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Remarks at the Launch of the NIST Community Resilience Planning Guide

Thank you, Howard, and good morning, everyone!

We thank all of you for joining us for the unveiling of the public draft of the Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure.

Many of you have contributed both brain and sweat equity in the development of this initial draft. We at NIST and the entire Department of Commerce are truly grateful for your input.

I also want to thank Texas Southern University for hosting this workshop. 

I especially want to thank Bob Bullard for his pioneering leadership in the critically important field of environmental justice, which is intrinsic to community resilience. Through his research and advocacy, Dr. Bullard has taught the nation that low-income communities and minorities are exposed disproportionately to environmental hazards such as air pollution, soil-borne toxins, and lead poisoning.

These everyday insults to the health and quality of life of individuals and families who live in poor communities are "disasters in slow motion," to quote Bob and his colleagues in their study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They also wrote that, "Disasters reveal environmental injustice in fast-forward mode." Katrina may provide the most compelling example of this truth.  

But nearly every other disaster—including Hurricane Ike, which pummeled the Galveston and Houston metropolitan areas, including this campus—repeats this troubling reality.

We know all too well that communities differ—physically and socially—in their capacity to withstand and respond to hazards and in their ability to bounce back from these shocks. We also know that communities can at least minimize the physical, economic, and social harm that natural and human-caused hazards threaten to inflict.

That is precisely why we are here today, and that is exactly why NIST's Engineering Laboratory undertook the challenge of leading the development of the Community Resilience Planning Guide—a tool that communities can use systematically and comprehensively for improving the resilience of their buildings and infrastructure.

Now this tool is not the equivalent of a hammer, with every task looking like a nail. Every community is different in terms of geography, the make-up of its population, the age of its infrastructure, the potential hazards it must plan for, its financial resources, and so much more. 

Nor does the planning guide stand apart from the good work already being done under the National Preparedness Goal issued by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. FEMA reports that nearly 24,000 U.S. communities have developed mitigation plans that aim to reduce the risk of damage from a hazard. Resilience efforts can further this progress. 

The resilience planning guide considers recovery in the context of a community's vital functions and services. So for example, if a building is protected from flooding, but has no power or water, can it serve its purpose within the community?

The planning guide is intended to be a customizable tool—one that any town or any city can apply to better understand their own circumstances, define their particular risks, and set their own priorities and timetables for implementation.  

Clearly, the time to plan for hazards is not after disaster strikes. Regrettably, that is still largely how we often do it—plan as we are trying to recover! Sometimes, communities actually do build back better, reduce their vulnerability, and improve their capacity to recover quickly and efficiently when the next hazard strikes, but more often, they don't!

The planning guide points to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as an example of a community that has acted decisively to build resilience after it was deluged by floods in 2008. But for every Cedar Rapids there are many more communities that have not responded effectively. Sometimes recovery efforts stall, painful lessons learned fade from memory, and resilience becomes an afterthought, rather than an incentive for deliberate action.

Resilience planning and implementation really should be done proactively—in anticipation of the next extreme event. After all, we live in what already is one of the most natural-disaster-prone regions in the world. And our changing climate will more than likely add to this worrisome distinction. In fact, Bob Bullard asserts that climate change looms as the primary global environmental justice issue of the 21st century.

So, it's clear—crystal clear—that improving resilience should be a top priority for every community and for the entire nation. And the incentives go beyond the obvious benefit of saving lives and minimizing damage and hardship. As Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, often points out—and as the planning guide emphasizes—actions to improve community resilience deliver co-benefits. 

For one—and it's a big one—resilient communities are more likely to attract business investment, which creates jobs. This is because businesses and their insurers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the risk of disaster-caused disruptions. Indeed, the terms community resilience and disaster resilience are now used so frequently that some might be tempted to dismiss them as catchphrases.

It's imperative that we take steps to operationalize these concepts and to provide clear, actionable guidance on how to put them into practice. And we need to do that in ways that learn from, leverage, and connect the many resilience-focused efforts under way in the United States and internationally. 

That's what the draft document you are about to review is all about. NIST and our many valued partners have taken a crack at explaining the "how" of improving the resilience of a community's buildings and infrastructure. 

This planning guide is the first-ever document of its kind. That is a tremendous accomplishment. But it is not an end in itself.

While I'm confident that you will find much in this draft that is useful, I anticipate and hope that you'll have ideas on how to improve the document in terms of content, organization, readability, usability, or anything else. That is, in fact, what we are counting on. 

We want to hear from you. Please, don't hold back! We want you to share this draft with your colleagues—we want to hear from them, too.

The resilience community is extremely diverse, and this planning guide should be a resource for every stakeholder segment—from local governments to businesses and utilities to community organizations—including those representing populations whose voices may not be frequently heard from, especially in these kinds of discussions.

It's important to keep in mind that this planning guide is a living document. Version 1.0 will be released around September. It will be updated periodically as we learn, as new standards and tools are developed, and as best practices are validated.

We will be standing up a collaborative Disaster Resilience Standards Panel—open to all stakeholders—to advance work in this area.

One important source of new knowledge and modeling capabilities will be the new NIST-funded Community Resilience Center of Excellence (CoE), based at Colorado State University. Working with NIST researchers and partners from 10 other universities, the center will develop model computer tools to support community resilience efforts. These tools will help local governments decide how best to invest resources intended to lessen the impact of hazards on buildings and infrastructure and to recover rapidly in their aftermath. Steve Cauffman will fill you in on further details re this CoE, other elements of NIST's community resilience efforts, and follow-on activities associated with the planning guide.

I'll wrap up by again thanking the many individuals and organizations have helped to produce this first draft. 

Steve and Terri McAllister led this effort, with able assistance from many NIST colleagues. 

We also engaged nine outside experts to complement NIST's knowledge and skill sets. These first-ever NIST Disaster Resilience Fellows—acknowledged experts in fields ranging from emergency planning to power and water utilities to sociology—provided valuable assistance.

This collaborative effort has spanned the nation. Stakeholders who attended the four regional workshops devoted to developing the planning guide contributed important insights and ideas. And many others volunteered suggestions directly to our community resilience team.

We are very grateful to all who have helped. This is an important first milestone in an effort that can deliver tremendous benefits to individuals, neighborhoods, communities, states, and to the nation. I hope you will stay involved.

Created April 27, 2015, Updated June 2, 2021