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On Resilience

July 10, 2008

Since early this spring, I’ve written probably a half dozen or so posts on resiliency. And tossed them all. Recently, though, I read an editorial in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice and Science that put my feelings into words, or at least helped to crystallize how I thought about resiliency.

I was first introduced to the idea of building a resilient society while researching HSPD 21: Public Health and Medical Preparedness. I posted specifically on this topic at the time, saying:

Truthfully, there is only so much the feds can do to promote community resilience outside of physically changing folks’ mindsets. Besides, I think the American people are pretty resilient – especially after the whole Hurricane Katrina debacle (ie. they know the feds aren’t going to help, and they need to just take care of themselves).

Then I didn’t hear anything about it until John Bowen posted a review of The Edge of Disaster, a book by Stephen Flynn, one of my favorite preparedness authors. On his recommendation, I picked it up and found that resiliency was quickly becoming a buzzword in preparedness, homeland security and emergency management. In fact, Congressman Thompson’s Homeland Security Committee even held a “Resiliency Month.” And now it’s everywhere.

Building resiliency into a community is not a bad thing. Striving for a resilient society is an admirable goal. In fact, it’s similar to free ice cream in that nobody can really be against free ice cream. We just worry about the why and the how behind it (the free ice cream and the push for resiliency).

In the case of resiliency, the why is easy. Because a resilient society will “bounce back” from a disasater more quickly and with fewer long term negative effects, it is something to aspire to. Like I said, nobody can argue against it.

The how, however, is a bit different.

How, exactly, does one build a resilient society? Or, better yet, how do we build a resilient America? You go to war with the America you’ve got apparently, and in this America, we spend next to nothing maintaining our physical or medical infrastructure (so says Flynn in his book), our entire business sector is built upon the idea of off-shoring and just-in-time delivery, and people are literally being kicked out of their houses. None of those things are big resiliency motivators.

As noted above, I guess I just don’t get this idea of resiliency as a stated goal of our preparedness efforts. It’s always seemed to me to be a way to shift the burden of preparation from the government to the private sector and lower levels of government (not that the feds should do all the work, it should be a shared responsibility). You know who’s got to come up with business continuity plans? Businesses, and there’s nothing that the federal government can do to make that happen. Putting on a tinfoil hat, can’t you imagine some sick media commentators blaming the Hurricane Katrina disaster on New Orleans just not being resilient enough–like it’s their fault. That’s my worry.
pre-requisites ,
In any case, enough with my negativity and onto the reason for this post.

Monica Schoch-Spana from Center for Biosecurity of UPMC had an editorial published in the June 2008 issue of Biosecurity. (It used to be free, but now seems not to be, so sorry for not having a link) She gives a description from Norris, et al., (2008) of community resilience and all of the things that need to happen to attain that goal. The groups that have essential roles include formal institutions (governments), community members, resident networks, trusted media outlets–all working in concert. The prerequisites for all of these groups to begin working together include diverse employment opportunities, robust health and human services, a strong physical plant and an equitable distribution of income and assets. Do either of these things sound like our society today?

So, to contrast that, Schoch-Spana gives the opposite of good resilience, which sounds an awful lot like my worries about what resilience will look like in our non-perfect country:

This multifaceted picture of community resilience stands in stark contrast to the idea of the indomitable human spirit in disaster. … It can obscure the hard, collective work necessary to mitigate potential communitywide harms. It can relieve the federal and local government of major responsibilities to help, fostering an ethos of every man and woman for themselves. And, at worst its worst, it can hold disaster victims responsible for their own tragedy, for not having demonstrated some ideal “innate” ability to bounce back.

Seriously, I thought that way before I read this article, and Dr. Schoch-Spana just put it into words.

So, where does that leave us? Resiliency is a goal for public health and medical preparedness, the President said so. The question about how to do it remains. And what exactly do we do in the meantime?

Photo credit: DuncansTV

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Arnold permalink
    July 10, 2008 10:49 am

    Great post. You put into words much of my own thinking on the subject.

    I think your free ice cream analogy hits the bulls-eye. Resilience, like preparedness, is great if you can get it. But it can’t constitute a strategy for DHS or even state level homeland security efforts. Without unheard of amounts of government money there are no levers to drive building resilience.

    I fear that its become a buzzword that everything can fit under while making the speaker seem on the cutting edge of homeland security thinking.

  2. July 11, 2008 3:05 pm

    I’m trying to figure out whether and how I agree with your post. Resilience as a buzzword is useless. Its historical roots in fields such as psychology, where the individual as the unit of analysis reigns supreme, has facilitated thinking about the concept in terms of larger units, like communities or societies, without a great deal of conceptual refinement or operationalization.

    I work at a non-profit that is trying to pull together partners from local and state gov’t, philanthropy, relief agencies, and others to focus on the ‘civic infrastructure’ (sorry to get wonky) of entities that serve disadvantaged and marginalized populations on a daily basis and who, as it turns out, are disproportionately affected by disasters. We actually very much believe in the notion of resilience and are in fact trying to put it into practice in a very (well, hopefully) thoughtful way. We are taking basically a two-pronged approach: focusing on organizational preparedness and response capacity (to function and continue to serve clients and perhaps other members of the public), and focusing on robust networks of relationships and agreements between these organizations and with orgs in other sectors (esp. local gov’t, corporate, philanthropic, relief agencies, etc.) so they can be mutually enforcing in the context of the needs of the larger community/region as a whole.

    For the first focus, our angle is to help develop standards and best practices for community-based orgs that are not as onerous as extant organizational standards for disaster preparedness. For the second focus, we are using our multi-sector partnerships with major local, regional and state entities to get everyone to the table to buy-in to the concept and focus on the services and needs of community organizations, and contribute as/how they can (at senior decision-making levels) to buttress and support them.

    In other words, we are contributing our small part to the concept of resilience by putting it into practice at the organizational and community/regional (not individual!) levels through specific mechanisms with specific outcomes, institutionally sanctioned (we hope) with performance results to prove it. Will it work? Who knows. As Eric Klinenberg said in a recent NY Times piece, having to rely on philanthropy to fund this vacuum puts it at risk long term. As he noted, this is where *government* should be focusing its energies and, frankly, its resources: on the civic institutions and organizations that keep communities tied together and which will be relied upon to serve a disproportionate number of the displaced, the hurt, and the traumatized following a major catastrophic incident.

  3. July 12, 2008 8:54 am


    Thanks for your comment. I think, I hope, that’s there’s a way around this problem. It entails an open and honest discussion of the concept of resilience, followed by the development of SMART objectives. The less of this patting each other on the back and commenting about how smart we are, the better off we’ll be.

    Hopefully we’ll be able to do that.

    Thanks again for stopping by,

  4. July 12, 2008 10:17 am


    Thanks for stopping by as well. I appreciate what sounds like great work that your organization is doing.

    I think it is groups like yours that will make this dream of building a resilient society actually happen, if it is to happen. Please don’t let anything I’ve said steer you away from that goal. My problem, as you’ve also identified, is that for a broad-based start on building a resilient society has to come from the federal government. They’ve got the money and authority to make it happen. To organize and support organizations like yourselves. And frankly, I just don’t see it happening. Instead DHS is running in circles, FEMA is a disaster and Congress is holding hearings on how great it would be to have a resilient society.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that resiliency should be something we strive for. But to make it a goal to be checked off, as it seems to be, is a recipe for disaster. Give me SMART objectives and work hard at them, and in the end, you’ll have a resilient society.

    In any case, keep up the great work, I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing, too.

    – Jimmy

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