From Defense to Offense: The (Bigger) Role for Private Sector in Disaster Preparedness

July 31, 2018

Last week, the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, asked me and two other CEOs: What can the private sector do to better prepare the country for natural disasters?

This really important question cut to the core of the 7th Annual Building Resilience Through Private-Public Partnerships Conference.

Last year’s hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes stretched the nation’s emergency management community and first responders to their limits. FEMA alone responded to 59 major disaster declarations, as more people registered for disaster relief assistance in 2017 than in the previous 10 years combined. And I agreed with the consensus view in the room: that increasing private-sector involvement will strengthen a more community-based, cross-sector approach to disaster response, recovery and prevention.

It was inspiring to hear how my fellow panelists were leading. Ardent Mills CEO Dan Dye talked about his company’s response to Hurricane Maria: Ardent Mills quickly restored operations at its sister company’s flour mill in San Juan while supporting employees and the surrounding community. I also heard Nextdoor Co-Founder and CEO Nirav Tolia talk about how the company’s private social network is better connecting neighbors – and neighborhoods to government agencies – to help save lives during emergencies.

I then shared Siemens’ approach to building resilient communities: deploying technology that keeps critical infrastructure a step ahead of Mother Nature.

Resilience is above all about keeping people safe. But it’s also about helping communities and economies maintain competitiveness. That’s why a big priority for Siemens is helping communities and businesses maintain power at all times. Steady, reliable electricity is ultimately what enables so many things in our society to work.

Here are four things Siemens has learned about advancing resilient infrastructure.

All communities, of all sizes, can learn from the New York City region.

It was Hurricane Sandy six years ago that brought resilient into the national conversation surrounding critical infrastructure. Today, the New York region is more resilient than it was before Sandy struck, proving that critical infrastructure can be upgraded to better withstand shocks.

We all remember the impact of flooding in the region. Well, after Hurricane Sandy, Siemens worked with the region’s power utility, Con Edison, to deploy storm hardening systems that flood-proofed power services going forward.

New York City is admittedly pretty unique. But the resilience work we’ve done there can be replicated anywhere else. Like ConEd, Westar Energy in Kansas now uses our mobile resilience transformers to protect its power grid too.

Power market trends are working in favor of resilient infrastructure.

The power market is shifting away from supplying electricity solely by a central power grid. Communities and businesses, schools and hospitals, are increasingly installing their own onsite power systems to supplement their central grid connection.

Some power consumers are doing this to reliably integrate renewable energy, or to reduce energy costs. Yet perhaps the most remarkable benefit that this new, distributed power approach can bring to society is resiliency.

Take Olein Refinery in Puerto Rico.

Five years ago, Siemens worked with Olein to install an onsite power system so that the company would having steady, reliable power at all times.

Olein has since cut its energy costs in half.

And when Hurricane Maria hit, Olein not only survived; it stayed open. A month after Maria, Olein had its best sales in company history and hired additional workers.

This approach to distributed power can be applied on a larger scale than just one organization. Earlier this week Siemens outlined how Puerto Rico could use 10 mini-grids to enhance its existing energy infrastructure to improve resilience during natural disasters.

Digital infrastructure is not only smarter; it’s more resilient.

After Hurricane Sandy, the section of the New York City subway using a digital train control system remained functional. But it’s not just about making our infrastructure stronger; digital technology also enables traditionally static infrastructure systems to adapt to changing circumstances in real-time.

Businesses and buildings with intelligent communications systems can get important alerts out more quickly and speed up evacuations. Communities with digital traffic management systems can both smooth out rush-hour traffic and adapt quickly in the event of an emergency.

Infrastructure has a long shelf life. Fully replacing something is a truly rare event. Data and digital technology enable infrastructure operators to breathe new life into existing assets and adapt them for natural disasters.

Policies should encourage deploying technology.

A key value-add of increased private sector involvement in disaster preparedness is helping “shift the country from playing defense to playing offense,” as Nirav put it.

But one of the ways that utilities, municipalities and government authorities can help the private sector lead the way is by creating energy policies that support technology application. This will make it easier for companies with technology know-how to collaborate with these entities as they rethink how to apply new solutions.

Whether 2017 is the “new normal” when it comes to severe weather and natural disasters is frankly impossible to predict. We do know, though, that we have the technology tools and solutions to prepare for any outcome.

Business will need to lead. At the same time, the public and private sectors will need to continue working together – and working proactively – to address challenges.

My thanks go out to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and its Federal Partners for organizing and inviting me to participate. You can watch the full webcast here (our session starts around 1:54). 

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared here.]