Community Resiliency Supports Community Sustainability

By Gregory Sayles, Ph.D.

The three pillars of sustainability

Figure 1. The three pillars of sustainability

Whether it’s the residents of lower Manhattan recovering from flooding and power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, entire municipalities evacuated from areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, or California’s farming communities adapting to long-term drought conditions, everyone’s talking about “resiliency”—what it takes to bounce back once a community has been impacted by a natural or human-made disaster.

Reducing environmental risks and restoring environmental services are essential components of resilience.

Last week, nearly five dozen scientists, program managers and community liaisons from across EPA gathered for a two-day workshop to parse through scientific and policy definitions of “resiliency” and examine the critical factors that support community resiliency. The group then brainstormed ways to create indicators and an index that communities might use to evaluate their vulnerabilities to disaster, their capacity to bounce back, and the resources they need to prepare for future disasters.

Our discussions taught us that resilience is built on many community functions and qualities, most of them interdependent.  Brian Pickard, of EPA’s Water Security Division highlighted how community drinking water systems are inter-connected to energy supplies and health delivery systems.  If a tornado, flood or hurricane knocks out electricity, drinking water pumping stations crash and critical care facilities such as hospitals need back-up supplies to continue operating.  Hospitals and emergency rooms must have access to emergency water supplies to manage the casualties and injuries that often result following a disaster.

Strengthening community resiliency means becoming better prepared for the next disaster.

How are resilience and sustainability inextricably related?  Sustainability strives to balance three pillars—economic, social, and environmental—in equilibrium (see figure 1).  Disaster disrupts that equilibrium, and with it the path toward sustainability. Resiliency is building in the capability to restore this balance following a disaster.

According to EPA sustainability researchers Alan Hecht and Joseph Fiksel, “sustainability is the capacity for: human health and well-being, economic vitality and prosperity, and environmental resource abundance” while, “resilience is the capacity to: overcome unexpected problems, adapt to change, and prepare for and survive catastrophes.”

Workshop participants agreed to continue developing a discrete set of indicators that can be used to measure community environmental resiliency and present them at a follow-up workshop in July. Our long-term goal is to deliver a Community Environmental Resilience Index to communities, EPA, and other federal partners. The index will help local and national stakeholders assess and improve resiliency and guide planning for disasters.

EPA’s homeland security research program is excited to be working with partners from across the Agency to help communities understand and shape their own resilience.

About the Author: Gregory Sayles, Ph.D. is the Acting Director of EPA’s Homeland Security research program.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Behind the Scenes

By Jeanethe Falvey

Nature and what we build in it has a way of redefining our notion of worst-case scenario. What more can we do, but forge ahead hoping it doesn’t happen to us?

‘Deepwater Horizon,’ ‘Katrina’, ‘Yellowstone River’… The list goes on. We live on a dynamic planet and while we have masterfully become creatures of comfort, we still live in an environment. The same environment that provides rain, earthquakes, oil, also brings sunshine.

When something devastating happens to our known space and our livelihoods it’s hard to comprehend much beyond each unfolding moment.

When it does, suddenly many things so often in the background of our lives are at the forefront needing to fix everything, yesterday.

The confusion that sets in at a disaster response is something that individuals working in all levels of government, from local enforcement officials to many of us within state and federal agencies having been trying to improve together since September 11.

Each time is emotional, each time is different, each time it can’t be fixed fast enough, if ever.

The time to get better is in between. The best we can do is learn, improve and communicate. From the day I started at EPA, communication has been at the forefront of my expectations, a responsibility I do not take lightly.

This week, I was joined by a roomful of my colleagues at EPA as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, to learn from one another as we discussed how communication can be improved during an incident – whether drums have been found in a field, or oil is gushing freely.

From public meetings, on door steps, behind EPA’s social media, I find myself constantly wanting to improve my, and EPA’s connection with the public. What we practice and strive to improve behind the scenes could become a direct part of any of our lives at any time. If it were me, I would desperately want help and expect information that I could easily see and understand.

EPA deals with complex science about our lives on a daily basis that is never easy to explain, especially when emotions are high.

Awareness of our surroundings, connection to our environment, thinking a little ahead is all a part of getting through something together. In the in between, take a moment to not only revel in our incredible environment, but consider how you too could be more prepared.

About the author: Jeanethe Falvey writes from EPA’s Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education, as the project-lead for Pick 5 and the State of the Environment, two projects geared towards learning, sharing and gaining a greater collective connection to our environment.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.