Ratcheting-up America’s resilience to hazards.

Prologue: The daily news from Puerto Rico is excruciatingly tragic. A week after Hurricane Maria’s passage, some 3.5 million people are still picking their way through 3000 mi2 of debris in a search for food and water, and despair mounts. The same island geography that ruled out evacuation now slows the arrival and distribution of emergency aid. Maria grimly reminds us that timing is everything; most other years in American history, hurricane survivors would still be the number#1 news story at this point. Today, different issues dominate the mainland headlines.

For weeks now, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have been schooling America, revealing our affluence to be a brittle one. We’re not resilient to natural hazards – a serious vulnerability, since we live on a planet that does much of its business through extreme events. Worse yet, what resilience we do enjoy in the United States has been declining, community-by-community, bit-by-bit, over decades[1]. This season’s hurricanes aren’t some fluke, or by any means the last time hazards will test us. Instead the storms presage a future of such calamitous scenarios, each of which daily draws one day nearer. Worse still, while the hurricanes have come and gone (for the moment, Maria lingers offshore), each day’s news from Texas, Florida, and especially the Caribbean finds tragedy to still building, for millions of people. Recovery efforts lag the urgent need.

The previous LOTRW post points out the obvious; there’s no single silver bullet that can quickly stop these trends, make all this aright. Just as we’ve ratcheted our way into this predicament, we must ratchet our way out – changing daily our public-sector and private-sector decisions and actions all across the country – on many fronts. We must also persevere in this effort, which will take many years.

What would such ratcheting look like? All of us need to give this some priority. That’s not just because every American is vulnerable to natural hazards (indeed, none of us is immune). It’s not just because each of us shoulders responsibility for family and loved ones who need our protection – although we do. It’s because each of us will need to play an active role if we’re to reverse course, start building a safer America. Here’s a short list of just some of the pieces to the puzzle, and how you and I fit in.

Learn from experience (an important life lesson, and a recurring LOTRW theme). After each natural disaster, Americans have shown courage and resolve; we bravely say, “we’ll rebuild as before.” But that approach, however deeply embedded in our individual and collective psyche, condemns us to a future of repetitive loss. In another arena – aviation – we take an entirely different approach. After each catastrophe, led by the National Transportation Safety Board, we come together and say, “this must never happen again.” And we follow up accordingly. That’s why today, aviation, despite fourfold growth in flights over the past decades, has fewer accidents in absolute number than it once did – even while losses due to natural disasters continue to mount in response to population growth and property exposure. In aviation, we learn from experience.

How do we change our mindset? How can we capture each natural disaster’s lessons about land use, building codes, vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure and our own human nature to do better the next time around? While the particulars of this learning may be delegated to a relative handful of experts, the growing knowledge will not be harnessed – put into practice – unless all Americans integrate such learning and action across our culture and values, and give political and business leaders the backing they need to institute change. Every American insists on safe travel. We have to be equally vocal in our call for safe communities in which to live and work.

Set a goal of no-adverse impact. The Association of State Flood Plain Managers (ASFPM) has promoted this idea for years. They ask that individuals, governments, and businesses be more thoughtful – and responsible – when it comes to the connection between our decisions and actions (on all fronts) and vulnerability to hazards. The ASFPM idea is simple and compelling: before implementing any flood-control measure at a local level, developing any real estate in floodplains, etc., those involved should undertake, and make public, a careful analysis of any downside, any unintentional consequences to such action. The policy is analogous to environmental impact statements familiar from the world of environmental protection. (Those statements were first viewed as oppressive bureaucracy but now are generally accepted; we might expect to see the same shifts in thinking here.)

Keep score. Currently, disaster losses are not routinely incorporated into the national income accounts. However, this latest spate of losses may be, because estimates suggest a hit to 3rd-quarter GDP growth of something like 0.8%, just from Harvey and Irma alone. (Losses from Maria may well be comparable to their sum.) The figures may prove to be serious underestimates. GDP counts as a positive contribution the rebuilding that such hurricanes make necessary, without taking into account those same funds might have been spent to create true growth in the national economy, versus simply recovering a fraction of what was destroyed. For decades, experts have recommended that the United States work out a more accurate  accounting for losses, incorporating losses due to business disruption as well as property destruction per se (the Caribbean’s future losses in tourist revenue, for example). Thanks to rising role of critical infrastructure in the viability of communities and businesses, these two components to economic loss are now typically comparable. We also need a more consistent framework for loss estimation across all hazards, ranging from earthquakes and wildfire to the storms under discussion here. This isn’t just an exercise in looking backward; the accounting establishes information base and the disciplined thinking we need if we’re to look ahead and make risk assessments for our local communities, our places of work, and even our households. Again, a matter for experts, but you and I can work locally and even nationally to build contributing data sets.

Unleash the full potential of public-private partnerships. Some 90% of the U.S. workforce is employed by the private-sector. Only 10% work for federal, state, and local governments. As a result, every phase of hazards policy requires the joint efforts of governments, large corporations, and small businesses. A look at any location, at any level, shows this is exactly how things work. Agencies and businesses work side-by-side in pre-event mitigation, in emergency response, and in recovery. Critical infrastructures (e.g., communications, electrical, sewage, transportation and water) and softer infrastructures (such as schools, hospitals, financial, etc.) are operated and maintained in some cases by the public sector, and in others through private firms. But apart from scattered exceptions here and there, whether at federal, state, or local levels, the United States lacks platforms or venues where the sectors can coordinate strategically with respect to community resilience, business continuity, and other matters. Any coordination is largely tactical. Again, all of us, not just those in formal emergency-response roles, are involved. We’re individually in the best position to know what we require of and can contribute to business and community continuity.

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What to do? Fortunately, the Nation has two powerful, previously-unused or underutilized tools that it can bring to bear. One is a federal entity that has been with us for more than a century that has all the needed components in place, but has never been applied in an integrated manner to the challenge of business and community resilience. The other is a new technology, for the moment cutting its teeth on other challenges. Considered singly, each looks intriguing. In combination, they offer real hope.

More on these tools, and how they might be brought to bear, in future posts.

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[1] Not so much through failure, as through success. American economic growth, technology advance, and social change have unintentionally introduced new vulnerabilities, untested by any hazards until now.

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