The Growing Importance of Resilience in an Increasinsgly Turbulent World

In March of 2017, Northeastern University launched a new interdisciplinary initiative, the Global Resilience Institute (GRI).  GRI is a university-wide research and educational effort to advance the resilience of individuals, communities, economies and societies around the world by strengthening their capacity to adapt to an increasingly turbulent world.  Its key mission is to develop and deploy practical tools, applications and skills to help effectively respond to human-made and naturally-occurring disruptions and disasters.

GRI’s Founding Director is Northeastern professor Stephen Flynn.  In his Director’s Welcome web page, Flynn writes that “Building resilience within and across multiple levels, from individual to societal, requires a comprehensive effort that matches the complexity of the increasingly interdependent systems and networks we all rely on… Our aim is to serve as both a channel and a catalyst for experts in industry, academia, and government to collaborate on solving the world’s most pressing resilience challenges.  These include both slowly emerging disruptions as well as shocks and sudden disasters.”

Most everyone agrees that dealing with our increasingly turbulent, complex world us requires significant enhancements to the resilience of our societies and systems.  But, five critical barriers stand in the way:

  • Widespread risk illiteracy and a limited understanding of the new dependencies and interdependencies that pervade our more connected lives;
  • Inadequate designs for embedding resilience into systems, networks, and infrastructure at multiple levels;
  • Pervasive economic disincentives for investing in proven resilience measures;
  • Inadequate governance frameworks and policy guidance to foster resilience; and
  • A lack of adequate training and education to support the development and implementation of comprehensive capabilities for advancing resilience.

To overcome these barriers, GRI has organized the Global Resilience Research Network (GRRN) in collaboration with Germany’s Fraunhofer Ernst-Mach-Institut.  GRRN is a membership global network of universities, research institutes, non-profit organizations, and companies engaged in applied resilience research.  It aims to create collaborative research teams among its member institutions, help develop practical, scalable solutions to real problems, and hold an annual summit to showcase the research and educational efforts of its members.

A few weeks ago I attended GRRN’s inaugural Summit at Northeastern University in Boston.  The Summit included a number of panels on topics ranging from risk literacy and education, to planning and governance.  Let me briefly discuss the opening keynote and panel which I found particularly compelling.

The opening keynote was given by Ed Emmett, chief executive officer of Harris County in Texas, the nation’s third most populous county with over 4.5 million people including the city of Houston.  Judge Emmett started his talk by explaining that his position is formally called County Judge, even though he’s not a judge in the legal sense of the word.  One of his main responsibilities as county judge is that of county’s director of emergency management.  He then proceeded to share with us his experiences with Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017.  Here is the video of his fascinating talk.

Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on August 25.  It then moved slowly along the coast of Texas over the next four days, causing torrential rains in the Houston area, - over 50 inches in total.  By September 1, one-third of Houston was flooded.  Harvey damaged over 200,000 homes, of which almost 13,000 were totally destroyed.  The flooding forced roughly 40,000 people out of their homes and into shelters.  Around 90 deaths were attributed to the storm.  According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricanes Harvey and Katrina are the two costliest US national disasters on record, each inflicting around $125 billion in damage.

“The rains brought on by Hurricane Harvey totally changed my life and my job,” said Emmett.  Because Harvey first made landfall in Corpus Christi, most of the preparations for dealing with the hurricane were deployed in that area, about 200 miles from Houston.  By the time it became clear what was going on in Houston, roads and airports were already flooded and nearly impassable.  In the Houston area, 911 lines were overwhelmed with urgent calls for assistance while the flooded roads seriously hampered the rescue efforts of first responders.

The county then turned to volunteers with the capacity to help.  As we saw in the news, volunteers with boats and supplies came from all over Harris county, and from elsewhere in Texas and nearby states to help rescue the thousands of people flooded in their homes.  When it was clear that the county didn’t have enough shelters for all the people in need, Judge Emmet turned to BakerRipley, a community organization that within hours set up shelters in facilities throughout the county.

In the end, Judge Emmet told us, a resilient community is one where people at all levels are involved in emergency management, including prevention, preparation, response and recovery.  Volunteers and community organizations gave Harris County the necessary flexibility to deviate from their set emergency plans and cope with the highly unusual circumstances brought about by Harvey.  It’s now become a model for future emergency planning in Harris County, including the training of a Citizens Corps comprising 30,000 volunteers.

Following the keynote, a panel of experts shared their personal experiences with the major recent natural and terrorist disasters they were each confronted with.  In addition to Ed Emmett, the panel included William Evans, Boston Police Commissioner;  Ian Hopkins, Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester (UK) Police; Albrecht Broemme, President of the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief; and Dr. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, Former Head of the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency in Indonesia.  A video of the panel can be seen here.

Evans and Hopkins led responses to deadly terrorist attacks.  In April of 2013, Commissioner Evans was changing into his police uniform after having run the Boston Marathon when two bombs near the finish line went off, killing 3 civilians and injuring over 260 others.  Constable Hopkins was at home on the night of May 22, 2017 when he received a call from his deputy informing him that a suicide bombing had taken place at the Manchester Arena following a concert by Ariana Grande.  22 concert-goers were killed and over 500 injured.

Like Judge Emmet, Technical Relief President Broemme had to deal with the response and recovery to an extreme 100-year flood, - in his case the floods across several regions in Germany in the spring of 2013

Dr. Mangkusubroto was appointed by the President of Indonesia to lead the four-year reconstruction efforts in Aceh province after one of the most devastating natural events in recent memory.  On December 26, 2004, a major earthquake took place in the Indian Ocean, triggering a series of tsunamis that inundated coastal communities bordering the Indian Ocean with waves up to 30 meters, killing between 230,000 and 280,000 people in 14 countries.  Indonesia’s Aceh province was the worst affected region, -  close to 170,000 people lost their lives and more than half a million were left homeless.

Let me summarize some of the major themes that emerged from the panel:

  • It’s critical to train and involve community volunteers, not just professionals, in response and recovery efforts;
  • While planning is very important, emergency response requires flexibility and the ability to make real-time decisions based on actual conditions;
  • Disasters are traumatic events, both for the people impacted as well as for the professional and volunteer responders.  In the weeks and months following the disasters, it’s important to deal with the mental health of those affected; and,
  • Building trust and informing the public are absolutely necessary in a resilient community.

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