA, NIST, and Census information. It can explore options and diverse scenarios to tease out the downstream implications of proposed community-level and national-level economic development for associated growth or reduction in resilience.
  • Keep score of disaster losses? Cognitive computing could surely facilitate and sharpen Census, ESA, and BEA loss estimation.
  • Public-private partnerships? Because work in cognitive computing is in private-sector hands, this might be precisely the partnership that matters most.

And speaking of partnerships, that’s exactly what’s required. Cognitive computing shouldn’t (and won’t) supplant the work of urban planners, or business leadership, or emergency managers or other local and national officials. Instead, it will augment that work, making it more effective. Imagine, for example,  that Hurricane Maria had occurred in a world of the future, where leaders and emergency managers had available cognitive computing tools to (1) see the Puerto-Rican humanitarian crisis coming days in advance, (2) help identify needed assets commensurate with the scope of the problem, and (3) aid in the pre-positioning of those assets, versus today’s belated realization of Puerto Rico’s existential predicament.

Of course Commerce and Big Data haven’t been waiting for random bloggers to point out all this from the sidelines. For over two years now, Commerce has teamed up with Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and the Open Cloud Consortium under separate Cooperative Research and Development Agreements to explore opportunities such as this.

There’s clearly a public good here. What about a business opportunity for the private sector? Is it possible to do well while doing good? Several examples: Start with Amazon itself, contemplating a second headquarters. Surely the prospects for business continuity in the face of hazards enters Amazon’s equation. Other companies, whether large or small, are also in the business of risk management, but possess fewer in-house assets. Here’s one aspect where they would all welcome help. In the same way, states and local governments, seeking to attract businesses, would welcome information on how they stack up and might improve with respect to disaster resilience. And the federal government and U.S. businesses should together see many international opportunities for providing derivative products and services.

Expect to see us ratchet toward a safer, more productive world.


A sixpence in your shoe: Okay, Bill, why the “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” wedding meme?

Because we’re told that “Something old represents continuity; something new offers optimism for the future; something borrowed symbolizes borrowed happiness; something blue stands for purity, love, and fidelity; and a sixpence in your shoe is a wish for good fortune and prosperity.”

Continuity? Optimism? Happiness? Purity, Love, Fidelity? Good fortune and prosperity? Universal aspirations for all of us living on the real world, confronting its pervasive natural threats. A union of these two ratchets can bring us a step closer to these goals.


[1] Secretary Ron Brown had a different view, seeing Commerce as the Cabinet Department for the 21st century – a tool for sustainability – but his life was tragically cut short in 1996 by a plane crash in Croatia while on a trade mission to eastern Europe.

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3 Responses to Building U.S. disaster resilience.

  1. Bill:-

    Excellent as usual, but you left out a few goodies from NIST.

    Starting 3+ years ago, NIST began development of what became its Community Resilience Planning Guide. When that was finalized two years ago, NIST created the Community Resilience Panel to further identify / develop materials to aid in implementation. Over the next 12-18 months, the Panel will focus on developing a “Decision Support Framework” capturing and systematizing the decisions communities make pre- and post-crisis to enhance their resilience or to recover from disaster. Tools that have been developed that support this will be made available on the Panel’s Resilience Knowledge Base.

    At about the same time the Community Resilience Panel was formed, NIST also stood up its Community Resilience Center of Excellence, HQ’ed at Colorado State University. Their explicit focus is establishing the computing platform(s) and structures needed to investigate all of the facets of resilience you mentioned.

    For those interested in more information on NIST’s community resilience programs, please see

  2. James Henderson says:

    Hi Bill

    Outstanding article and chock full of how planning should go. But keeping with the theme of LOTRW, the issues become localized and hence the big problem that can’t be solved by Big Blue. How do you get political leaders at the local scale to enact the needed laws and provisos to ensure sheltering in place, moving permanent sites out of the (coastal danger zones, flood plains, improper drainage areas, and the list goes on). You stated a few articles ago that it now takes a projected 96 hours to evacuate Dade County. Yet as we saw daring Irma more large buildings are being constructed. Local decisions that fly in the face of hazard planning and community resilience. It’s a tough problem.

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