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February 19, 2015

Philanthropy and government underscore a framework for resilience in the face of disaster

February 19, 2015

When disaster strikes, the affected communities don’t want to get caught unprepared for the recovery ahead, said philanthropy and government leaders speaking at an Urban Institute event held at the National Building Museum on Thursday. And building the resilience to recover from disaster requires thinking about physical as well as social dimensions, they added.

“These are skills that can be developed and learned, they are not innate traits,” said Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. “[They] can be developed, honed, and perfected.”

Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell interviewed Rodin as well as Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan about what it takes for communities to develop resilience, the roles philanthropists and public leaders can play to help catalyze it, and how to better serve low-income communities, which are, more often than not, hit the hardest by disasters.

Building greater resilience requires communities to prepare more effectively for challenges, to quickly respond and adapt when a disruption does occur, and to revitalize, not just return to the status quo, when rebuilding, said Rodin, the author of The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.

  • To get there, she said, there are five characteristics that communities need to adopt:
  • Increase awareness of risks through both personal observations and technology, such as risk and data analytics.
  • Diversify capacities and resources so that a community is not made vulnerable when one capacity or source is disabled by a disaster.
  • Integrate capabilities so that they forge a greater collective capacity.
  • Develop systems that will alert the community when something is wrong with one capacity and delink it when necessary. For example, smart grid technology and smart switches can prevent one failing power station from taking down many more.
  • Develop an ability to adapt to emergencies as they come, so the community can bend rather than break.

Donovan agreed, pointing out that the president’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal, for the first time ever, includes a chapter devoted to climate change-related investments. This OMB-prepared budget shows that the government has paid more than $300 billion in disaster-related costs in the last decade, he added.

“Frankly to make the kind of investments that Judy is talking about we first have to understand the costs of not making them,” said Donovan, who served as Housing and Urban Development Department secretary during the northeast region’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “Too often in Washington, the status quo is always the easiest option. This resilience dividend can come if we, in fact, invest in smart ways, instead of bury our heads in the sand, if you will, about these challenges.“

Both Rodin and Donovan also agreed that building resilience into community planning does more than just help regions forge ahead in the aftermath of disasters; it also helps in good times to improve social cohesion, improve both built and natural infrastructure, and spur economic development.

And improving social cohesion is a big part for helping low income communities — who often get hit the worst by disasters — to build resilience. They typically take the brunt of disasters because they usually don’t have the same type of support within their communities, or social networks, Donovan said.

“Our resilience framework is arguing that if you make many of these investments … you get more bang for the buck, because you are going to be getting multiple outcomes for a single investment,” said Rodin.

Both Rodin and Donovan also said that engaging communities about how to address the challenges presented by climate change helps to incubate and refine ideas that can be translated to different regions of the country and world, and can lead to smarter, more effective federal spending and policies.

The Rockefeller Foundation and HUD recently partnered to launch a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Challenge that aims to fund the implementation of state, local, and tribal leaders’ innovative resilience projects.

"When you start working with philanthropy to incubate an idea, you can then take it to scale inside of government, despite some of the challenges,” Donovan said.

Photo by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute

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