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Resilience After a Disaster – Rhetoric and Reality

December 5, 2012

THE RHETORIC: Earlier this week, I posted some information about the lengthy study process and new book from the National Academy of Sciences re Resilience.  See earlier posting  here, including details about their Nov. 30th workshop.

From an intellectual standpoint, the study and the presentations at the NAS this past week are commendable and credible. But my concerns have been practical ones — how will local officials and others responsible for the front lines of emergency management actually adopt the philosophy and apply it in their communities?

Also, of concern is how the federal emergency management agencies (not just FEMA, but EPA, NOAA, HHS, USGS and others)  will champion the cause of resilience and include resilience actions and measures into their work. Note:  FEMA is one of the 9 federal agencies that support the work of the NAS on resilience.

THE REALITY: This week the  FEMA Administrator testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure e Committee on Dec. 4th.  At the hearing, when pressed about some of the longer-term considerations for the eastern states recovery from H. Sandy, Fugate took the short/narrow view. Some excerpts:

… when legislators asked FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate about these kinds of infrastructure issues, such as developing a long-term strategy for safer housing on the shorelines, he insisted that such issues, while important, were beyond the scope of his agency.

“Again, this goes far beyond what FEMA does, it goes far beyond the Stafford Act,” said Fugate, referring to the law that created the federal disaster relief system that is in place today.

Speaking about long-term housing solutions in New York and New Jersey, Fugate said, “The Stafford Act is a key part of this initial fix … but it does not get to pre-existing conditions, (and) it doesn’t get to some of the regional challenges that we have in that dense population area.”

Fred Tombar, a senior adviser to the HUD secretary for disaster recovery, noted that his agency is developing plans to provide rebuilding assistance – to be made available to communities that qualify for the Community Development Block Grant Program. The rebuilding assistance would help communities “build back in a way that is smarter and safer than what has been done before,” he said.

The source for these quotes is the coverage of the questions and answers from the House Committee Hearing  in this article: House Committte Grills FEMA chief on Long-Term-Fixes in Wake of Sandy.

For more points of view on this topic see the Homeland Security Watch blog today, particularly this comment by Bill Cumming.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2012 8:40 am

    Dear Madam, I am highly appreciative of your approach of the use of Resilience so commonly by experts, technocrats and people in national and state governments which remains a tool of rhetoric where people emotionally use at the TOP OF THE PYRAMID of Disaster Risk Reduction. These researches, studies and good practices remain circulating at the top conveying an impression that a great level of preparedness has been achieved. However, the reality remains something entirely different . The idea of resilience rarely gets transformed in to useable tool for millions of people at the Bottom of the Pyramid who are most vulnerable. People have to be made to understand what resilience means at individual,family and social level to minimize loss of lives and means of livelihood. I am Director General of Saritsa Foundation in India. It is a Mobile University for Disaster Risk Reduction and climate change. Saritsa Foundation advocates and practices People Centered, People Led and People Owned mechanisms in 18 states of INDIA to build capacity of rural and urban poor and vulnerable people. It has prepared 205000 people since its birth on 5 June 2000. It inspires people to use local resources,experience,expertise solutions to develop safety culture and resilience. People have to be FIRST AID OF DISASTER RESPONSE. Look forward to share more.

  2. December 5, 2012 3:16 pm

    The issue is, in my opinion, that funds for disaster response and initial recovery are provided under the Stafford Act (FEMA’s responsibility). The funds for building disaster resilient communities come from private sector developers, private property owners and local jurisdictions (if they have any funding). Mitigation funding doesn’t cut it. Not since Project Impact have we had a strong government initiative with real solutions. Don’t expect people in New York or New Jersey to change their life style because of a storm. Those who possibly could, won’t. Those who are dependent on others for improvements will remain vulnerable. Face it, if the government keeps bailing people out, people will only expect support in the throes of a disaster. No significant change will occur.

    • December 5, 2012 3:20 pm

      I am afraid you are right. With all eyes focused on NY and NJ, I had hoped that FEMA and other federal agencies might exert themselves and show some muscle and vision. Guess I am dreaming.

    • Richard Ohlsen permalink
      December 5, 2012 3:50 pm

      The Stafford Act should be revised to include mitigation in the funding of a house that has repetative losses. To bring it back to the way it was before the loss is absurd. I have homeonwners now that have have their house flooded 3 times in 5 years, each time Flood Insurance and FEMA (if a declared disaster) covered the repairs. In Sandy the house recieved major damage, the homeowner wants the house elevation raised, but the homeowner has to compete for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money now. Common sense must prevail and mitigate when possible, not put a band aid over the problem.

  3. Richard Ohlsen permalink
    December 5, 2012 2:46 pm

    Claire, one issue is when will smart building and smart community organizing offset financial gain? Governments see the money in seaside and shore communities.

    • December 5, 2012 2:51 pm

      Good point. No easy answer for that question.

      • Richard Ohlsen permalink
        December 5, 2012 2:59 pm

        Now in my own community we were hit with Sandy and we are building a long term recovery committee, but the voluntary and faithbased groups have a different goal than the local government. The voluntary and faithbased groups want to see homes re-built in a manner that will mitigate disaster affects. The local government wants to see all the homes destroyed, the lower middle class and fixed income residents (mainly elderly) to leave the area so they can develop the waterfront for the wealthy.

        Local Governments are seeing Sandy as a way to find the means to develop the shore community to bring in more tax revenue.

      • December 5, 2012 3:16 pm

        Yipes!

    • December 5, 2012 3:15 pm

      From what I know, experience in Florida and the Gulf Coast after 2005 follows the pattern Ohlsen observes. Storm-scrubbing offers a seemingly irresistible opportunity to increase the local tax base.

      • December 5, 2012 3:17 pm

        It sounds like the way urban renewal was done years ago – drive out the low-income neighborhoods and gentrify the place.

      • December 5, 2012 3:19 pm

        It’s a dangerous and seemingly unethical adaptation of urban renewal. I can understand making changes in the name of hazard mitigation, but it seems to cross the line when a jurisdiction is actually forcing people out.

  4. December 5, 2012 1:04 pm

    You’re absolutely right, Claire. There is a lot of science behind what can be done in emergency management, but we need to translate research to solutions – solutions that are practical, cost effective, and viable for our communities.

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