Columnist: Resilience to Disasters: Challenge of the Century?

NEW YORK -- Resilience -- our ability to withstand massive natural or man-made shocks -- is fast becoming the big challenge word of this decade. Most likely, the century as well.

And small wonder. Vast floods, severe droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and tornados are no strangers to mankind. But in a world of gathering clouds of severe climate change -- rising waters engulfing shorelines, severe droughts, high temperatures -- the dangers are increasing ominously.

As one defense, President Obama noted in his recent climate policy speech, we'll need much "more resilient infrastructure ... stronger seawalls, natural barriers, hardened power grids, hardened water systems, hardened fuel supplies."

The federal government, Obama announced, would open access to its climate data and imagery so that states and cities can assess risk under different climate scenarios and not "waste money building structures that don't withstand the next storm."

But today's perils extend still further -- witness the Boston Marathon bombing, the weapons of death used in Newtown and other murderous shootouts, potential cyberattacks, deadly chemical spills, or a repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide, taking 50 million to 100 million lives.

Today we have first-ever-in-history perils: cyberwarfare, for example. Or the split atom. At a "PopTech" conference on "The City Resilient," held in Brooklyn in late June, I heard a speaker ask: "What if there was a small nuclear explosion in New York City?" On top of the terror such an event would trigger, there might be tens of thousands of potential victims, quickly overwhelming the city's hospitals and their 40,000 beds.

The harsh reality is that no city can ever be totally prepared for disasters. As the Boston bombing reaction showed, advance coordination of law enforcement and other agencies can make a real difference. Some areas -- such as Lower Manhattan -- may have such economic value that billions get invested in flood walls and bulkheads to protect them against storms.

But if there's a top way to build a City Resilient, the Brooklyn conference concluded, it's not hardware or even government agencies working in tandem (though both are important). Rather, it's neighborhood dynamics -- neighbors knowing each other, mixing together, rubbing shoulders and collaborating in community organizations, building trust, before a disaster.

I'm reminded of my urban coverage in the 1980s, when most eyes turned to Washington to provide help for highly distressed neighborhoods. But the real difference was grassroots collaboration, hard-knuckle revival groups such as Banana Kelly in the South Bronx and the exciting growth of community development corporations in those years.

Local civic strength, social resilience, is still a top value. Disruption is not new -- there's always been some danger in all human life. As Brooklyn conferee David DeSteno of Northeastern University noted:

"What's basic is that we stand together, or we stand alone. We hoard resources or we share. There may be short-term profit in ignoring others. But in the long run, the social bonds of a community are critical to self."

Rockefeller Foundation polling in the wake of Superstorm Sandy bore out that theme. Thirty-one percent of respondents -- and up to 47 percent in the most heavily impacted areas -- said they'd reached out to friends, family and neighbors for such backup as power, food, water and shelter. By contrast, only 17 percent said they'd sought help from government in the storm's wake, according to an Associated Press-University of Chicago survey.

It's important to provide physical spaces for people to meet and interact -- indeed that's the formula that "works globally, from courtyard to general neighborhood, church or mosque square" -- a continuum "from private to public space," Jonathan Rose, a developer of closely planned mixed income communities, commented.

There is a nonprofit -- -- that's now helping interested cities firm up their neighborhood connections, including timely bulletins and organizing disaster plans.

But tough decisions do lie ahead. Perhaps most challenging of all: How much highly vulnerable pieces of city real estate should be protected -- or, alternatively, be allowed to be submerged -- in the face of highly likely storm flooding?

Examples include New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and New York City's Rockaways (actually a peninsula of Long Island), swamped by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy respectively. Neighborhood activists from both neighborhoods were at the Brooklyn conference, arguing spiritedly that they'll never retreat.

Another thorny issue: Cities (like Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York) may forge sophisticated disaster plans. But what if suburbs don't collaborate? Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, N.J., a city hard hit by Sandy, asserts: "We need a regional approach to protect the entire area."
But given many localities' insistence on self-determination, this won't be easy.

Bottom line: The debate has just begun. There are many positives to city, regional, global interconnectedness, and searches for common, truly resilient solutions. But massive challenges, too. Look for one, extended, rocky ride.

Neal Peirce's email address is

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.