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Diving Deeper: Episode 10 (June 3, 2009) —
What is resilience?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What is resilience?

Resilience means building the ability of a community to "bounce back" after hazardous events such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and flooding – rather than simply reacting to their impacts. A community that is more informed and prepared will have a greater opportunity to rebound quickly from weather and climate-related events, including adapting to sea level rise. The ability to rebound more quickly can reduce negative human health, environmental, and economic impacts.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Sandy Eslinger on resilience – why this is important, what resilient communities look like, and the people involved in this process. Sandy is a Coastal Hazard Specialist with the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Hi Sandy, welcome to our show.

SANDY ESLINGER: Thanks Kate, it’s great to be here today and explain more on the concept of resilience to your listeners.

HOST: Sandy, why is resilience important?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well Kate, resilience is important for many reasons. First, we know that all communities are going to face hazards. Resilience is the ability of communities to rebound from them. It’s the extent to which we can prevent a short-term hazard event from turning into a long-term community-wide disaster. While most communities effectively prepare themselves to respond to emergency situations, many aren’t adequately prepared to recover in the aftermath. There is a lot at stake, even after the storm has passed. The ability of a community to successfully recover is linked to the strengths and capacities of individuals, families and businesses, schools, hospitals, and other parts of the community. Also, there are more people moving into hazardous areas such as the coast and with these population increases come increased risk exposure to homes, businesses, and infrastructure that are all dependent on one another. 

HOST: Can you expand more on the threats to our nation’s coasts that make resilience so critical?

SANDY ESLINGER: Sure Kate. The threats to coastal communities include extreme natural events, like you mentioned earlier, such as hurricanes and coastal storms. There are also other threats from events such as tsunamis and landslides as well as longer-term risks of coastal erosion and sea level rise. Losses from catastrophic events such as hurricanes can be staggering. The economic losses from the 2005 hurricane season alone, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, were $200 billion, the costliest season ever.

What many people may not realize is how significant the economic losses from other events, such as sea level rise, are projected to be. As one example, we know that the vast majority of our nation’s commercial and recreational fisheries are dependent on coastal marshes. Approximately two-thirds of those fisheries spend some stage of their lives in tidal marshes. As sea levels rise, the built-up areas behind them will provide no opportunities for wetlands to migrate. The net result will be billions of dollars in economic impacts affecting the livelihoods and sustainability of many coastal communities.

HOST: Sandy, are there different threats depending on where you are in the United States?

SANDY ESLINGER: The threats are different throughout the different geographic regions of the U.S. For example in the Pacific Islands, we see more potentially catastrophic coastal hazards such as tsunamis, flooding, and even droughts whereas in the North Atlantic, we see more severe storms, population and development pressures, and regional scale impacts such as climate change.

HOST: What is the tie between resilience and the threats that you mentioned to our coastal communities?

SANDY ESLINGER: It’s crucial that we develop hazard resilient communities to prepare for these threats and enhance the ability of our communities to absorb impacts and bounce back. This will reduce the lives lost in disasters, secure the economic stability of these communities, and support the health of our coastal ecosystems including wetlands which are essential for reducing storm impacts on our coastal communities.

HOST: Sandy, resilience seems to be a term tied closely to coastal communities following severe storms and similar coastal events. Is resilience specific only to coastal areas?

SANDY ESLINGER: Resilience is important everywhere. All communities face hazard threats. Some of the largest disaster losses experienced in this country are due to droughts and flooding which occur throughout the country. Coastal areas, however, have additional hazard risk and increased population pressures making resilience particularly important in those locations.

HOST: Sandy, can you give us an example or two of coastal communities striving to become resilient and what they are doing?

SANDY ESLINGER: Sure Kate. There are many examples of how coastal communities are working to become more resilient. Your listeners can see a full suite of stories collected from our Coastal Services magazine in our recent publication called “Local Strategies for Addressing Climate Change.” I’ll highlight a couple of examples from this report for you.

First, in Florida, state money’s helping homeowners reduce their future hurricane losses by providing free wind inspections to identify vulnerabilities. They’re also providing some grants for replacing vulnerable windows and doors.

In Massachusetts, coastal resource managers are working with local communities to provide better access to information about hurricanes and coastal storms. In addition to providing a one-stop shop Web site, the state held workshops to design the site in a way that makes it easy and useful to local planners and building officials.

HOST: How do we assess resilience for coastal communities and gauge if it is working or improving in an area?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well Kate, there are a number of different ways we can assess resilience in a community. Part of it is understanding the various factors that make up resilience. Being able to look at things in your community like social networks, economic conditions, also being able to look at your infrastructure, facilities – both identifying how vulnerable those things are as well as identifying where you have strengths, and community social networks are a good example, to be able to offset those weaknesses.

HOST: Once a community becomes resilient, how do they sustain that successfully over time?

SANDY ESLINGER: There are many different ways that communities can maintain their resilience over time. They can develop and implement needed action plans, they can develop specific programs, or dedicate specific resources to staying on top of their resilience success. They can conduct public education and outreach to increase awareness in the community. Finally, they can evaluate and share their resilience best practices with other communities.

HOST: Sandy, what is the role of the National Ocean Service in resilience efforts?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well, the NOAA Coastal Services Center, which is part of the National Ocean Service, is involved with partners from all across NOAA to work together on this issue to best serve coastal communities. There is a wealth of knowledge and expertise related to resilience from all parts of NOAA.

NOAA’s committed to providing data, models, and tools to help communities better assess their risk and vulnerabilities as well as their resilience capacity. Land use and natural resource data developed by NOAA can help communities make decisions to minimize their exposure in high-hazard areas. They’re also coastal zone management grants available to states to help in increasing their resilience.

HOST: Sandy, so what is needed to operate one of these resilience tools that you just mentioned?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well Kate, all tools are different, so let me provide an example here. One of the tools is called CanVis, which is a visual simulation tool. The tool provides computer-generated visualizations that are helpful to see potential impacts of issues like climate change or development alternatives. This is a free software tool and the only thing the user needs to add are digital photographs, maps, or scans as inputs.

HOST: What type of information does a manager receive when they use a tool and how does this help them prepare?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well Kate, to use the CanVis example again, one of our local communities used this tool in conjunction with a mapping tool. And the idea was that the CanVis tool provided visualizations that were more meaningful to the entire audience. Many people don’t respond as well by looking at a map that shows flooding areas whereas combining that with this simple visualization tool really does provide a meaningful product for the community to use in their planning process.

HOST: It sounds like these tools are important to be used throughout the year, not just preceding a major event, like a hurricane. When do you recommend that managers use these tools?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well, there are various tools and resources that managers can use at various stages of resilience assessment and planning. The key is to be able to match the right tools with the specific needs of a community. That’s where the NOAA Coastal Services Center can help. It can be difficult for communities to know exactly where to start or what tools are available to help. We can provide services that help communities with those decisions.

HOST: Sandy, is there anything our listeners can do to support resilience efforts in their communities?

SANDY ESLINGER: Well, they can start by learning more about what their communities are doing to address resilience to hazards and they can get involved. If the community isn’t considering resilience and decisions about long-range planning, infrastructure, and economic development; it may be time to do something. Contact us and we can put you in touch with state or local organizations that can help.

HOST: Thank you Sandy for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper and talking more about resilience and what this means for our listeners.

That’s all for this week’s show. Please tune in on June 17th for our next episode on PCBs.