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Illustration by Michael Waraksa

Constructing Resilience

​Besides its status as an economic and military global leader, the United States also ranks quite high in a less auspicious category—natural disasters. The United States experienced roughly 500 natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, and the 10 deadliest of these U.S. disasters killed more than 4,000 people, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium.

It’s a costly ranking to hold. Over the last four years, the United States experienced 42 “billion-dollar disasters,” or extreme weather events that each caused at least $1 billion in damages, for a total cost of $227 billion. All told, there were 334 major disaster declarations in the United States between 2010 and 2014, according to statistics from the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Given these grim statistics, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) just released The Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure, a two-volume guidance document designed to help communities limit damages from disasters whenever possible, and then bounce back quickly and efficiently from floods, earthquakes, windstorms, sea-level increases, industrial accidents, and various other forms of large-scale misfortune.

In essence, resilience complements mitigation in disaster recovery. Mitigation measures may protect a building from flooding; resilience planning can help ensure that the structure also has power and water during recovery. “The guide helps to translate the concept of community resilience into practice,” NIST Acting Director Willie E. May said in a statement when a draft of the guide was released earlier this year.

After the draft was released, 51 organizations and individuals submitted public comments, which were incorporated into the final version. “The commenters ranged from local government units to federal agencies to major trade and professional organizations to universities,” says NIST spokesman Mark Bello. 

The guide was developed by the NIST Community Resilience Group, which is led by Therese McAllister. McAllister has conducted detailed studies of the World Trade Center collapse, Hurricane Katrina flooding in New Orleans, and the effect Hurricane Sandy flood waters had on infrastructure systems. Lessons from those previous disasters are embedded in the new planning guide, she said in an interview with Security Management. 

For example, the 9-11 attacks did not just result in the decimation of the Twin Towers. In addition, water pipes were severed, power was lost, and significant damage was inflicted on the surrounding infrastructure. 

“This wasn’t just a building collapse, this was an event that affected the entire community,” McAllister says. And so the new guide advocates that communities take a holistic approach to resiliency planning, to account for domino effects on integrated systems. 

Hurricane Katrina also held lessons for resiliency planners. A key one, McAllister says, is that some disasters are truly regional in effect. Before the storm, New Orleans had plans to receive assistance from neighboring communities for rescue and reconstruction support. 

“The damage was so extensive that that model did not hold up well,” McAllister explains.  Instead, the new guide recommends that communities consider the effects of a disaster that is larger than expected, such as a historically unprecedented storm or flood.

The guide lays out a six-step process for ensuring resiliency. The first step is the formation of a collaborative planning team, drawn from different segments of the community.  Members could include representatives from local, state, and federal government agencies; operators of building and infrastructure systems; local business owners; and social and community group leaders. 

The second step is for the team to gain an understanding of the situation, in part by defining how social functions like healthcare, education, and public safety are supported by local buildings and infrastructure systems. 

The third step is for the team to determine goals and objectives. For example, performance goals for systems and buildings can be set in terms of the expected time needed for recovery of functions. In accordance with McAllister’s remarks about planning for a worse-than-expected event, the guide recommends that performance goals be set for three levels of hazards—routine, expected, and extreme. Long-term objectives could include such plans as converting a floodplain into a community park.

Step four is plan development. For this step, the team should compare the desired and anticipated performance for systems and buildings, prioritize them in terms of which performance gaps should be addressed first, and then devise potential solutions. For example, different land use and redevelopment strategies could be formulated for use before an event takes place, to limit potential damage. 

“Resilience planning is not a standalone activity,” McAllister said in a statement when the draft was released earlier this year. “The guide recommends that communities integrate their resilience plans into economic development as well as zoning and other local planning activities.”

Step five is plan review and approval.  Here, a draft plan featuring performance goals, community objectives, proposed solutions, and implementation strategies is shared with stakeholders and members of the community for review and comment. Step six is implementation, and periodic maintenance, of the final plan. 

To help illustrate this process, the guide uses an imaginary small river valley city, called Riverbend, USA, and a fictitious Riverbend City Council member, Ms. Smith. Smith was formerly a resident of another imaginary city, Rockyside, but left after a flood. Deeply affected by the flood, Smith, as a new Riverbend City Council member, leads the effort to make her city more resilient. The guide then takes Riverbend through the six steps of resiliency planning and implementation.

In the big picture, NIST officials say that they see the guide as an important addition to the National Preparedness System, which helps organize U.S. preparedness activities and programs. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nearly 24,000 U.S. communities have mitigation plans aimed at reducing the risk of damage from a hazard.

Overall, McAllister says that she hopes the guide will help communities take the long, integrated view when doing resiliency planning. A typical infrastructure building may be built to last 50 to 100 years, making for a replacement rate of only one or two percent a year. And when communities are planning for disasters and are considering different options, there may be one mitigation solution that seems costly up front, but could wind up saving the community tenfold in recovery costs. “The guide recognizes that it’s a long-term process,” she says.