University of South Carolina

Professor chairs National Academies committee on disaster resilience

By Steven Powell,, 803-777-1923

The National Academies has just issued a report calling for a new national approach to facing natural and human-caused disasters.

“The nation is experiencing more costly disasters; there are more people being affected every year,” said Susan Cutter, a professor in the department of geography and director of USC’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, who served as chair of the committee that prepared the report. “We know that the population is continuing to grow, and thus more people are living in hazardous places. And the public infrastructure is aging beyond its design limits.”

Increasing the nation's resilience to natural and human-caused disasters will require complementary federal policies and locally driven actions that center on a national vision, the report noted.  Improving resilience should be seen as a long-term process, but it can be coordinated around measurable short-term goals that will allow communities to better prepare and plan for, withstand, recover from and adapt to adverse events.

The study was a project of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, and carried out by the National Research Council.  These private, nonprofit institutions – known collectively as the National Academies – provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

The report was financed by a broad range of federal sponsors, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Energy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, NASA and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Community and Regional Resilience Institute. The committee had its first meeting on Sept. 29, 2010, and made visits to New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa, and Southern California.

“Without innovations to improve resilience, the cost of disasters will continue to rise both in absolute dollar amounts and in losses to social, cultural and environmental systems in each community,” Cutter said. “Enhancing our resilience to disasters is imperative for the stability, progress, and well-being of the nation.”

Improving resilience is not the responsibility of any one federal agency, nor can it be encapsulated in a single policy, the report stated.  Rather, functions of government at all levels should be guided by a set of principles and best practices that advance resilience. 

The committee found gaps in resilience policies and programs among federal agencies and noted that resilience is diminished by ineffective coordination of roles and responsibilities.  The report called for federal agencies to perform self-assessments of their programs and activities and share their analyses of key resilience programs with the public.  The executive branch should develop a clear national vision and framework for a comprehensive strategy toward improving disaster resilience, which can be tailored by regions, states, and cities for their specific needs and priorities.  The committee identified the lack of accounting for the total cost of disasters to the nation as a priority as well as the need to measure progress towards becoming resilient. “One approach is the use of a scorecard where communities could compare themselves to other communities across the nation,” Cutter said.

“The committee has briefed the House Committee on Homeland Security in Congress,” said Cutter. “We also had a briefing with members of the White House national security staff.”

Although local conditions vary across the country, the report identified universal steps that all communities can take to improve their disaster resilience. These include building resilience coalitions at the local level by engaging residents in disaster planning and preparedness, helping to educate and communicate information about risks, and adopting and enforcing building codes. These actions are designed to help communities reduce the impacts of disasters and to build safer, more economically vibrant and healthier communities. Long-term investments to improve resilience will need to come from both the public and private sectors, the report noted.

An event slated for October 2012 in Washington, D.C., will launch broader discussion and implementation of the committee's recommendations. Other regional events around the country are planned for 2013 and will include participants from all levels of government, community and nonprofit organizations, the private sector, research community and the public.

“I would be thrilled if South Carolina and its communities took a leading role in developing a long-term comprehensive strategy for becoming more resilient to natural disasters,” Cutter said.

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Posted: 08/03/12 @ 12:50 PM | Updated: 08/28/12 @ 9:32 AM | Permalink