[Welcome / Introduction]
Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone and welcome to
EMForum.org. I am Amy Sebring and will serve as your Host and Moderator
today and we are very glad you could join us. Today’s program is about a
new report from the National Academies on disaster resilience that
makes specific recommendations for a national approach to reducing
losses and enhancing recovery in the future. Please note that you
can access a free, PDF version of the report, as well as a summary from
the links on today’s Background page.
Today’s recordings and a copy of the slides will be available from our
site later this afternoon. A transcript will be available early
Now it is my great pleasure to introduce today’s speaker: Dr.
Cutter is one of our foremost hazards researchers and we are delighted
she was willing to join us today. She served as Chair of the authoring
committee for this report, is a Carolina Distinguished Professor of
Geography at the University of South Carolina and Director of the
Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute.
Please see today’s Background Page for further biographical details and
links to related resources. Please note that the Institute’s Web
site provides access to a wealth of hazard data.
Welcome Susan, and thank you again for taking the time to be with us
today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.
Susan Cutter: Thank you, Amy and welcome, everyone. It is
a great treat to be able to talk to you about this important report
that was recently released by the National Academies called “Disaster
As many of you know reports don’t come about by one individual’s
effort. I want to publicly acknowledge the committee who drafted
this report and did yeoman’s service in making this something we can be
proud of and also the nation can be proud of.
What is the problem and why now on this report? Well it is clear
that no one is immune from disasters. Disasters happen
everywhere. They happen to all kinds of people in all kinds of
places. We also know that losses are escalating.
In 2012 we had 11 billion dollar disasters, which was actually less than
the year before but in total we see that the losses are
increasing. We know that all of this is happening at a time when
communities face very difficult choices about the best ways to maintain
community functions under fiscal restraints and social policies.
We also know there has been a collective body of knowledge over the past
sixty years or so about how to reduce losses and we know that losses
can be reduced by picking a more proactive approach—one that promotes
resilience ahead of time rather than waiting until after the disaster
Such an approach, that we are calling resilience, builds on this wealth
of knowledge from both the technical knowledge, scientific knowledge and
practical knowledge that the community has been amassed over this time
period about the causes of hazards and disasters, and the ways in which
we can protect ourselves from them through preparedness activities,
planning activities, mitigation and then more effective response and
The committee was faced with this seeming dilemma of how to do we think
about how to enhance the nation’s resilience. Do we proceed with
the status quo which is doing things we have already done or do we take
this opportunity through this report to lay out strategies and findings
about the nation becoming more resilient?
Clearly the committee offered an option for becoming more
resilient. The choice we had was really not a choice in our
mind. We know that disasters are going to continue to occur and
some of these extremes will get more routine under changing climate
conditions. We know that people are moving into more hazardous
environments particularly along the coasts.
We also know that there is increasing exposure to drought. We are
also increasing in age. Our population is growing. Our
public infrastructure is well beyond its design limits. We have
finally as a nation and communities within the nation have come to the
recognition that we can’t really eliminate risk but there is some
residual risk that always needs to be managed in some way.
One of the first tasks the committee had was to develop their definition
of resilience because resilience means different things to different
people. We scoured through literature and looked a federal
government reports and we decided as a group to take a very broad view
We defined resilience very broadly as the ability to prepare and plan
for, absorb, recover from or more successfully adapt to actual or
potential adverse events. By taking this broad definition of
resilience we are able to include a variety of different types of
resilience and perspective within this. So far this has proven to be a
very good strategy because the umbrella is quite large.
Another thing the committee thought about was to speculate on what the
characteristics of a resilient nation might look like in the year
2030. We did this for two reasons—for one, it helped clarify our
thinking in terms of where we would like to be as a nation but also it
set out a goal for figuring out how we might get there.
From our perspective a resilient nation in twenty years or so is one
where individuals in communities are the first line of defense against
disasters—that is to take proactive action to reduce risks. We see
a nation where there is national leadership in resilience throughout
the agencies and more importantly in Congress, where community level
resilience efforts receive federal, state and regional investments and
We see a characteristic of specific risk information that is readily
available, transparent and effectively communicated so everyone
understands it. We see a nation where zoning ordinances are
enacted and enforced and where building codes and retrofit standards are
widely adopted and enforced.
We see a resilient nation as one where a significant percentage of post
disaster recovery is funded through private capital and insurance
payouts—not the federal government per se. We see where insurance
premiums are risk based, where community coalitions have contingency
plans that provide those services particularly to the most vulnerable
populations after disasters.
We see where post disaster recovery is accelerated because of infrastructure redundancy and upgrades in existing infrastructure.
Now to begin the task the study was overseen by the Disasters Roundtable
and the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. This
means that the study involved all three academies—the Academy of
Sciences, The Academy of Engineering and the Institutes of
Medicine. In many ways this was a watershed event for the
Academies because of the number of federal sponsors for this study which
We were asked to do a number of things. One was to define national
resilience. I gave you that definition. One was to frame
the issues that might be involved in increasing resilience. One
was to provide some information on goals, baseline conditions and
performance metrics for resilience. One was to describe the state
of knowledge we have about resilience to hazards and disasters in the
nation—to outline gaps and obstacles and to present conclusions and
A couple of things as we go through the specific findings and
recommendations—and these are all tied to relevant chapters.
First, the background we viewed communities as systems with
systems, that is communities had environment components to them,
infrastructure, social, institutional, economic—and we also felt these
elements must be robust in a community and they must be collaborative.
We examined the whole question of managing risks. One of the
findings was that reducing risk really does require a disciplined
approach—one where you identify the risk, you develop a strategy to deal
with it but you keep that strategy flexible and current so you can
engage with behavioral responses, uncertainties where you know you are
going to have multiple partners and stakeholders and where there is a
variety of tools that are available—some of which are related to
structural approaches (construction, for example) and non-structural
The idea here is that in managing risks a one-size-fits-all strategy is
not going to be the most effective because the places are different, the
hazards that affect them are different and the communities themselves
are different as well.
We also felt we needed to make a business case for the resilience
investment. Why should the nation care? Why does it make
sense to invest in resilience? We found here there is no
consistent database in the United States for understanding the patterns
of hazard events and losses.
We hypothesize that building the business case for resilience
demonstrates that these will have short and long term benefits but in
order to prove it we need such databases. While we don’t have them
now we have portions of them in different agencies and institutions but
they need to be improved in terms of their measurement, their accuracy
and their consistency.
For example not all losses are counted in some aspects of community
assets, like the social and environmental assets of communities that are
not included in any of these databases.
At the same time we know we need some way of measuring progress as we
develop strategies to enhance resilience so we need a consistent basis
for measuring resilience that includes the multiple dimensions that are
embodied within it. We know there are some existing national and
international indicators that measure different aspects of community
systems and hazards but we don’t have a consistent framework for
The committee did not come up with a metric per se but we thought about
what might be included within a measurement system. What we felt
was there needed to be something on the critical infrastructure and its
ability to perform, that we needed information on social factors and
these social factors tend to limit the ability of a community to
We needed something on community and structures and their capacity to
withstand the different types of disasters. Then we needed
something to capture the special needs of individuals and groups.
This discussion is actually found in chapter four about measuring
One of the things the committee recognized early was that enhancing
resilience is not simply a top-down effort—it requires bottom-up
integration as well. Resilience begins with strong local capacity
and it begins with engagement of communities and residents in policy and
practice and their ability to communicate with, to organize, and to
prepare for, distill and adopt reduction measures. We’ve come up
with a chapter on how you build the local capacity which is embodied in
chapter five in the report.
Having started with the bottom-up—and there are different kinds of
strategies that one can facilitate—there also needs to be efforts at the
national level. We know that strong governance at all levels is a
key element in building resilience. We also know that
policies need to take the long term view and help diminish the impact of
these short term expediencies that come up and how these things are
We also recognize that some of the government policies and practices
actually have some unintended consequences that can negatively influence
resilience. We found there are gaps in policies and programs in
the federal agencies. There are some gaps that also result from
the legislative authority under which these agencies operate.
The end result is that the nation does not have an overall vision for
coordinating strategies for resilience although the implementation of
Presidential Directive 8 will address some of these consistency and
coordinating issues we still are lacking in such a broad-based strategy.
The big problem and the big kind of conclusion that the report came out
is that after looking at all these findings if we are going to establish
resilience as a key principle within the federal agencies and in our
local communities we need to have a culture of resilience. We need
to understand and build this culture of resilience.
In this way we will be able to develop the necessary infrastructure—both
human and physical infrastructure to move forward and achieve that
vision of a resilient nation in 2030.
What are the specific recommendations that came out of the report?
The first is that the federal government agencies should incorporate
national resilience as a organizing principle within their agencies and
use this organizing principle as a way to guide the mission and actions
of that agencies.
Number two—the public and private sectors need to work cooperatively to
encourage commitments and investments in risk management strategies that
are complementary. Again it is not a one-size-fits-all strategy
but one that must be tailored to the local communities with the tools
that are readily available.
Number three—we do need this national resource of disaster related data
that can help document the injuries, loss of life, property loss and
economic losses. This database can be used to support better risk
modeling and also can be used to understand the geographic differences
in the impact of disasters and the differences based on social
We think it is important to develop a baseline of resilience metrics
that allows us to move forward and assess our progress as we move toward
that goal of 2030. We think that this development of a resilience
scorecard, or something like this, should be done with several agencies
taking the lead but also with the engagement and involvement of state
and local partners and professional groups.
Recommendation number five is that we should have the development and
support of resilience coalitions and local levels and regional
levels. Recommendation six is that federal agencies should ensure
that they are promoting their national resilience in their programs and
policies by looking at a self-assessment to make sure they aren’t
working at cross purposes with the goals of building and enhancing a
Unlike other studies at the National Academies this particular study has
another year—approximately eight months left on its contact. This
was done intentionally so that we could engage in a national
conversation and do outreach efforts to involve the community of
practice and local communities as we move forward as a nation.
We had a public event in November that was a symposium and webcast which
is available on the Academies website. Last week we were involved
in a program with the USEPA and a program by the National Council for
Science and the Environment. The committee has engaged in
briefings on the hill and at the White House.
We have also started to set up briefings across the country and we have
done agency briefings as well. We think this is a bold
vision. It is one that we need to work on collectively. With
that I’d like to thank you for your attention and turn it back to Amy.
Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Susan. I appreciate your efforts
there. Now we will move to questions and comments. Audience, please keep
your question or comment related to today’s topic and reasonably
concise. We are ready to begin now, so please enter your comment
or question at any time.
[Audience Questions & Answers]
Taylor Conophy: How do you foresee public and private agencies working together in disaster response?
Susan Cutter: I think they already are working together
in disaster response where you see them forging partnerships in terms of
prepositioning of assets outside of the impacted area and coordinating
those assets with the federal government. I know this was done for
Superstorm Sandy. I think we have a new era where the private and
public partnerships are increasingly important in enhancing a
Amy Sebring: Let’s expand that a little more broadly and
not just disaster response. What do you see that the private
sector has to bring to the table in terms of enhancing resilience
Susan Cutter: One of the things you have to think about
is in the area of infrastructure. Most of the nation’s
infrastructure is private. We need to get the private sector
involved in building resilience but because of the private sector it
becomes a business investment in the business case, so you need some way
of working with local communities in terms of tax breaks or something
like that—that would encourage the private sector to develop a more
resilient infrastructure that would serve the community in the short and
Miguel Ascarrunz: Do you believe the President's new agenda for Climate Change will enhance community resiliency and if so, how?
Susan Cutter: Absolutely. Last year there was a report
that came out from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change). That special report was looking at climate change and
disasters. One of the conclusions of that report was that if you
mitigate for disasters in the short run you actually build climate
change adaptation in the long run.
[Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, Full Report, Summary for Policymakers]
So I think these two issues are linked and I think if you take again the
longer view, which is very difficult for Americans to think that
anything that we look at we always want to be satisfied now—but I think
building resilience is a long term strategy. Anything looking at
climate change is also going to be looking at longer term strategies to
reduce the impact.
Annie Merritt: Will there be additional meetings/symposiums in the future?
Susan Cutter: The answer is yes—we are trying to figure
out now what those will be like. I know the committee visited
three communities. We actually got out of Washington, D.C. to do
our work. We went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New
Orleans. We went to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa. We
went to Southern California.
We are going to be talking about the report to the folks in Cedar
Rapids, Iowa on the anniversary of the big flood they had there in May
2008. Also I believe we are trying to develop some web outreach
where we may have a question of the month that people can talk about and
chat about to try to stimulate a conversation about resilience.
Amy Sebring: You mentioned you are doing staff briefings and so on. What kind of reception are you getting from folks in Congress?
Susan Cutter: We are getting good support in Congress. We
haven’t briefed a lot of Senators and Congress people. We have
been briefing agencies as well and it is resonating quite well within
the agencies themselves including agencies that are not sponsors of the
report. At the time the report came out Congress was a little busy
doing other things so it wasn’t as high on their agenda as we would
like it to be. Nevertheless now that we have a new Congress we will make
an effort to go back to the hill and sit down and chat with those
Richard Vandame: Has the DHS PS-Prep Program been part of your review?
Susan Cutter: We looked at all kinds of evidences. We
didn’t really single out one particular program over another but that
was part of the evidence and materials we looked at.
Carl Rebstock: What funding or incentives are available to
communities considering undertaking baseline assessments of
infrastructure, environment, social capacity, etc.?
Susan Cutter: The idea is they are not transparent
enough. Do you do it under your hazard mitigation planning or do
you do it under some other program? One of the things the
committee would like to see is the federal government re-orient some of
these pre-impact programs so that they actually focus on resilience in
the pre-impact stage.
Amy Sebring: That is part of the agency coordination I
would think. You have some in the flood program—I’m thinking of
the Community Rating System as an incentive. You probably have
something under the Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program and so
forth. It would be nice if you had those coordinated
somehow. That takes legislation.
Avagene Moore: Do you know of specific communities attempting
to build resilience that could be monitored, reported on and highlighted
as examples for other communities to follow?
Susan Cutter: We have some experience in Cedar Rapids. We
have some limited experiences across the country. We didn’t see
many exemplars like you have in a formal program—like in Project Impact
of years ago but we think there are good examples out there. We
just haven’t discovered them yet.
We think people are actually working toward disaster resilience but they
may not be calling it that. This is one of the reasons why we
have some outreaches as part of our program so that we can continue to
push this and look at the communities across the nation, as much as we
can identify them, to see what is being done.
Amy Sebring: It seems to me that you mentioned the
symposium you had in DC was set in the context of post-Sandy, versus
your report was pre-Sandy I believe, at least in the writing of
it. I am seeing in the news that there is some growing awareness
about how extremely vulnerable some areas are. Can you speak a
little about how the experience of Sandy is relating to this?
Susan Cutter: I think one of the important aspects of
Sandy was that it showed in the major media market in the country, in
very graphic ways, the need for disaster resilience. What you see
in Sandy in the New York area and lesser so in the New Jersey area is a
more thoughtful conversation about recovery.
While there is a rush to try to recover quickly a lot of people are
slowing the process down a little bit to ask the question of how we can
make our recovery more resilient. This to me is the first time
we’ve seen these conversations happening among government entities.
If you look to the New York 2100 plan that Governor Cuomo put out it is
all about resilience and it is all about how do we build a resilient
community back and what are those sort of choices we need to make as
communities. I think the conversation is starting and that it is a
good conversation to have because these losses are not
sustainable. We have to do something.
Deborah Matherly: How do you encourage/ require state and local
governments (as well as the private sector) to include mitigation and
resilience in their new and renewal projects (highways, transit,
utilities, etc.), especially as budgets are tight?
Susan Cutter: This is why one of the aspects of the
report is making the business case. If you make the business case
that it makes economic sense to do this I think people will buy into it.
If you say we need to do this because it makes us feel good under these
economic realities that is not going to work. What the committee
is thinking is that you need to shift the approach.
We need to make the business case for resilience—why it pays, why it
makes sense to do it, why it is ethical to do it. A lot of our
efforts are focused in on how do you demonstrate that resilience works,
that resilience will save lives and dollars and that the private sector
will become engaged in it because it makes economic sense for them to do
Tara Laycock: Can you comment on methodologies for risk
assessments, or Hazard Risk Vulnerability Assessments - and how to
integrate or bring together different results from approaches that may
be used locally, given that the goal is national consistency?
Susan Cutter: We could have a whole webinar on that, but
there are ways to aggregate data that are important at the local level
into state and federal databases. Those data can be linked
geographically through the use of geographic information systems for
example. That is one of the best ways of gathering that empirical
basis in support of risk assessment.
If you do risk assessments locally where you have that fine grain detail
they can then be aggregated up to a county level, a state level or
national level without much difficulty.
Amy Sebring: We have done a program in the past with you on the Social Vulnerability Index
that incorporates that type of data, and you have some other hazard
data at your institute that can be downloaded. We have a link to
the institute site on our background page, so one might check that out
I can see where she is coming from in terms of having some national
approach to doing this so you can have equal measures across the country
versus trying to compare apples and oranges.
Susan Cutter: I think that was the idea behind the
National Scorecard kind of approach where there would be some baseline
indicators that would be used everywhere but then they could be
customized for the local experience. We are thinking of things
like the LEED certification for example where you have to have certain
things in your buildings in order to become LEED Certified Platinum for
example. [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]
The development of those minimal things that would monitor resilience we
think would work across the nation but communities would customize that
a little more bit so they could monitor their own progress independent
of what is going on nationally.
Amy Sebring: So the concept of the scorecard is to develop a national model so folks can adapt?
Susan Cutter: Correct, but there would be some basis of
comparison across all communities because they would be measuring, say
for the sake of argument maybe five different parameters, but for
some communities they would have twenty and other communities would have
six parameters. Those five would constitute the national
comparison and you could compare Community A to Community B because they
all collected or because the Scorecard was based on the same
Amy Sebring: I would like to ask about the loss data
mentioned in part of the report about how we don’t have a nice, single
consistent repository of loss data—just fragments depending on the
program and so on. What does the insurance industry do? I
assume they collect this loss data to calculate actuarial rates, but I
presume they are not necessarily willing to share that. Do they
have a role?
Susan Cutter: The insurance industry collects data on
insured properties, not uninsured properties. They may collect
some data on business interruption but it is only for those policies
they hold and the market share they have. NOAA, through the
National Climate Data Center, collects weather related events and we get
some loss statistics from them but they don’t do anything on
There you have to go to the USGS but the USGS is great at collecting
data on the physical dimensions of the events but not as good on the
social, in terms of dollars lost or injuries. The Center for
Disease Control has data on fatalities from natural hazards and those
data don’t always articulate with what you find from the NCDC or from
USGS. Everybody has a piece of the action.
You can look at these databases against each other and some are
aggregated at levels that aren’t useful for county emergency
managers. The only place they are semi-attached to bring them
together is through a database that we have called SHELDUS.org.
This is a database at the county level for the whole United
States. It has eighteen different natural hazard types and it is
searchable online and it is downloadable online. It compiles all
of these federally based databases into one and reconciles it at the
county level because that is where emergency management begins. And, it
Miguel Ascarrunz: Are your efforts linked, in any way, with FEMA's Strategic Foresight Initiative?
Susan Cutter: I am peripherally knowledgeable of it, and the answer is no.
Abel, LW: Most Amateur Radio ("HAM") Clubs volunteer to help
with public events (e.g., parades, marathons, etc.) as well as providing
communications assistance for local served agencies and emergency
responders. Is there any mention in the report about this focus?
Susan Cutter: We talk about community based organizations
and we talk a lot about crowd-sourcing information and the use of new
technology such as Facebook, Twitter, et cetera in providing real-time
crowd-source information. That is included in chapter four so I
would suggest if people are interested in how to use that kind of local
knowledge by residents or community based organizations that is where we
bring it in.
Taylor Conophy: Do you believe crowd-sourced information is
effective, particularly in disaster relief where information is
abundantly available from non-governmental agencies?
Susan Cutter: I think we have good experience that it is
effective. We have the Haiti experience and wildfires in southern
California and there is a process with crowd-sourced information that is
self-correcting. In the past governmental agencies were a little
concerned about crowd-sourcing information but now I think there is a
much more relaxed attitude about it that it has an effect and can be
useful in the immediate response period.
Avagene Moore: What role does 'political will' play at all levels of government in building a resilient nation, state or community?
Susan Cutter: Avagene has a way of asking the central
question. If we don’t have the political will to do it, it won’t
get done. Getting that political will means taking a long term
view over the short term. It means making tough decisions.
It means making the business case and the political for engagement with
communities from the local to the national level.
We think the political will is there but we need a spokesperson and we
think it should come from the national level with setting the vision for
what we want a resilient nation to look like.
Amy Sebring: That is one of the things that struck me
most about your report. This is something new—this idea of setting
a goal or at least having a conversation about what the goal should be,
whether it is 2030 or something else. It seems to me if you can
at least get folks to talk about the consensus of what the goal should
be, it might help get some will to achieve it.
Susan Cutter: The idea was we didn’t want a report that
said, “Develop a vision”. We wanted to provide actionable
recommendations to the nation they could take, some of which is
low-hanging fruit like, “Enforce your building codes”, and others which
may take a while to get our heads wrapped around this new kind of ethic
and culture of resilience.
But it just makes so much sense—just like mitigation makes so much
sense—but you can see we have not done as good a job as we could have
with hazard mitigation. Setting up this as a building of culture,
having leadership at all levels, making the business case and getting
everyone involved because it is everybody’s business, and moving forward
toward that vision for 2030 which is a step in the right direction.
John Contestabile: Resilience is the new "thing", but how do
you see this approach being accepted/adopted across DHS/FEMA/NOAA/COE,
etc....the dozens of disparate programs in the federal space?
Isn’t this a real roadblock to widespread adoption? How can we
Susan Cutter: We saw in our examination of some of the
things that were going on in the federal space that there is quite a bit
of activity on resilience but it is uncoordinated, overlapping and
there are gaps. One of the ideas is let’s charge the federal
government or ask them to do a self-assessment of their programs and
policies to see that they are promoting resilience.
If every federal agency does it we can look across the federal agencies
to identify overlaps and gaps and do a better job at coordinating
it. We need an office of resilience and that would help us
coordinate this function. We have a lot going on in the federal
state but it is going on in silos and people are not talking to each
other. They are not coordinated at all and we need to do that.
Amy Sebring: Have you done any outreach to NEMA, IAEM, and other professional associations perhaps in the planning area?
Susan Cutter: We are in the process now of setting up some briefings with those groups.
Michael Gurnick: FEMA has focused more on disaster recovery monies
rather than preparedness ahead of time. This is all about giving more to
the 'private sector' and it reeks of politics. We cannot continue to
have a constant 'do over' when disasters occur.
Susan Cutter: I agree.
Amy Sebring: Congress just did a big supplemental for
National Flood Insurance and the Sandy disaster recovery
assistance. Folks are starting to ask about the price tag, are
Susan Cutter: They are. This is the first time that
I recall where there was actually some hesitancy on voting on the
Disaster Relief Bill. I think it is because of the economic
constraints we are all working under. Why are we allowing
communities to make decisions where they are not taking responsibility
for their actions, where they allow people to develop or redevelop on
barrier islands or develop on known flood plains?
When the flood comes the community says, “The federal government will
bail us out.” We need to shift our thinking. We need to
develop in a way that brings the economic engines to communities but
does it in a way that assets are protected and where the community is
resilient when that inevitable flood hits.
Mike Gregory: Our culture is based around marketing and it is
not doing a good job at getting the resilience and mitigation messages
out. It is time to use the marketing professionals?
Susan Cutter: I would like to see a mass marketing, Super Bowl
type campaign on resilience. I’m not sure who would fund it.
Wouldn’t that be great?
Amy Sebring: Absolutely. Okay we will wrap it up for today. On
behalf of Avagene, myself, and all our participants today, thank you
very much Susan for joining us and your efforts towards evidence-based
disaster policies. We wish you continued success in the future.
Thanks to all our participants today for all the good questions and
comments really stimulating. We really appreciate that. Folks,
before you go, PLEASE take a moment to complete our little feedback form
and enter any additional comments you may have.
Our next program is scheduled for February 13. Please watch for our
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Have a great afternoon everyone! We are adjourned.