Urban Resilience: Strengthening Survival Skills

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


How can cities and towns become better prepared for natural disasters? How can they mitigate the potential damage? What can they do to speed up recovery if the worst happens? How can they help their populations adapt to growing threats? What role do education and culture play? These are the types of questions panelists tackled at the ECPA Ministerial Dialogue on Urban Resilience.


Natural disasters can hit anywhere—not just in cities—but the human impact can be especially severe in high-population areas. That has serious implications for Latin America and the Caribbean, where an estimated 80% of people live in urban areas.

The Ministerial Dialogue on Urban Resilience, held on November 5, covered a range of issues, from technical to social, that come into play with disasters. Three of the speakers were from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which studies disaster resilience from various angles. Experts from Chile, Colombia, and Saint Lucia also participated. (A video of the event, along with each panelist’s presentation, can be found here.)

One central message: It’s more economical and effective to prevent than to rebuild. Panelist María Benítez, Deputy Director for Risk Reduction at Colombia’s National Unit for Disaster Risk Management, put it this way: “The best time to save a life is before a disaster happens.”

Here are some of the other takeaways from the session:

Natural disasters tend to be wake-up calls. In Colombia, the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano—which caused more than 20,000 deaths—led to the creation of an inter-institutional, decentralized national disaster response system, Benítez said. In Chile, a 2010 earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale triggered a shift in natural disaster policy, from a focus on emergency response to long-term resilience, according to Felipe Machado, Director of the Chilean Institute for Disaster Resilience (Itrend, by its Spanish acronym).

The clock is ticking. In the Caribbean, the growing intensity of hurricanes in recent years has brought new urgency to the need for resilience, said Terrence Gilliard, Chief Energy, Science and Technology Officer in Saint Lucia’s Department of Infrastructure, Ports and Energy. Hurricanes Maria and Irma caused catastrophic damage on the islands of Dominica, Barbuda, and Puerto Rico in 2017, and this year Dorian hit the Bahamas with unprecedented ferocity. Saint Lucia is looking at several ways to make its energy sector less vulnerable, including grid improvements and policy changes.

Progress is possible. Howard Harary, Director of the NIST Engineering Laboratory, pointed to a success story NIST was involved in—a comprehensive effort, beginning in the mid-1970s, to address the problem of deadly fires in the United States. A deep dive into the nature and impacts of the problem led to better standards and safer equipment, ultimately cutting the number of fires and civilian deaths by around half in 30 years, he said. Now, NIST and partner agencies study such aspects of disaster resilience as materials, infrastructure, and community resilience.

First things first. Disaster recovery will be smoother if hospitals, schools, and shelters can function properly. In Puerto Rico, NIST is studying these types of critical buildings to better understand how they performed during Hurricane Maria. In Colombia, the effects of a 1999 earthquake in the country’s coffee-growing region were exacerbated because the local police command center and fire station both collapsed, Benítez said. Of course, it’s not only buildings but systems—water, electric power, telecommunications, transportation, wastewater treatment—that need to be resilient.

The right laws and policies are important. Some Caribbean countries have laws restricting the distribution and sale of electricity; this can hamper energy resilience by limiting the use of distributed generation or renewable energy sources. Legal reforms to free up power generation would help attract foreign investment, Gilliard said. On an international level, he said, the system for categorizing countries by income complicates financing for resilience. (The World Bank considers Saint Lucia an upper-middle income country.) Other speakers talked about the importance of sound laws, regulations, and codes in place to establish and enforce construction standards.

Resilience is a multidisciplinary undertaking. In researching the effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, NIST teams have included engineers, economists, and epidemiologists, among others. In Chile, a group of 80 experts from different sectors and disciplines worked throughout 2016 to develop a national resilience strategy. This is a task that must go beyond government and involve the private sector, academia, and civil society as well, Machado said.

Communities are an essential part of the equation. Local leaders and residents need to become involved in setting resilience goals, developing plans, and allocating limited resources, said Therese McAllister of NIST’s Community Resilience Program. One priority, she said, should be to try to protect the most economically vulnerable people, who often suffer the most devastating consequences in a disaster. NIST has developed planning guides and software tools to help communities make decisions. It is also conducting a long-term study in Lumberton, North Carolina—which was hit by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and two years later by Florence—to analyze the different dimensions of recovery for communities.

Developing resilience requires cultural change. It’s important to ensure that the rebuilding process doesn’t erase the memory of past disasters, Machado said, and that young people learn the lessons of resilience and sustainability. Teaching respect for both the natural and the built environment should begin in elementary school, said Judith Mitrani-Reiser, Director of the Disaster and Failure Studies Program at NIST. And, several speakers noted, the conversation about vulnerability and resilience needs to be based in science but translated into everyday language, so that it’s not just scientists talking to each other.