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Turn the idea of resilience into a mindset for change

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More than a buzzword, resilience is the vision, collaboration and science that will save communities from the caprices of natural disaster. Louis Gritzo, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and is head of property loss prevention research at insurer FM Global, builds a case for better resilience by busting a few myths.

As witnessed last year with the earthquake in Nepal, natural disasters exact a heavy toll. In the last 10 years, disasters cost more than 700,000 lives, injured 1.4 million and made some 23 million homeless, according to the United Nations. The economic toll of those disasters has topped $1.3 trillion. Insured losses typically are one-third of the total or less.

With natural disasters a constant threat in a developing and dynamic world, there are urgent calls to improve resilience. It's the focus of a growing number of policy discussions, initiatives and organizations.

The 2015 U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, in which I was a panelist, recognized the need for “focused action” on resilience in four priority areas:

• Understanding disaster risk

• Strengthening disaster risk governance “to better manage disaster risk.”

• Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience

• Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “build back better” in “recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.”

Despite its traditional meaning of bouncing back from adversity, resilience as discussed in Sendai and elsewhere focuses on a civic durability. Particularly in response to catastrophes, movements are springing up to create resilient communities, businesses, cities, countries and continents by addressing natural disaster, political upheaval, economic crisis and climate change.

The resilience of a community depends on the degree to which it has the necessary resources and is organized before and during times of need. At the core of civic resilience are buildings, businesses and public infrastructure planned to survive disaster and prevent losses rather than retrofitted in reaction to whatever befalls them. Forethought is aligned with experiences to reduce the effects of or even prevent catastrophes. Developing buildings and infrastructure for resilience can help save neighborhoods, jobs and economies and serve a vital role in sustaining public well-being worldwide.

My fear, however, is that resilience becomes more of a buzzword than a serious commitment and that we will fail to take the concrete steps needed to create a resilient world. How can we overcome the challenges we face in moving from resilience the concept to resilience the way of life?

Let's start by busting 10 myths:

1: Disaster is a remote possibility. When most people hear 100-year flood, for example, they think “not in my lifetime.” The reality is a 100-year flood has a 1% chance of happening every year, and a 26% chance of happening over the course of a 30-year mortgage. We must talk about these hazards more concretely.

2: Climate change trumps planning. As important as climate issues are, we can be our own worst enemies by putting ourselves in harm's way. We build cities in flood zones and harden landscape through urbanization. In the long term, climate change will simply compound those mistakes and others we are making. Smarter development is the answer.

3: It's every person for himself. Businesses and societies are highly interconnected, with the effects of disasters rippling through supply chains and economies, affecting jobs, market share, retirement funds and much more. Although solving a problem in your own backyard is an important start, it's not enough. Businesses should consider planning and investing based on the resilience of target locations. Organizations need to thoroughly examine their business interdependencies — and work together to build their collective resilience.

4: When nature destroys, rebuild what you lost. That's the natural impulse, but why rebuild with the same vulnerabilities? Minimum building code requirements help you get out of a building in a disaster, but exceeding them gets you back in faster. A resilient rebuild will almost certainly look different than the design of decades ago. To be resilient, we need an integrated approach on land use policy, codes, standards and best design practices. Architects and city planners can lead the way, but citizens and businesses should raise their expectations as well.

5: Government should own the resilience research function. The smarter move is to give responsible industry a seat at the table, consider its points of view and let it contribute to civic resilience if they want to do the work. Often, they have research arms, funding and a better understanding of what is feasible. Good things can happen when civic interests are aligned with market demand, such as the need to keep major employers and producers in business. Ideally, every tax dollar spent on research for resilience would be mapped to a public benefit and include a plan to make it real.

6: Every risk reduction helps. Well, yes, but the weakest links will jeopardize the chain. For example, if you invest in measures to protect a facility from natural hazards, yet it burns to the ground because local codes don't require fire sprinklers, you are not resilient. A 360-degree view of resilience is imperative.

7: Engineers should run with resilience. Although you will need lots of engineers to achieve resilience, business leaders have a big role to play. C-suites and boardrooms need to take ownership. They get paid for getting things done and should have the courage to do so for the long term, not just their own tenures. Sustained resilience needs to be an integral part of their mindset, if only to protect them from loss of market share, shareholder value, reputation and more.

8: What's built is built. Yes, much of the vulnerability in North America and Europe is in existing buildings and infrastructure, but it's always worthy of review. More attention needs to be focused on opportunities for modest retrofitting of buildings, especially during renovation when the investment becomes most cost-effective. Architects can help here, too.

9: You can't predict the future. This one's partly true, but the lowest quasi-credible assessment of risk will always carry the day. Every study and technical publication needs to be held to a high standard that includes sound science, clarifying assumptions and a credible estimate of the uncertainty so the findings are actionable.

10: We've got all the tools in hand, we just need the money. Many tools are in hand, but innovation in design, construction and environmental engineering, as well as new mechanisms to pay for it, will make us more resilient faster. We live in an increasingly digital world, and technologies provide new opportunities to be exploited. After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast hard in 2012, a multitude of flood protection solutions were developed based on renewed demand and innovative thinking. But they just scratch the surface. Although the time period after an event can change mindsets, complacency sets in quickly. Execution needs to be persistent.

By working together and taking concrete actions such as these, we can inject desperately needed substance into the continued calls for resilience. We can overcome the challenges that leave us fragile and vulnerable.

Vulnerability is a choice, and so is resilience. We should stand back, look around and commit to make the right choice in our personal, business and policy decisions. This way, we can prevent events from becoming catastrophes when possible and bounce back from them more quickly when not possible.

Louis Gritzo is vice president and manager of research with commercial and industrial property insurer FM Global. Contact him at 401-275-3000 or research@fmglobal.com.