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Resilience to Disasters: Challenge of the Century?

Neal Peirce / Jul 05 2013

For Release Sunday, July 7, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce NEW YORK – Resilience – our ability to withstand massive natural or man-made shocks – is fast becoming the big challenge word of this decade. Most likely, for the century as well.

Small wonder. Vast floods, droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and tornados are no strangers to humankind. But in a world of gathering clouds of severe climate change – rising waters engulfing shorelines, severe droughts, high temperatures – the dangers are increasing ominously.

As one defense, President Obama noted in his recent climate policy speech, we’ll need “more resilient infrastructure – stronger seawalls, natural barriers, hardened power grids, hardened water systems, hardened fuel supplies.”

The federal government, Obama announced, would open access to its climate data and imagery so that states and cities can assess risk under different climate scenarios and not “waste money building structures that won’t withstand the next storm.”

But today’s perils extend still further – witness the Boston Marathon bombing, the weapons of death used in Newtown, Conn., and other murderous shootouts, potential cyber-attacks, deadly chemical spills, or a repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide and cost 50 million to 100 million lives.

Today we have first-ever-in-history perils: cyber-warfare, for example. Or the split atom. At a late June “PopTech” conference in Brooklyn on “The City Resilient,” I heard a speaker ask: “What if there was a small nuclear explosion in New York City?” On top of the terror such an event would trigger, there might be tens of thousands of potential victims, quickly overwhelming the city’s hospitals and their 40,000 beds.

The harsh reality is that no city can be totally prepared for disasters. As the Boston bombing reaction showed, advance coordination of law enforcement and other agencies can make a real difference. Some areas – such as lower Manhattan – may have such economic value that billions will get invested in flood walls and bulkheads to protect them against storms.

But if there’s a top way to build a City Resilient, the Brooklyn conference concluded, it’s not hardware or even government agencies working in tandem, though both are important. Rather, it’s neighborhood dynamics –the social ties, neighbors knowing each other, mixing together, rubbing shoulders and collaborating in community organizations and building trust, before the disaster.

I’m reminded of my urban coverage in the 1980s, when most eyes turned to Washington to provide help for highly distressed neighborhoods. I soon discovered that the real difference was grassroots collaboration, hard-knuckle revival groups like Banana Kelly in the South Bronx and the exciting growth of community development corporations.

Local civic strength, social resilience, is still a top value. Disruption is not new – there’s always been some danger in all human life. As Brooklyn conferee David Desteno of Northeastern University noted: “What’s basic is that we stand together, or we stand alone. We hoard resources, or we share. There may be short-term profit in ignoring others. But in the long run the social bonds of a community are critical to self.”

Rockefeller Foundation polling after Superstorm Sandy bore out that theme. Thirty-one percent of respondents – and up to 47 percent in the most heavily affected areas – said they’d reached out to friends, family and neighbors for such backup as power, food, water and shelter. By contrast, only 17 percent said they’d sought help from government in the storm’s wake, according to the Associated Press-University of Chicago survey.

It’s important to provide physical spaces for people to meet and interact – indeed that’s the formula that “works globally, from courtyard to general neighborhood, church or mosque square” – a continuum from private to public space, Jonathan Rose, a developer of closely planned mixed income communities, told the Brooklyn forum.

There is a nonprofit – – that’s helping interested cities firm up their neighborhood connections, including timely bulletins and organizing disaster plans.

But tough decisions lie ahead. Perhaps the most challenging: how much highly vulnerable pieces of city real estate should be protected – or, alternatively, be allowed to be submerged in the face of highly likely storm flooding?

Examples include New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and New York City’s Rockaways (a peninsula of Long Island), swamped by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy respectively. Neighborhood activists from both neighborhoods were at the Brooklyn conference arguing spiritedly that they’ll never retreat.

Another thorny issue: Cities (like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York) may forge sophisticated disaster plans. But what if suburbs don’t collaborate? Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, N.J., a city hard hit by Sandy, asserts “We need a regional approach to protect the entire area.”

But given many localities’ insistence on self-determination, that won’t be easy.

Bottom line: the debate has just begun. There are many positives to city, regional, global interconnectedness, and searches for common, truly resilient solutions. But there are massive challenges, too. Look for one, extended, rocky ride.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted July 6, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Neal’s observations about the City Resilient as he frames it are critical for us to metabolize. Particularly the recognition about relationships with our neighbors, that intimately local part of how we will manage climate related impacts in our communities. Would be very interested in reading more ideas about resiliency and fine grain planning initiatives.
    Great piece, thank you.

  2. Allen E Neyman
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s less about the debate than about doing something, directing the debate into action. But the scale and multiple localities of change are part of the debate. Some things work, and others fall apart and size makes a difference. Sure we have the “example” of Katrina as a local and maybe federal disaster, but do we really believe the we can rely on on either, alone, for the solution in this case? Was there a slip is the guidance system – you are rich, there was. The debate has been pretty broad. Neil you certainly have touched on so many of them! Maybe Venice Italy suffered as much from a sunken foundation as it did from rising waters. I really don’t it believe the persistence of a romantic tourist economy keeps it alive, but its success has sustained.

    And we have to look back further to get a sense of what may be most important as decide what action to take. I don’t think we’ve created any Atlantis again, but there’s that theory about California cracking down the middle. Hopefully that look backward is invested with reliable scientific bases, and by political forces guided by creative thinking for (a) change.

  3. Larry Grossman
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    The Community should be viewed as an institution, however informal it may seem. We still need formal institutional strength to plan and develop infrastructure appropriate to the future climate conditions; however, if we are too reliant upon someone else to look out for us we will neglect the communication networks and social bonds that are critical towards mitigating the affects of extreme weather events during a crisis. Maybe we need a new or really renewed consciousness of how reliant we are upon each other. We also need to find ways of reducing risk so that the disaster that can be averted is averted with a bit of common sense and planning. We shouldn’t become addicted to heroic rescues and great stories. The greatest story is the one where the community, through, careful planning, has dealt with a problem before it became a problem or became too great a problem to deal with.

  4. Posted July 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Excellent summary from Neal, and insightful comments here, too. I won’t pretend to act the expert, but I just completed my Master’s Thesis on this very topic. Neal must have read it! ;) I studied Joplin and their historic 2011 tornado to determine which structural or institutional solutions and responses are the most effective for natural disasters. I concluded the same: strong horizontal and vertical social ties are the most effective short- and long-term tools for mitigating and responding to disasters…and becoming a more resilient community. I started with the hypothesis that zoning and building code regulations could assist in land use planning for hazard mitigation, but as Neal mentions, you can’t plan for every disaster. Whereas such regulations help mitigate destruction in landslides by diverting development away, you can’t design a town to avoid tornadoes. Social institutions and long-standing relationships made Joplin respond and rebuild more effectively than any other mechanism.