Jack Eisenhauer

Superstorm Sandy, the recent tornados in Oklahoma, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the June 2012 Derecho remind us that disasters come in all forms and can devastate communities in unexpected ways:

  • Superstorm Sandy put 8.6 million people in the dark and created a near-crisis for access to fuel.
  • The Boston Marathon bombing shut down the city’s transit system for a day and cost the Boston area an estimated $250 million to $333 million in lost revenue.
  • The Derecho crippled 911 services in Northern Virginia for almost 3 days.

Is it possible to prevent these types of disasters from happening in the future?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t stop tornados, hurricanes, wind storms, or even terrorists from striking. But we can minimize the duration and magnitude of the impacts that disruptive events have on our communities. Building resilience into our infrastructures can help regions better prepare for disruptions, mitigate cascading impacts, and recover faster.

On July 29, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) reported on its case study of Superstorm Sandy and the lessons that can help improve regional resilience. The case study examined the regional impacts of Sandy on the “lifeline sectors” (energy, transportation, communication, and water) and the failure mechanisms that resulted from interdependencies between sectors and exposed gaps in regional resilience. The NIAC notes that the lifeline sectors are pivotal to a region’s resilience because they provide essential products and services that underpin the continued operation of nearly every business sector, community, and government agency, and could risk human health and safety if disrupted or lost.

The case study report, Improving Regional Resilience of Lifeline Sectors: Lessons from Superstorm Sandy, included six key findings:

  1. Maintaining the continuity of services of the lifeline sectors is paramount to regional resilience.
  2. Strong public-private partnerships and cross-sector coordination were the most important success factors in preparing for and responding to Sandy.
  3. Planning, analysis, and risk management at the regional level is essential for long-term resilience.
  4. Impediments to rapid response and recovery remain despite efforts to remove them.
  5. Effective communications at all levels, using multiple tools and methods, was pivotal to success during Sandy.
  6. Regional resilience relies on the capacity of individuals and communities to strengthen local readiness and personal responsibility for short-term survival.

The case study is part of a larger NIAC study aimed at identifying ways regions can become more resilient, including recommendations for federal action. The full NIAC report on regional resilience is expected to be published in October of this year.

As the critical infrastructure of our cities and regions become more interconnected, and the physical and cyber systems that operate them become more integrated, events that were once isolated can now ripple across multiple jurisdictions and sectors causing disruptions and damage over a large geographic area. In short, more interdependence creates hidden systemic risks that no one entity fully understands. That is why public-private partnerships are so essential:  they bring the indispensable experience, skills, and resources for managing regional risks. As the 2013 hurricane season begins to peak, the lessons we learned from Sandy and other disasters will become increasingly important in helping cities and regions better prepare for and manage the inevitable large-scale events to come.