U.S. states, cities and towns are constantly faced with numerous threats from natural disasters ranging from hurricanes, droughts and wildfires to terrorism threats. As recent events have demonstrated, natural disasters can cause billions of dollars in damage.
Frequently, the immediate reaction to a natural disaster is to quickly commit large amounts of money to a rebuilding effort, and in the rush, more strategic alternatives are often ignored. Local governments that understand and address these types of risks using a more holistic approach that incorporates all relevant solutions that best meet their own long-term goals can build a more resilient culture.
That type of resiliency can ultimately become a competitive advantage for a city that attracts new business and results in population growth.
Building resilience is a useful concept for cities to adopt in the face of unprecedented and unforeseen disasters. When a city is resilient it can bounce back from a disaster with minimal disruption to both its services and its reputation.
However, building resilience, is a complex process that requires a comprehensive approach. It is one of the most complex challenges facing public leaders, who must address the nature, frequency and magnitude of unknown risks.
Before developing a resiliency response plan, a city must first understand and quantify the threats that exist and determine how those threats may affect its most important services. Cities face numerous demands on their expenditures and resources. They need to maintain their existing assets, comply with legislative demands, enable growth, enhance their services, and deal with developing a proactive approach to responding to natural disasters. In the absence of surprises, governments can usually meet these goals. But when a natural disaster actually hits, all other goals are pushed aside as resources are primarily funneled to respond to that event. Ideally, cities will develop a plan in advance that can identify and address the most critical needs quickly, giving priority to those individuals, services and infrastructure projects that deserve priority.
While many cities have not traditionally considered the impacts of natural disasters, risk and resiliency studies are becoming more common and can be used to assess those risks. Depending on location, this type of study would model the probability and effects of rising sea levels due to climate change or the likely occurrence and severity of a hurricane (including a worst case scenario). The facilities, assets and services that could be affected should be identified so that the risks to each part of a city are understood. Some cities may have data available to analyze and respond to routine failures, but data for more extreme or unprecedented events may not exist. For example, new models may need to be created that take into account how climate change may affect the intensity and magnitude of future hurricanes and floods. Elected officials may need to communicate that future risks are, by definition, uncertain.
Certain leading practices can improve the resiliency study itself, as well as the ultimate results if a natural disaster does occur. Cities and their officials should develop and adopt a long-term strategy that guides short-term decisions, including those made in an emergency situation.
One of the strategic goals should be to clearly define levels of service across all service areas, both with regard to current service levels and how those service levels may change in the future, along with a clear understanding of what is required of the assets that enable the service.
Cities need a consistent view on target levels of service across all asset types/service areas, requiring a clear strategy across the complete city, as opposed to individual departments pursuing their own targets. Cities need to not just determine what level of protection is desired, but what is affordable, taking into account cost benefit considerations and the outcomes from community engagement.
In understanding the criticality of assets, cities not only need to understand the impacts of their own assets failing, but they also need to understand the impact of failure of their assets and services on other key service providers-- e.g., a water main break, causing disruption to a fiber optic cable. The risks faced by each community will vary according to local hazards and exposure levels, vulnerabilities, and capacities to mitigate. Therefore plans to enhance resilience to hazards and disasters in one community may not match the specific circumstance, assets, and requirements in another. Therefore, each community is responsible for developing its own path toward greater resilience.