Resiliency: The Crystal Ball of Risk Mitigation

At nearly 110 pages long, Seattle’s Hazard Mitigation Plan is insufficient. It identifies all predictable major hazards, highlights risk, and provides plans for response and mitigation. It’s been approved by FEMA, and has been updated and improved many times. But it doesn’t prepare us for an unpredictable future.

Formed as part of President Carter’s 1973 Reorganization Plan, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides disaster relief and risk mitigation assistance to qualified recipients. Specifically, a FEMA-approved Hazard Mitigation Plan is a prerequisite to receive federal dollars for risk mitigation projects and certain non-emergency disaster assistance. For this reason, nearly every significant settlement across the US maintains some semblance of a Hazard Mitigation Plan. However, these plans address risk – not resilience.

History has often shown the perils of addressing only singular risk. In 1953, a massive wind storm on the North Sea combined forces with a full moon to overpower dikes along the Rhine delta and swamp the entirety of Zeeland, swallowing up homes, schools, and hospitals, and claiming more than 1800 lives. Soon afterwards, construction of the Delta Works – a massive series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers –  was begun to ensure no such tragedy would ever happen again. The unprecedented project effectively shortens the Dutch coastline and was regarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.” However, as evidenced by the French Maginot Line at the start of World War Two, risk is not unidimensional. In 1993 and 1995, above-average snowfall in the Alps met heavy rainfall in the lowland and the Rhine River overflowed: Zeeland flooded once again, leading to the evacuation of 250,000 people and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The Dutch had taken measures to protect themselves from the sea, only to be “attacked” by behind.

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Where risk mitigation requires straightforward, specific cause-and-effect response, resilience is much more involved. Had the storm of 1953 occurred again in the 1990’s, Zeeland would have escaped unscathed. But the Delta Works were designed for protection from the sea – planners failed to consider the effects of alternate hazards. To be truly resilient is to maintain status quo despite changing factors. Resiliency focuses not on specific hazards but upon safeguarding assets, requiring a flexible response to variable risk. This is where our current hazard mitigation plans fall short.

For decades, Hazard Mitigation Plans have adhered almost exclusively to a vulnerability-based approach:

  • Identify hazards
  • Quantify resultant risk
  • Plan response
  • Mitigate, where possible

This approach is highly effective against each hazard, provided that the event occurs in the manner anticipated. However, preparation and response is highly hazard-specific – which certainly wouldn’t be an issue if we had the foresight and resources to identify and plan for every possible hazard…

In recent years, community planning and disaster response specialists have developed an alternate approach to hazard mitigation planning: one based upon assets. Such an approach begins with the products and services crucial to daily life – take medical care, for example. Where traditional vulnerability-based analysis would identify a hazard and assign quantifiable risk to our medical care system, the primary goal of this asset-based approach is to find other ways to meet the needs of that asset in the face of changing conditions. In other words, how can we continue to offer medical care despite unavailability of certain resources (clinics, power sources, etc.)? The same thought process can be applied to nearly every asset, from communications networks to centers of community and worship, and prepares us to meet the needs of each of these assets in the face of changing conditions. This is textbook resiliency.

By requiring planners to consider key assets in addition to risks, communities are prepared to face a wider array of hazards: identifying and planning to maintain key assets increases a community resilience against even unforeseeable events. Certainly, this asset-based approach is intended to supplement – not replace – our current vulnerability-based plans. In doing so, we will be better prepared to face a wider array of hazards and find additional value in our existing infrastructure. It would be relatively straightforward for FEMA to leverage this requirement upon Hazard Mitigation Plans…time and money well spent.

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