2015 Florida Mayor’s Resilience Symposium: Local Leaders Rising to Meet the Wicked Problem of Resilience

frDuring the summer of 2012, I delivered a workshop on disaster mitigation as part of the Florida League of Mayors/League of Cities Annual Conference. I always reflect after a speaking engagement, and while I perceived that the audience was interested, I wasn’t sure I generated “edge of the seat” engagement. Understandably, Mayors are constantly balancing a long list of important priorities, and presenters just like me are always competing for their attention.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014 when I spoke again at the same conference. The audience was not only engaged, but they were on their feet. Mayor Ashton Hayward of Pensacola told us about wind mitigation retrofit programs. Mayor Sam Ferreri, an architect by profession, detailed flood mitigation infrastructure projects in his Palm Beach County community of Greenacres. All present joined the discussion of sea level rise impacts and the bipartisan South Florida Climate Action Pledge.

So what changed from 2012 to 2014? Clearly, resilience had “arrived”. Indeed, it had moved to the top of the long list of mayoral “to do’s”.

To keep the momentum going following the 2014 conference, we forged an official partnership with the Florida League of Mayors to advance our shared commitment to resilience. During May of this year, we convened the first Florida Mayors Resilience Symposium where we connected our groups and delivered a day-long program of information on disaster and climate resiliency from all angles.

In my talk, I outlined the essential elements for strong, safe, and resilient communities. Namely: strong, well-enforced codes and standards; consumers and leaders who understand, value, and demand stronger, safer buildings; higher education that includes building codes and mitigation; incentives (insurance, real estate, and tax); innovators in all sectors; and research—building, social science, and more.

I shared my conviction formed from more than 17 years in this movement that Mayors hold a powerful key. They can make the case for policies that prepare their constituents for the future. They can open (or close) the doors to adoption of modern, model building codes, and the resources necessary for enforcement of same. They can give voice to resilience as a top priority in their communities because, like politics, all disasters are local.

Federal and state governments can provide resources to communities to increase resilience beforehand, and they certainly provide resources for recovery after the fact. But the communities that are truly resilient take ownership and make it a priority to put all the pieces together ahead of time in a way that is unique to its culture, history, and values.

That is why mayors are the MVPs on the team for climate and disaster resilience.

We saw evidence of this during Ft. Myers’ Mayor Randall Henderson’s symposium presentation. He shared their waterside development plan that incorporated flood maps, evacuation zone maps, and more. Clearly, their planning incorporated insights from our friends at NOAA.

We also heard a passionate call to action from former county commissioner/now Florida State Representative Kristin Jacobs who riveted the gathering with her clarity on sea level rise and linkage between disaster and climate resilience.

This groundswell of local leadership, along with impressive initiatives to measure and quantify resilience driven by federal resources, is creating excitement and commitment that we need to advance our shared cause. However, we still need all sectors to commit and participate.

Joe Tankersley of Unique Visions, a futurist, former Walt Disney Imagineer, and member of our board of directors led the closing dialogue at the symposium and introduced resilience as a “wicked problem” requiring foresight and strategic decisions. The term “wicked problem” was popularized in the 1973 article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, and it “refers to a complex problem for which there is no simple method of solution.” [Financial Times http://www.ft.com/home/us]

We agree with Joe. There is no better term when discussing the issue of resilience, and we need continue to create innovative, multi-discipline solutions to achieve our desired goals. So as we expand our partnership with the Florida League of Mayors to mayors across the nation, we will continue to listen to local challenges and needs. We will develop information and tools to empower local leaders. And we will craft innovative solutions to disaster-safety barriers.

When we do this, we will continue our trek down this path to a world that not only survives disasters, but bounces back better than before.

My Resilience Hero Series: Honoring NOAA’s Margaret Davidson – Storyteller, Truth-teller, Sparkplug

DSC_7364Margaret Davidson is our hero for many reasons. She has a clear voice in a cluttered world. She knows how to zero in on the crux of the problem. And, she is very funny. That’s why she is an inspiration in the disaster-resilience movement and why we asked her to be one of the keynote speakers at our 2014 FLASH Annual Conference: Resilience Revolution.

A lawyer by training who later earned a master’s degree in marine policy, Margaret is Senior Leader for Coastal Inundation and Resilience for the National Ocean Service. One thing she makes clear, however, is that when she is speaking her mind, she is speaking for herself—and that’s all the more reason to listen.

Margaret understands the need to keep spreading the story of disaster resilience. But she also knows how real people think. During her talk, she cited a study that indicated how residents who live along the San Andreas Fault understood the earthquake risk, but how they also had their own stories about why they were at less risk than others around them. Margaret said psychologists call that cognitive dissonance. But she puts it this way: “Yes, you can be aware that ‘bad stuff’s’ happening (not the exact words she used). It’s just that you don’t think bad stuff’s going to happen to you.”

That’s the tell-it-like-it-is attitude that makes a fearless speaker such as Margaret so valuable to the disaster-resilience cause. She sees the paradox clearly, but doesn’t throw up her hands in resignation. The solution? Tell better stories to the homeowners than the ones they tell themselves. Tell them about the risk and about preparing and mitigating on the front end, so they can bounce back after a disaster strikes.

Margaret also believes that we must have faith in our ability to use better communication to create partnerships that break through. “Since the time of Homer, we learned that the way we best communicated important social messages was through storytelling. FLASH knows and practices this. Person-to-person storytelling. Trusted sources giving us the right kinds of information.”

We have the choice – she says in her inimitable way – to teach people to “raise” strong villages with strong structures or keep having to “raze” those villages after disasters.

Margaret ended her insightful address by reminding all assembled that FLASH is a rare and high functioning coalition because of our DNA that includes academics, creative professionals, community leaders, construction trades, emergency managers, engineers, first responders, government agencies, insurance professionals, journalists, meteorologists, policymakers at all levels, scientists and volunteer groups of all faiths. She reinforced the need for us all to draw on our collective strength as a diverse coalition and redouble our efforts, because severe weather events are becoming more frequent, more destructive, and more expensive.

We are the answer, Margaret says. So let’s keep building partnerships. Keep pushing beyond our comfort zones. Everything that matters is riding on our efforts.