Lessons from Disaster Resilience for COVID-19

By CSDA ADMIN posted 09-22-2020 12:15 PM


By Pamela Williams, Executive Director, BuildStrong Coalition

HelicopterIn March, the BuildStrong Coalition brought together leaders in Sacramento to discuss tactical actions to promote wildfire mitigation and resilience in our homes, communities, and critical lifeline service systems. We didn’t know we were standing at the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, a massive national shutdown and quarantine, and about to embark on the most substantial shift to business operations in our history. But, we have learned that disaster resilience is more important now than ever, and the actions, philosophies, and principles we have been promoting relative to wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have direct and immediate applicability to preparing for and mitigating against the impacts of this and future pandemics.

On March 5, 2020, the BuildStrong Coalition hosted the Sacramento Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Forum on Wildfire Mitigation and Resilience, the second of the Coalition’s regional resilience forum series. With the support of CalChamber, a unique, tremendously diverse group of over 120 federal, state and local officials, residential and infrastructure resilience experts and leaders, non-profits, and representatives of the financial sector and critical lifeline utilities came together to:

  • Dialogue with leadership from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Learn about investments in mitigation and resilience
  • Share best practices, creative approaches and solutions, and lessons-learned
  • Discuss how to overcome obstacles and incentivize resilient behavior
  • Strategize how to build capacity for local, state, and regional leaders to drive successful investments in risk-reducing projects and initiatives

The common themes that emerged emphasized the importance of partnerships and stakeholder relationships, particularly with non-traditional alliances, as well as the critical need for information sharing and capacity building across organizations and all levels of government to engage meaningfully and tactically in increasing disaster resilience across our communities, our states, and our nation.

The Coalition and Forum participants had the opportunity to hear from California Assemblyman Jim Wood and Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi about the efforts underway across the state to reduce wildfire, flooding, and earthquake risks and help citizens increase their resilience to these hazards. Assemblyman Wood stated how “critical and timely it is that we are having this conversation…we have the right people here to drive resilient investments in our roads, infrastructure, and homes.”

As our communities, states, and the nation as a whole continue to respond to COVID-19 and look forward to the physical and economic recovery, the lessons, themes and takeaways from the Sacramento BRIC Forum on Wildfire Mitigation and Resilience seem particularly applicable:

Increasing disaster resilience requires that we understand our risk and address it on multiple fronts: infrastructure, residences, and our surroundings.

As our keynote speakers set the stage, they asked several key questions. “Where do we need to be as a country in terms of disaster resilience?” “Who needs to be at the table to leverage efforts and investments to address?” “What do we mean by resilience?” FEMA Acting Deputy Administrator for Resilience Carlos Castillo describes resilience as the ability to “take the punch.” Roy Wright, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, explains that we must ensure that people understand their risk to overcome the “this will never happen to me” mentality.

Deputy Secretary for the California Natural Resources Agency Jessica Morse shared with us her multi-faceted approach to increase wildfire resilience across the State of California. She works closely with communities and non-governmental organizations, creating new partnerships and building creative alliances, to create defensible space, harden homes and infrastructure, and build strategic fuel breaks.


Federal resources are available to invest in infrastructure and residential resilience.

FEMA recognizes that the Disaster Recovery Reform Act is “the most significant opportunity in decades to focus on investing year-in and year-out on mitigation measures that will reduce losses from future events.” The BRIC program represents significant, reliable, consistent funding for mitigation and will:

  • Encourage and enable innovation
  • Promote partnerships
  • Enable large infrastructure projects focused on lifeline infrastructure
  • Support communities through investments in residential resilience

FEMA offered trainings on BRIC in advance of applications opening in September 2020.


California is Driving Innovations and Actions.

The BuildStrong Regional Resilience Forums bring together success stories, best practices, and lessons learned to put real, tactical tools in the hands of state and local governments to invest in resilience. California proved an excellent stage to highlight innovative resilience initiatives.

There was much discussion about Governor Newsom’s proposed investments to promote resiliency, including a $5.5 billion climate resilience bond, which should be in front of California voters this November. This bond issue represents an opportunity to drive disaster mitigation projects and to underscore the importance of leveraging multiple lines of government and private sector investments to transform the risk profile of the region.

Glenn Pomeroy, from the California Earthquake Authority, announced that California’s Brace and Bolt program has now helped retrofit 10,000 homes through grants to individual homeowners and plans to tackle over 4,000 more in 2020. Glenn highlighted the cross-industry opportunity presented by the need to increase disaster resilience.

The Nature Conservancy and TransRe are actively engaged with communities across the globe and in California on creative solutions and funding opportunities. They are taking lessons learned from the highly impactful National Coastal Resilience Fund and leveraging those successes against wildfire risk. We heard about the amazing work Dan Efseaff, the manager for the Paradise Recreation and Park District, is doing with the private sector partners to create community assets and resources that also serve as critical mitigation projects to protect their community. These were perfect examples of how new partners and creative solutions can lead to transformative resilience projects in communities.

The time to identify resilience projects is NOW and everyone has a role to play.

We are at a critical point in the disaster resilience conversation and we can only succeed if we increase the ties between government, private sector interests, and non-profits.

As FEMA Deputy Administrator Carlos Castillo explained, “emergency management and resilience are a shared responsibility of the whole community, the whole of society.” There are many challenges, and everyone’s help is needed to:

  • Help people make the right choices through the sharing of best practices, the creation of incentives, and access to force-multiplying funding and financing
  • Continue to help the topic of disaster resilience resonate at the local and individual level
  • Overcome political inertia
  • Leverage the successes in other communities, regions and states
  • Educate and share information about risk and investments to reduce that risk

Chief Bob Roper of the International Association of Fire Chiefs raised the challenge of getting the public and policy makers more involved. Certainly, information sharing is key. Government, the private sector and non-profits must share data and information so that we are aware of risks, better projections and forecasts can be made, and we understand the return on investment for mitigation and resilience strategies. Further, particularly industry and the private sector must help identify the avoided costs for the wise investment decisions that increase resilience. We must continue to identify, qualify, and quantify the value of mitigation.

These themes, principles, and ideals are truly applicable to all hazards. As we try to increase our resilience to the known and the unknown, we must work together to identify risks, share information and educate, and devise the creative solutions to truly bounce back and recover from the unanticipated.

The BuildStong Coalition, formed in 2011 to respond to an increasing number of severe disasters, is made up of a diverse group of members representing firefighters, emergency responders, emergency managers, insurers, engineers, architects, contractors, and manufacturers, as well as consumer organizations, code specialists, and many others committed to building a more disaster resilient nation.


Pamela Williams most recently served as Counsel for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management and has more than 15 years of federal agency and congressional experience. In the U.S. House of Representatives, she advised the Committee and Congressional leadership on Emergency Management, FEMA, the Stafford Act, and disaster-related matters.