Leading the Way in Community Resilience

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Maj. Gen. Warren C. Edwards (Ret.) and Michael T. Lesnick, Ph.D. are the authors of this article. Their brief biographies appear at the bottom of the article.

 


The extreme weather and natural disasters of the past decade provide compelling indications of the range of catastrophes that American communities and their embedded businesses are facing with growing frequency and intensity. Floods, fires, earthquakes, and tsunami combined to produce tremendous economic costs of natural disaster to the world’s economy. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimated the costs of natural disasters worldwide to be $366 billion in 2011. Add to the risk of natural disaster the real potential for human-caused disaster ranging from acts of terrorism to industrial and transportation accidents, economic downturn, and the threat of large scale health events and there is much that should keep business leaders and public officials awake at night. 

All of this is complicated by an accumulation of challenges that may be unique in our country’s history. As a nation we face growing social and economic complexity and political polarization. We are trying to recover from the most significant recession since the 1930s while coping with ever-accelerating rates of change and unprecedented demographic shifts. The inherent resilience of America and its communities is severely stressed. There is an urgent need for our communities and businesses to recognize the restorative power of a vibrant economy. Businesses of all sizes must learn to better anticipate acute disruption, and through aggressive, adaptive planning, limit impacts, respond effectively, and recover rapidly and fully. 

In short, it is time for our business sector to lead their communities to become resilient. 

Every community has its own characteristics, needs, challenges, and solutions. The complexity of risks coupled with the inherent diversity of a community means that our traditional stove-piped way of dealing with disasters and other major disruptions must change. To succeed, building resilience must be a “whole community” process and American businesses need to help lead the way. We know that in order to become a more resilient nation the entire community must develop a practical understanding of the interdependencies that can exacerbate its vulnerabilities as well as amplify its capabilities. By using that common understanding, the entire community can then develop a resilience roadmap where each institution and business can play its own role, but also work together to overcome challenges and seize the opportunities inherent in change. Resilience is and always will be a “whole community” process. No individual part—government, private business, or non-governmental organizations—can create a resilient community on its own. 

For business leaders, the business case for community resilience is simple, practical, and real. While it is essential that individuals prepare for disasters, coherent and coordinated community-wide preparation for disaster creates robustness and redundancy in all community services that produce tangible economic and social benefits. Creating this enhanced and better coordinated capability to continue the normal flow of goods and services during significant disruptions provides the community with a quality of life and competitive advantage whether or not a disaster occurs. 

Further, when a disaster does happen, the additional capacity associated with building resilience will speed recovery and then reestablish normal life and economic activity more quickly. We are learning with each disaster that a resilient community is one that knows how to get its local economy back up and running as quickly and efficiently as possible. The successful ones think about the vulnerabilities that can affect the local economy, the positive preventative and response measures to address these most important vulnerabilities, and the interdependent weak links and positive actions where government, companies, schools, and voluntary groups can coordinate for a net positive effect.

There are three things American businesses can do to help themselves and the communities in which they operate to be more resilient: 

Business leaders can be a voice helping to articulate the need for their community’s resilience.

They can be an active participant ensuring a deliberate and tailored “all-of-society” approach to make their local community more resilient, benefitting themselves and all others. To some extent, communities have been inundated with disaster messages using overlapping and unfamiliar terms—“resilience,” “disaster preparedness,” “sustainability,” and “risk management,” to name a few. All are complex and most are intangible. Community members respond by tuning out and turning off. Business leaders are particularly valued and respected members of the community. They are employers, civic leaders, and powerful influencers. Their position within the community gives them significant leverage with elected officials and civic organizations. They are uniquely positioned to trumpet the message that a strong economy is vital to innovation, growth, quality of life, and, when disaster strikes, recovery.

Business owners, executives, and managers can take concrete action to make their own operations, facilities, and employees safer; better prepared to withstand a disruption; and have the plans and means to recover successfully. 

Without an effective continuity and recovery plan, 90% of businesses that experience a serious disaster close within five years. Knowledge of that fact alone should be sufficient to ensure that business owners take planning for disaster very seriously. 

Successful business continuity plans need to address more than operations and facilities to ensure their recovery. 

Employees must also know that their families and possessions are prepared and safe before they are ready to return to work and help recover their employer’s business. Chambers of commerce of all sizes can work with local businesses that have expertise and experience to help other companies improve their own resilience while becoming active participants in community-wide resilience initiatives. Each of these chambers is as unique as the communities they serve. They are catalysts for creating a healthy business environment and recognize that disaster preparedness is critical to their mission. They are not alone—economic development organizations and other business networks can advocate together for and assist in local business continuity planning. They can also provide education on the importance of insurance and identify local sources of unrestricted financing that can be redirected in times of emergency. 

CONCLUSIONS

The frequency and likelihood of natural and other disruptions is unlikely to diminish in the coming decades. Taking action to better prepare for these situations will surely benefit those companies that do so. If American business leaders can become a voice in their own communities and coordinate in building resilience, they can help diminish the impacts of a disaster as well as the “down time” for their economy quality of life, and vibrancy that makes each community special.

A resilient America depends upon having resilient communities. Neither can be called resilient if we do not find ways to bring back local economies as quickly and efficiently as possible.


 

Maj. Gen. Warren C. Edwards (Ret.) is the executive director of the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI) at the Meridian Institute. Previously, Edwards served as the director for the Southeast Region Research Initiative (SERRI) at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as the senior director at CACI, Inc. Before joining CACI, he was deputy commanding general of the Third U.S. Army, the command reporting directly to Gen. Tommy Franks in supporting Army and Marine operations for the U.S. Central Command in Afghanistan. Edwards holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Richmond and a Master of Science in international relations and strategic studies from the Naval War College.

Michael T. Lesnick, Ph.D., is the co-founder of and a senior partner at the Meridian Institute, with 30 years of experience facilitating national and international policy dialogues, negotiations, and internal and multi-organizational strategy development processes. Previously, Lesnick served as the senior vice president of The Keystone Center’s Science and Public Policy Program as well as a resource and development research associate at Resource Consultants International. He is also the author of a variety of publications on conflict management and collaborative problem solving. Lesnick holds an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in natural resource policy and environmental dispute resolution.