Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Ratcheting up America’s resilience

My good friend Bill Hooke (if you can call anyone you’ve met face-to-face three times a good friend, but I do admire the heck out of him) has a marvelous set of posts at his Living on the Real World blog beginning with this one.  The series epitomizes Bill’s take on the world – informed, caring, and with a large dollop of wisdom stirred in. I don’t always agree with Bill (Well, what do you expect?  He graduated from Swarthmore – actual football cheer:  “Fight them vehemently – Beat them severely – Rah!”), but he always casts a new light on any issue he takes up.

The series is about “ratcheting up America’s resilience to disasters” (I’m not above borrowing boldly.).  Per his usual, Bill isn’t blinkered by the past, but has his eye firmly fixed on a better future.  I strongly urge you to read all of the posts in this series; many of the comments (e.g., those by Ann Patton and Mike Smith) are also worth reading as well.

In this post, I want to color in one corner of Bill’s vision.  We both agree that the ratcheting is going to take a long time.  Let me lay out a possible path we can take.

Almost exactly three years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Julij Jeraj, Emergency Manager of the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, talk about the great work he and his partners in the local university had done looking at earthquakes.  Their decades-long effort can provide a model for us to follow.

Jeraj’s story goes back to the 1990’s, when academics in Slovenia began developing and calibrating models of the impacts of earthquakes on various types of buildings.  Starting in 2002, the city’s Emergency Management Department began working with academia to apply the model to every building in the city, based on when it was built and the type of building.  This led to development of a “public use model” that the public – and the city government – could use to determine both susceptibility to damage and the type of damage expected for each building type due to earthquakes of varying magnitudes.  The city has used this as a tool to predict damage and to plan rescue operations.  Combined with demographic tools, this was also used to highlight neighborhoods that will need special assistance when an earthquake occurs.

The Slovenian team also developed simple-to-use forms that enable even inexperienced inspectors to conduct quick damage assessments immediately after a quake.  For each building type, the forms guide the inspector to look for the anticipated form of damage.  This should be very useful in increasing the efficiency of initial triage efforts.

What I’m suggesting is that we apply an expanded version of this approach to the American context.  In our case, we have a plethora of models we can draw on for virtually every peril our communities face.  We also have a wide variety of testbeds we can use to calibrate these models, for example:

  • The world’s biggest shaker table, owned by the Corps of Engineers.
  • The fabulous IBHS facility that can simulate the effects of wind and rain storms, and has even been used to look at the effects of burning embers (e.g., from wildfires).
  • Wind test facilities at several universities.
  • Other testbeds for fire at NIST.
  • The “dunking booth for buildings” at Tuskegee University to look at water damage.

While most of these have been focused on the structural integrity of buildings, they can also be used to test all of our infrastructural elements.  As an obvious example, we learned a great deal about the vulnerability of power poles in the recent hurricanes.  Toppling poles not only mean that a neighborhood loses power, but also that there is a high mass form of debris generated.

Following the Slovenian model, we also should develop – community by community – a database of our infrastructural stock. We can start with our buildings, roads and bridges and then expand to other parts of our infrastructure. The database should identify when structures were built, the type of construction, and the building codes in effect, if any (and if they were enforced!).

Communities can then develop tools similar to those developed by Ljubljana.  Planning for response, rescue and recovery can be sharpened.  Charleston, SC, has done something similar to this in preparation for an earthquake.  They identified areas that would be isolated by a quake and have pre-positioned conex boxes containing medical supplies and communications equipment in these areas.  Using our demographic data we can target for assistance neighborhoods highly susceptible to perils with high concentrations of the disadvantaged.  More rapid assessment of damage will expedite funding from state and federal sources to help the community recover.

The more cynical among you will ask, “How do we pay for all this?”  My response is that if we are going to have a major effort to refurbish our infrastructure – favored by both political parties – anyway, then let’s build this in as one element.  We already have the rudiments in actions that are being taken in an uncoordinated fashion across the country.  We have a HAZUS model that can provide a framework that we are already using and that can be upgraded through more testing and more comprehensive data.  We also have infrastructural failures such as those in Flint, MI, and elsewhere that can give impetus to the effort.  The incremental cost of this program on an annual basis would be rather modest.

The alternative is rather stark – ever-increasing costs of disasters; more devastation of people’s lives; more nasty surprises as our aging infrastructure succumbs to unexpected natural forces.  If we are truly serious about community resilience we must begin to take steps now so that we can more assuredly build back better.  I’ve briefly outlined one way that can lead to a better future and potentially free up finances for the tougher problems we face.  I don’t insist that it’s the only way or the best way, only that it’s a path that will lead to success.  The challenge for all of us is not to quibble over which may be the best way, but to begin to follow a path that will lead to a safer future.