From depleted resources to toppling buildings, natural disasters can wreak havoc on communities. Some areas are more prone to particular weather—such as tornadoes, hurricanes or blizzards—while other regions see little need to plan for such catastrophes. When extreme weather impacts cities with large, unprepared populations, the opportunity for devastation increases.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city spent years addressing the damage brought about by the disaster. Almost 10 years later, New Orleans is still recovering. To prevent other cities from suffering the same fate, several organizations have banded together to emphasize the importance of citywide resilience.

The Rockefeller Foundation fosters urban resiliency
Federal entities like the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were essential for evacuating residents and providing supplies to stranded people in New Orleans. However, the government received a great deal of criticism for its lack of general planning and organization during relief efforts for the city. The Rockefeller Foundation wants to make cities like New Orleans more resilient by supporting efforts by urban centers to address growing social, economic and physical challenges.

Cities around the world are searching for Chief Resilience Officers. Click To Tweet

The Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge rewards communities that have adopted initiatives to combat problems arising as a consequence of stress. The challenge encourages urban planners to make positive changes to citizen behavior and resources, such as growing greenspace, improving pedestrian routes and strengthening neighbor-to-neighbor coordination. Innovations in these areas increase the capacity of a city to adapt to and survive adversity.

“One of the things we’ve learned already is that we are very focused on a disaster or major event,” Brooke Smith, the Chief of Staff to the Mayor in New Orleans, said during a 100RC kick-off workshop. “What this process is really teaching us is there are commonalities of how to strengthen our society and our communities that will benefit us in any kind of event.”

Cities selected to participate in the program receive funding to hire executive leadership and access to a platform housing innovative tools to help implement a resiliency strategy. As of August 2014, the worldwide 100RC initiative reached 32 cities, with additional cities to be announced in December. A city must have at least 50,000 residents and demonstrate strong local support for strengthening existing resiliency mechanisms to be considered for the program.

Cities search for Chief Resilience Officers
As part of 100RC Challenge, each city will receive funding to develop a new position for their emergency response efforts. The Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) will be responsible for coordinating disaster relief initiatives for their city, taking an in-depth look into the region’s infrastructure, and developing more effective plans to handle earthquakes, floods or man-made disasters.

San Francisco was the first city to hire a CRO, according to the Rockefeller Foundation. Patrick Otellini has an impressive breadth of experience in the public safety sector, having served several years as a code consultant for San Francisco and being named as the city’s Director of Earthquake Safety in 2012. Both positions prepared him for his new CRO role.

“[San Francisco] used to talk about shocks as just surviving them,” Otellini said to the Foundation. “Now, we think about recovering and thriving after a disaster.”

CROs that are hired as part of the 100RC initiative will not shoulder the brunt of the city’s disaster relief responsibilities, but they will be integral players. Los Angeles recently announced that it would be filling the role soon, explaining that the CRO will spend a great deal of time helping the city to prepare for destructive earthquakes—the most pressing regional problem—and be responsible for developing plans to manage the city’s water reserves and natural resources.

Although the 100RC grant funds only one salary, San Francisco invested additional resources to create a support team around the CRO. Otellini expressed that while he would be responsible for improving the city’s infrastructure to ensure it was ready to bounce back following a disaster, he also plans on placing a great deal of faith in the citizens who reside within these communities.

“All of our policy work involves publicly noticed working group meetings so we can ensure an open and transparent process,” Otellini said. “We have Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (NERT), which are largely comprised of private citizens. Our Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEW) is already working in communities and giving these citizens the tools they need to be prepared.”

Strong leaders cast a vision of safer cities
Having strong, capable leaders helps citizens in urban areas picture a successful recovery from stressful events. These leaders identify the preferred outcomes and metrics to determine whether their policies and protocols are effective. They also prepare themselves to be decisive during an emergency, observing the situation as it evolves to allow those protocols to adapt to new information. Otellini believes one of his most important responsibilities is to demonstrate to local citizens that he is actively involved in San Francisco’s resilience efforts.

“I believe it’s important for me, as CRO, to get my hands dirty and be involved in policy creation, as well as coordinating bigger picture issues,” Otellini told the Foundation.

This hands-on approach is likely to uncover factors contributing to urban stress. Former Midwest police chief David Couper calls this “working upstream,” where officers focus on investigating and resolving causal problems rather than simply reacting to their outcomes. When cities face challenges, whether they be natural disasters or economic struggles, leadership that deeply understands the root dynamics of their communities is in the best position to invest their limited resources in the right places.

Some of those right places involve teaching citizens to rapidly rebound within their own neighborhoods. The Foundation has learned that resilient communities all share a few key factors, such as a constant desire to learn, the capacity to re-organize to avoid long-term disruption, and the foresight to provide backup resources to account for system failures.

Strengthening the city’s facilities and operations is crucial to withstanding a catastrophe, but fostering resiliency within the minds of its citizens ensures a region can truly thrive in the aftermath. Neighborhoods lacking in social cohesion and trust will struggle more to recover. As the Rockefeller Foundation continues to support resilience efforts, urban areas will learn how to enable people to rebound from a shock and live better with stress.

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