Strengthening Communities through Partnership: A Look at the 11th Annual Building Resilience Conference

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Alejandro N. Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, speaking
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaks during the Opening Keynote on the second day of the conference.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted its 11th Annual Building Resilience Through Private-Public Partnerships Conference on July 28-29 and featured top business leaders and resilience experts. Catch all the mainstage sessions here.

During the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s 11th Annual Building Resilience Conference last month, thought leaders, government officials, and policy experts emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships to mitigate natural disasters, cybersecurity threats, and public health emergencies, as well as build greater resilience across communities.

An overarching takeaway from this year’s conference is the importance of readiness for these different hazards across sectors ensuring relationships, capabilities, and resources are focused on long-term resilience goals.

Importance of Private-Public Partnerships to Build Resilience

Alejandro N. Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), outlined how the agency plans to target pressing issues throughout the country with the support of the private sector and nonprofits.

“Resilience is really defined as a community phenomenon and it requires a community effort,” he said. “DHS, our department, brings a lot to the table – grant dollars, information sharing, technical assistance, and best practices – in addition to our own operational capabilities and our extraordinary people. But we’re only effective in building resilience when all of us are sitting around that table together.”

He focused on the latest flooding events that occurred in Kentucky and reminded that the state had also experienced devastating tornados at the end of last year. Entire towns were decimated, not just homes and businesses, but also federal department buildings, headquarters of emergency responders, places of worship, and banks.

As the intensity and frequency of storms increase, the time to act and strengthen partnerships to mitigate the next crisis is before it happens.

Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service, highlighted the statistical changes around floods, fires, hurricanes, and tornados during his keynote. According to recent data, the U.S. experienced a billion-dollar weather event every 82 days in the 1980s; now, the country endures one every 8 to 12 days. Graham spent 15 years of his career in Louisiana and witnessed flooding during high tide events, extremes consistent with climate change.

“After Katrina, the normalcy is everything, Graham said. “You can’t get normalcy until stuff comes back up and running. I saw people drop to their knees in tears and lined up for miles when the first McDonald’s opened up on the west bank of New Orleans. Take that in.”

Caitlin Durkovich, senior director of resilience and response at the National Security Council, echoed similar concerns when discussing the importance of building an institutional response to disasters.

“We are stuck in this conundrum of always planning for the last disaster,” she said. “The next flood, the next fire, the next hurricane and the challenge that we, as a broader community face, is to get out of this paradigm of thinking about how do we get out of this, but really build the muscle memory, institutionalize the ability to be flexible, and to anticipate not always knowing what is going to come next.”

Focus on Equity and Closing the Gap on Small Business Readiness

Although climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics impact all within a community, it does not impact everyone equally. For many communities, the ability to bounce back following any disaster is difficult, and the ability to prepare for something that might happen tomorrow is a luxury. As organizations in public and private sectors work to address these challenges, equity must be integrated within response and recovery plans.

Claudine Zukowski, global disaster relief coordinator at Procter & Gamble (P&G), understands the importance of centering equity in her work.

“The P&G disaster relief program is committed to supporting underserved communities following disasters,” she said. “We work with our relief partners to identify areas which are most at risk and help to provide support before, during, and after a disaster strikes.”

Businesses of all sizes play a significant role in accelerating this recovery after a disaster strikes.  Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and the strength of a community is often tied to the strength of the businesses within it, so the ability for small businesses to recover quickly is key.

As Brooks Nelson, senior manager for disaster preparedness and response at the Walmart Foundation shared, “When we serve a community after the disaster event, we want our stores to be open so that they can serve the community, but also what resources we can provide, whether it's using our space in the parking lot or [donating] our products to nonprofits...being that first resource in the community for those individuals to turn to when communication systems are down, when they don't know where to go, where the shelters are – they know where the Walmart is.”

Joe Ruiz, vice president of social impact and The UPS Foundation, noted that many small businesses, particularly minority-owned businesses, experienced significant hardship from the pandemic.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to UPS’s business strategy,” Ruiz said. “We believe that our intentional focus on these critical areas leads to better outcomes throughout our business.”

The UPS Foundation has worked with the U.S. Chamber Foundation for nearly a decade to help facilitate more disaster-resilient communities and businesses through Resilience in a Box, which is based on best practices and designed to educate newcomers on business resilience.

Optimizing Supply Chain Coordination

Building resilience does not occur overnight; it can take time to create solutions in the face of a natural disaster or pandemic. David Senior, senior vice president of market economics at AmerisourceBergen, began focusing on the fragility of the supply chain prior to the pandemic and recognized it was too big for one company or industry to solve on its own and needed public-private partnerships.

“We had a steep learning curve in terms of how to work and communicate with one another, and we were doing that in the middle of the crisis,” he said. “Even though we got through it, we need to keep learning, communicating, and partnering with one another – every day and during blue skies – so we’re ready for the next emergency. If we can do this effectively, it’ll make our collective response better.”  

Brett McMillen, director of global strategic partners at Amazon Supply Chain, underscored the importance of constant innovation and agility within a business in order to adapt – and thrive – following the next challenge.

“When you look at how you’ve set up your supply chains, one of the things that is most important is: you need to be putting innovation and agility into your supply chain. Because we learned a lot from COVID, but we don’t know what the next supply chain challenge is going to be.”  

As we prepare for subsequent challenges, it’s imperative for all entities, whether it be a government agency, a nonprofit, or a business, to recognize both the power of people and partnership to overcome devastating hardship.

“The key to helping communities recover from disasters quicker and mitigating future disasters is the resilience of both the local community and the local economy,” FEMA Deputy Administrator Erik Hooks shared.

These connections can build a stronger society and provide hope for the future. It is clear from these speakers and many others who participated in the conference that see the U.S. Chamber Foundation as a resource for helping the business community advance solutions to create stronger, more resilient communities locally and globally.

Questions or interested in partnership opportunities? Email resilience@uschamber.com.