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Do Nothing

December 22, 2010

Last week I noted in response to Arnold Bogis’s post on nuclear attack readiness and recent research on the effectiveness of different response strategies that research coming out of New Zealand, like the studies he cited, was raising uncomfortable questions about our conventional notions of what it means to be prepared or to respond effectively. The New Zealand research suggested that the people of Canterbury and Christchurch who experienced a M7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010, were not very prepared but had proven quite resilient.

This raises some obvious questions. For starters, what do we mean by “prepared.” And for that matter how did the researcher define resilience. The research to which the New Zealand news source remains as yet unpublished, but as I am familiar with the territory I think it’s worth taking a stab at answering these questions for the sake furthering our ongoing discussions about resilience and its application to homeland security threats.

As it turns out, the people in Christchurch were not much better prepared than those in most communities we might survey here in the United States, which is to say that the great majority of them had taken no concrete steps to prepare themselves, their households or their businesses for an earthquake or other major emergency. Few people had stockpiled supplies, and only a few more had given any thought to how they might communicate with others or what actions they might take in the moments after the event.

That said, they did pretty much what you might expected someone to do when the actual event occurred: They waited for the ground to stop moving, picked themselves up, looked around and started asking themselves just what the hell had happened. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that there had been an earthquake, and quite a substantial one at that. As they surveyed their homes in the pre-dawn darkness and went outside they began interacting with their neighbors who were doing the same thing. Those in areas that experienced liquefaction, especially those in areas close to the coast, began questioning the wisdom of staying put and some started to head inland to higher and drier ground together.

Others who found themselves less convinced that further peril was imminent attempted to check on loved ones. Those who could get a cellphone signal usually couldn’t get through. So they tried texting. In most cases that worked fine, and they quickly established confidence that they could rely on others to help them and vice versa.

As dawn broke and the damage to commercial buildings and public facilities became evident, people started looking for opportunities to help out. Those who were already part of some organized group, like the university students association or the local rugby club for instance, relied on these social networks to assemble others and organize them to lend a hand in whatever way they could be most useful. In most cases, these working parties participated in activities completely unrelated to the organization’s customary function and, as such, had to invent some of the rules governing how they would work together as they went along.

From these descriptions we can discern a couple of things: First, preparedness is not about stuff or plans. It is a mindset. People were not surprised that an earthquake occurred. Although they were not materially prepared, they understood that the event was a call for them to do something, anything even, as long as it was reasonable and useful. This leads to the second observation: resilience is characterized in such situations by three elements:

  1. Spontaneous, often unplanned and usually ad hoc efforts to employ available resources,
  2. In ways that either attain or help maintain the stability of existing networks,
  3. In a dynamic or hostile environment characterized by unusual levels of uncertainty, ambiguity or both.

The resulting responses encourage further adaptive efforts, often out of scale to their material effects on the situation, by mobilizing or encouraging complementary or cooperative efforts by others. The resulting shared experience yields benefits to participants and the society as a whole by forging new, often more efficient pathways for the allocation of resources and effort.

Why is it important to clarify these definitions? For starters, we still struggle mightily with questions about what steps we should be taking now to ensure resilience emerges at some point in the future. If the Canterbury experience is indicative, maybe we need do nothing or at least nothing peculiar or particular to homeland security and emergency management.

In the current fiscal climate we might do well to consider whether we can do anything more effective than simply staying out of the way. We may just discover all that’s required to improve community resilience is for us to do nothing that impedes or discourages people from doing what they will anyway. If we’re lucky a can-do culture just might emerge.

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