Flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area is visible from Air Force One as President Bush returned to Washington from Crawford Texas (Source: White House photo by Paul Morse, 31 August 2005).​​

Resilience After 2021: Unfinished Business & Future Agenda

In 2021, many questions have been raised about resilience. Is more known about resilience and have more leverage tools been retained to establish resilience at will than a decade ago? What ideas and notions were expected 10 years ago in energizing resilience tasks, activities, and operations? Has the leverage needed been acquired to apply proven strategies and operational systems for implementing post-disaster resilience with skill and confidence? Did a collective experience with mega-disasters since 2011 equip communities with new and innovative pathways to achieve resilience? The answers to these questions are far less than clear.

Often, a decade of hard-boiled experience with disasters elicits insights and ideas useful in confronting another head-on bout with a similar future catastrophe. However, that is not always true. More than 15 years after the colossal Hurricane Katrina event and 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, there is a need for serious reckoning with a complex operational challenge in emergency management – whether the next decade will require a fundamental rethinking, redefining, and reshaping of what resilience means. It is questionable whether communities can firmly retain, enshrine, or deftly abandon notions of resilience as understood during the past decade. Instead, they may be forced by the complex forces of explosive modernity, widespread cutting-edge technology, and the growing uncertainties of genuine vulnerability and risk to start all over again and redefine resilience anew. It may not be that simple. There are obvious and hidden manifestations to assess.

Looking at Four Basic Questions

An article published 10 years ago in the Domestic Preparedness Journal, “Attaining Resilience: Getting From Here to There,” asked four questions:

  1. What defines resilience?
  2. What could the public and private sectors do to collaboratively attain resilience?
  3. What metrics make sense to measure resilience?
  4. What social technologies and interdisciplinary strategies would better capture resilience?

In many ways, after 10 years of experience and reflection, a mixed picture on those four points emerges. Looking back, it seems there was significant lip service to the ideals of resilience, but there is limited evidence it became an operational priority as other issues pushed it further back in the public agenda. One way of assessing the command of resilience activities as a counterweight to disaster is to gauge how well communities have done since 2011 in coping with calamity.

It is important to consider whether the United States has become more resilient since 2011, however it may be defined. There were numerous climate-related disasters, several major earthquakes, the Fukishima nuclear-tsunami mega disaster, Super Storm Sandy, the Ebola outbreak, Hurricane Maria shutting down Puerto Rico’s economy, and recurrent California wildfires – just to name a few. As a proxy indicator of resilience, these disasters revealed a lack of resilience in terms of lengthy post-disaster returns to quiescent conditions and the underestimated and woeful recovery curve following a mega-disaster. In terms of a definitional lexicon flush with 2021 insight, there is still a need to look for the persuasive and impressive instances of being robust, to possess the ability both to absorb disasters and bounce back, and to determine whether it is possible to restore order and reactivate key systems as mentioned 10 years ago. In many cases, it seems the nation is far from where it should be.

The obvious conclusion derived from the past 10 years of disasters is that resilience may be different than originally imagined. It may entail other aspects, conditional factors, and contributing technologies than first anticipated. The hidden issues are still there, which too often entails creative formulas for defining and establishing infrastructure and community resilience in ways not readily grasped or supported. In some ways, the obvious and hidden remain a bit opaque when still struggling to discover and test methods, systems, and innovations that have not yet been proven or tested. There are a few obvious issues to explore that may offer a starting point.

Resilience Continues to Be What It Was Thought to Have Been

What is far less clear is whether traditional or classical notions of resilience still make sense given the way society will likely operate and function after 2021. Of course, with ongoing commercial and industrial activities as well as many aspects of the community infrastructure, the same package of risks, hazards, and vulnerabilities still exist. However, it is fair to ask whether the global pandemic experience, the onset of new and unique technologies, the steady expansion of urban areas proximate to coastlines, the involvement of greater cyber and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled systems along with the inherent limitations of risk analysis and mitigation measures will be enough. Complex interconnected systems today where AI governs infrastructure, or where genomics and nanoscience steer medicine and public health in different ways, implies that the ability to engage in sophisticated risk management and mitigation analysis is less than ideal. Clearly the evidence is ambiguous at best:

  • Is there an expectation that the core elements and definition of resilience will change?
  • Does the last decade provide comfort that notions of resilience have been validated and confirmed?

Basic expectations about resilience – snapping back from crisis, adapting to disruptive change, absorbing the worst aspects of disaster, streamlining effective recovery, and rapidly restoring normal life – are all still there to haunt and motivate a better way forward. The advent of more advanced technology engrafted into government operations and infrastructure falls short of being transparent and understood. The question of whether communities got better at resilience in the last 10 years seems to be a simple yes-no question. However, the answer is not entirely clear. The approaches, strategies, tools, and technology applied in 2011 to create, build, and reinforce resilience were tested against calamity during the past decade. It is difficult to find a convincing answer about whether resilience efforts were adequate or lacking.

Public and Private Sectors – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Here the issue is somewhat simplified in terms of verifiable collaborative activity. There are solid indications many worthwhile efforts were undertaken during the past decade to forge practical partnerships in anticipation of disasters. Aside from any persuasive instances that reflect cooperative harmony on the impressive side of the ledger and looking at the 2011 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on public-private collaboration to achieve resilience, the NAS notes a few salient issues that became a key set of conclusions. NAS leadership noted several barriers to greater collaboration found in 2011 included private-public sector cultural differences, concerns about information sharing, and wariness of government mandates and regulations. Business and government executives lacked a common definition and approach to resilience. There were also several serious misunderstandings and mismatched expectations about what the business sector can do and what government has the capacity to do post-disaster. The NAS mentioned that, in addition to the economic and cultural limits among the population that inhibit regularized cooperation with business, there was a tendency to see the public as customers rather than partners. The NAS also found respective turf issues and sensitivities between business and government along with the absence of an agreed-upon set of vulnerability and resilience indicators that would make it possible to measure and assess them in communities and over time.

This does not mean there is little prospect for collaborative progress, but the mechanisms and strategies needed to establish a working relationship and trusted dialogue focused on solutions for the community seems to be elusive. In effect, it takes hard sustained work. Some communities have found a formula, but the overall architecture for sustained, uniform, nationwide, systematic public-private cooperation on mitigation, response, readiness, and recovery is far from where it should be as 2021 ends. The following questions remain:

  • What is the stress-tested template for public-private collaboration in all phases of emergency management?
  • What have effective public-private partnerships demonstrated thus far in terms of collaborative readiness, mitigation, response, recovery, and the pursuit of greater resilience?
  • What lessons and insights have crossed the boundaries of both sectors and to what extent have the nongovernmental and faith-based organizations contributed to attaining better resilience?
  • What lessons about resilience have been adopted by government since 2011?

The Task of Measuring Resilience – Determining How Much Is Enough

When academic and serious research materials are surveyed to discern resilience, there is a mixed picture with some common themes. Social scientists said resilience was the ability of a community to recover by means of its own energy and devotion. Others claimed community resilience was a process linking a myriad of adaptive capacities (such as social capital and economic development) to responses and changes after adverse events. It was seen as gradual capacity building. Engineers saw resilience in terms of restoring the essential parts of damaged critical infrastructure with focus on structural mitigation along with engineered robustness, redundancy, and resourcefulness. The front end of resilience was aggressive mitigation planning to harden vulnerable sites against a range of expected threats.

After a decade of disasters, it is less clear whether traditional notions of resilience still make sense given the way society will likely operate and function post-2021.

Expecting communities and critical infrastructure to remain unscathed and untouched by a Category 5 hurricane or an F4 tornado is unrealistic. However, the absolute level of material commercial and human damage could be reduced significantly by the application of innovative resilience measures, with systematic metrics providing a measuring scale. A bottom-line perspective can be applied using the case of Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy. Resilience can be seen as the explicit engineering of robust mitigation and risk-reduction measures that would significantly reduce the net damage and make post-disaster recovery much easier. However, it begs the question of what seeking “a significant reduction in damage” means: an amount like 25%; the post-disaster recovery curve for communities and businesses to shorten its length by 50%; or something else. This remains unclear and offers a solid opportunity for academic engineering departments to work with city planners and emergency management officials, together with commercial business continuity experts, to devise a resilience plan tied explicitly to a variety of high-probability disaster scenarios. In effect, this is collaborative anticipatory risk management in its simplest form. There is uncertainty whether this is already happening today but raises the question of how much better community and commercial resilience should be after 2021.

So, the challenge regarding resilience is in determining exactly how much is enough:

  • If seeking a level of resilience 25-30% better than the last decade, can that be defined and measured?
  • Can specific steps be identified that would cause the reduction in damages and injuries?
  • If defaulting to a position of stopping a disaster’s worst effects from getting even more destructive, is that a valid resilience goal?
  • What about ambitious resilience goals and objectives devised by public-private partners that aim to build resilience to measurable levels of robust community and commercial resistance to disasters at levels never seen before?

Finding Social Technologies and Interdisciplinary Strategies That Make Sense

In many cases, this aspect of resilience is the toughest challenge because one size does not fit all. In other words, urban versus rural resilience contains important differences. Seaside and frontier plains environments are different enough to suggest a resilience strategy must be adjusted accordingly. Then there is the question of shifting variables. Some communities are resource rich or have ready access to innovative technologies not available to all communities nationwide. Some communities have orchestrated effective public-private partnerships to tackle resilience issues while others are miles away from that kind of arrangement. Then there is the opaque variable of state and federal support, which targets investments to further deepen avenues and ideas promising greater resilience. Questions to ask include:

  • Have investments been sustained, well-funded, omnipresent, or even offered to communities willing to engage in unique resilience ventures?
  • How has robust well-funded external investment in resilience by states and federal government helped or hurt resilience plans and ideas?
  • Can it be determined where prototype resilience projects have been effective or ineffective?

Apart from these considerations is the sheer breadth of targeted infrastructural resilience itself – including resilience research, funding, and incubation of ideas involving the energy, emergency health, agriculture, or communications sectors:

  • Is there evidence this has been systematically nurtured or funded since 2011?
  • What innovative resilience projects drafted by public-private partners have been launched and sustained since 2011?
  • What new projects are proving to be effective in 2021?
  • Has government derived metrics to determine when true community and commercial resilience is established and sustained?
  • Is the landscape of post-disaster damage continually be looked over and the losses and injuries tabulated?

There is a palpable need to do much better at resilience than the past 10 years have shown. More must be identified and discerned about the specific strategies and formulations of genuine resilience where – at a minimum – losses and injuries are reduced in measurable ways. A 25% reduction in losses and injuries given the same disaster situation may not be a realistic metric. Those who subscribe to the notion that all disasters are essentially the same get one answer. However, those who believe all subsequent disasters are inherently different get another outcome.

Undoubtedly, communities will confront disasters similar to those encountered during the past decade. However, from 2021 onward, there must be a capacity to discern what resilience looks like, including:

  • During crises that far exceed anything seen before (e.g., for maximum-of-maximum disasters);
  • When calibrated operationally for disasters of lesser magnitude and effect; or
  • When answers are in hand vs. needing to obtain further research.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about this perplexing issue in an academic journal:

One sterling revelation from these disasters, and any like them, is that existing mitigation is never enough and major disasters tend to leave the victims feeling defeated. Worse, we recognize that emergency response is one thing, and post-disaster recovery is another. In the midst of clearing rubble, removing bodies, bulldozing collapsed buildings, establishing expedient shelters, and restoring elements of power and communications we discover that recovery is a lot tougher than is ever expected.

Back then, I claimed that resilience must be understood to embrace far more than smart mitigation practices, robust emergency response, and effective recovery operations. It must be understood in terms of the actual post-disaster situation which a city, state, or region wants to achieve within one week (or a few weeks) after the crisis is over. It means painting a realistic picture of what is required for much more than mere community survival. It must also depict what a fully restored community with essential minimums looks like.

In addition, recovery must be studied more intently to learn from it what is required and expected. Only then will it be possible to grasp the real difference between resilience and recovery. Firmly, there must be a reckoning with the prospect that searching for concrete elements of resilience will go far beyond the conventional four-part paradigm that has shaped emergency and disaster management. In grasping what recovery means in operational terms, there is automatically a compulsion to tackle what resilience requires: redundancy in key systems; devising coherent and measurable resilience factors and indicators; and building and validating the art of the possible with public-private partnerships.

The final question is whether communities have learned enough about resilience from the past decade to have viable strategies for greater resilience in the next. If that appears to be true, it is inspiring. If not, it is sobering indeed.

Robert McCreight

Dr. Robert McCreight has over 35 years of experience in the U.S. State Department working in such major fields as global security, arms control, intelligence operations, biowarfare, nuclear weaponry, counterterrorism, emergency humanitarian missions, and political-military affairs. He served concurrently for 27 years in the U.S. military – primarily in intelligence, psychological operations, civil affairs, and logistics. His teaching areas of expertise include counterterrorism analysis, homeland security, regional security, and treaty verification. He has written a number of articles for the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Strategic Studies Quarterly and the International Journal of Homeland Security on homeland security, emergency management, and national defense subjects and is an adjunct professor in the graduate programs of both the University of Nevada and The George Washington University.



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