The extremely active 2017 Atlantic hurricane season raises serious questions about community resilience in the Gulf of Mexico. Unprecedented amounts of rain fell on Houston from Hurricane Harvey, overwhelming stormwater management systems and causing catastrophic flooding that paralyzed energy and transport infrastructures and the economies that depend on them. Hurricane Irma devastated parts of the Caribbean before making landfall in Florida, producing widespread damage to critical infrastructure in the area. Soon after, Hurricane Maria crippled the power infrastructure in Puerto Rico. More than a month later, many island residents still lack electricity and access to running water. A great deal of funds will be released by the federal government for disaster recovery efforts, and these public resources should be invested wisely.
To what extent are communities where infrastructure is repeatedly in harm's way able to withstand the impacts of major storms? How can they respond effectively, recover quickly, adapt to changing conditions, and manage future disaster risk over time? How can federal agencies help communities make good decisions that will support recovery and help them better prepare for future disasters?
One place to look for answers is a RAND assessment (conducted with funding from the Department of Homeland Security) of the Infrastructure Resilience Guidelines developed by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force in 2013. These guidelines provide a framework for evaluating infrastructure investments (whether through grants, loans, programs, or projects) to help determine disaster-recovery priorities as communities make decisions about long-term rebuilding. The assessment of the guidelines identified conditions that support or hinder resilience investment during recovery efforts.
A comprehensive, forward-looking, and science-based analysis is critical to building effective resilience. Such analysis should include quantitative and qualitative measures of public health and safety, economic, social, environmental, and cascading (multiple, linked) impacts; changes to climate and developmental patterns; and inherent risk and uncertainty. Other resilience principles include: a transparent and inclusive decision processes; a regional and cross-jurisdictional approach involving public and private partners; long-term effectiveness and fiscal sustainability; environmentally sustainable and innovative solutions; targeted financial incentives; and adherence to resilience performance standards.
Establishing a community vision prior to a disaster can help ensure that immediate needs and stressors do not lead to longer-term resilience needs being disregarded.
Incorporating resilience principles in infrastructure investment decisions is easier when communities build a common understanding and awareness of resilience. For instance, when jurisdictions have already identified data on communities and structures at risk, they tend to be more efficient in putting federal funds to work and making longer-term results a priority. Establishing a community vision prior to a disaster—so that communities can aim for that vision post-disaster—can help ensure that immediate needs and stressors do not lead to longer-term resilience needs being disregarded.
Incorporating resilience principles is more difficult when diverse meanings and metrics for resilience are used by stakeholders. Diverse interpretations of resilience include readiness, preparedness, system resilience, economic resilience, speed of recovery, and mitigation. These different interpretations can cause confusion about goals and methods for building resilience. Similarly, clarifying the scale at which resilience is being discussed is important because it will likely mean different benefits and costs for a business, community, city, county, state, or regional entity. Recognizing that resilience can mean different things in different contexts underscores the need to be explicit and transparent about what is intended in a given situation. Ensuring recovery plans reflect a consensus about the state and goals of community resilience can prepare communities for future disasters.
Adopting a systems approach will help communities build resilience. Many agencies and organizations already embrace a culture of resilience. What is relatively new for many, however, is the principle of building resilience via a “holistic systems approach” that underscores the dynamic links among human, social, physical, economic, and natural resources. For example, communities could strengthen their resilience by focusing more on integrating the built environment and natural systems, or enhancing the role of green infrastructure to address issues such as stormwater management.
The principles outlined in the Infrastructure Resilience Guidelines reinforce the approach many federal agencies have adopted in recent years for critical infrastructure policies, programs, and projects. What remains unclear is the extent to which appropriate and sufficient resources and expertise can be found to implement the guidelines in some communities. Some jurisdictions, for instance, may find it challenging to integrate diverse data sets or to develop a systemwide plan with regional collaboration. They may lack staff with the relevant substantive knowledge or available time to carry out this work.
For the Gulf Coast communities affected by this year's storms, opportunities may exist for the federal government to develop and provide resources that support implementation of the resilience guidelines. Investing in resilience in an informed and systematic way can help a wide range of high-risk communities be better prepared for any future disasters.
Melissa L. Finucane is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.