Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin at the National Disaster Resilience Competition Summit
November 18, 2014
Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Kick-Off Summit for the National Disaster Resilience Competition—truly a landmark occasion in the movement to build resilience in communities across the United States.
Before we get started, I want to congratulate the new Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro. Secretary Castro and his team have taken up the baton at HUD with incredible energy and gusto, and today’s summit is a testament to just how quickly they hit the ground running.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the former HUD Secretary, Shaun Donovan. Before Secretary Donovan left to run the Cabinet circuit, now heading up the Office of Management and Budget, he championed the idea that has now gone national: Rebuild by Design. Of course he did it with some Rockefeller Foundation support. His visionary leadership is a big reason we are all here today.
Today marks another step in a shift from the old paradigm of disaster relief and recovery in this country to one of planning, preparation, and resilience.
And it couldn’t come at a more critical time for our communities.
Today, crisis has become the new normal. Because of that triple threat of rapid urbanization, globalization and climate change, a week doesn’t go by that we don’t see some kind of disturbance to the normal flow of things—a cyber-attack, a new strain of virus, a structural failure, a violent storm, a civil conflict, an economic blow, a natural system threatened.
The leaders in this room and the communities you represent have recently felt the impacts of this new reality.
The question is: how do we keep future disruptions from becoming major disasters?
There are investments we can make upfront to save time, money, and lives on the backend.
According to the Center on American Progress, the federal government spent $136 billion total on disaster relief from 2011-2013. That’s an average of nearly $400 per household per year. Yet, FEMA estimates that “a dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation saves society an average of $4 in lower damages.”
Imagine what investing that $400 per household ahead of disruption could do for your communities—not only in terms of lives and assets saved, but in the returns it can generate even if you aren’t hit by a disaster, what we call the “resilience dividend.”
In short, it’s the ability to not just survive a range of shocks and stresses, but to turn investing to avoid crises into new opportunities for economic development, stronger communities and better working infrastructure.
Resilience is the capacity of any entity—an individual, a community, or an organization—to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.
The process starts with effective planning. For a decade before the terrorist attack during last year’s Boston Marathon, for example, the city had been planning for just such an event. Because of a series of preparatory exercises and emergency situation simulations, coupled with tight coordination between multiagency, multidisciplinary teams, first responders and medical officials were empowered to do incredible work. Eighteen minutes after the explosion, thirty red- tag patients had been transported to Boston area hospitals—nobody who made it to a hospital died.
When disaster does strike, we need to do recovery in ways that better prepare us for the future. Take Tulsa, Oklahoma, which, after being hit by major flooding throughout the 20th century, has put into place one of the most well-regarded flood protection programs in the country, establishing parks in floodplains and developing building and draining regulations. As a result of learning to live with water, Tulsans enjoy the lowest insurance rates in the United States. It’s a more attractive place to live and work—and residents are more secure knowing there is a plan in place for future threats.
This core concept—rebuild better—drove the creation of Rebuild by Design, for the greater New York region after Superstorm Sandy, which undergirds the structure of the National Disaster Resilience Competition.
Rather than simply providing federal recovery dollars to rebuild what was there before, The Rockefeller Foundation and HUD launched a competition, bringing together world-class design
teams to develop proposals with the impacted communities and to make them more resilient to future storms or other big disruptions—to avoid further disasters.
One example is a design for a barrier that would stretch 10 miles to protect Lower Manhattan from future flooding.
When you think of a flood barrier, you might envision quite an eyesore.
But that’s not what this team has in mind.
Rather, the project, which they call “The Big U” is actually a series of urban designs, which would be uniquely developed in concert with the communities it protects.
Each community could design spaces that would enable them to reap their own dividends: from increased green space and places for communities to gather to new bike paths to ease traffic congestion to infrastructure that doubles as art, or markets that could bring economic development to underserved areas.
And this goes to my next point—to build greater resilience, revitalization should begin in how the recovery process unfolds.
In Boulder, for example, after historic levels of rainfall and flooding, agencies came together and partnered with private developers to develop a new system where storm drains can double as bicycle trails.
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has sparked a wave of economic activity, making it the “coolest startup city” in the country, according to Inc. magazine, and attracting an influx of energetic and entrepreneurial new residents.
Return on investments come from every phase in the process—that resilience dividend I was talking about before. It’s more bang for the taxpayer buck—something that people of all political parties and ideologies can support.
And we know what qualities make communities more resilient—an awareness of vulnerabilities and strengths; diversity in options and back-up plans in case certain elements fail; integration and sharing of information so that everyone is operating from the same play sheet; the ability to self- regulate and fail safely, rather than catastrophically; and finally, the ability to adapt to changing information and take on new roles.
To help communities across the United States learn from our experience and expertise gained from investing more than a half-billion dollars in resilience building in just a decade. The Rockefeller Foundation will be hosting Resilience Academies in December and January to help each applicant develop the most competitive proposal possible.
These events will include access to technical experts, such as coastal engineers and hydrologists, a set of tools, based on a curriculum co-designed by the Rockefeller Foundation and Columbia Teachers College, for understanding and addressing resilience needs, and specific strategies for building your proposals.
Following the Academies, we’ll provide assistance to eligible applicants as they perform outreach and analysis and continue the development of their proposals.
We’ll do all of this with the hope that each city, county and state involved—those who advance in the competition and those who don’t—comes away with the capacity to work with a resilience mindset—with a focus on the future, and the chance to realize the resilience dividend