August 11, 2020 - From the August, 2020 issue

LA's Chief Resilience Officer on Pandemic's 'Reveal' of City's Vulnerabilities

A recent report found that last year’s Ridgecrest Earthquake tripled the odds of a major earthquake on the San Andreas within the next year. In light of this news, TPR spoke with LA City Chief Resilience Officer, Aaron Gross, to discuss how the pandemic is shaping the city’s understanding of resilience and the cascading impact that overlapping disasters of earthquake or wildfire could have on the city’s already limited resources. Gross shares the city’s progress on implementing the 2018 “Resilient Los Angeles” plan—which lays out 15 goals and 96 actions to make Los Angeles more resilient to a wide range of systemic shocks and stressors—and how COVID-19 has highlighted the acute vulnerabilities faced by communities across Los Angeles.


Aaron Gross

"I don't think COVID has changed the definition of it, but the idea of building back stronger has been highlighted by COVID and looking at how and when we're able to reopen has become a huge part of that.”—Aaron Gross

TPR carried your Japan House remarks from a February on disaster prevention and recovery in which you said, "(Our mandate is) to look at everything the City of Los Angeles does with an eye towards resilience to make sure that we are prepared for, can deal with, and can recover from any shock or stress that comes along." The question today is obviously: How prepared is the City to respond and recover from the pandemic’s devastation?

Aaron Gross: It has been awful and really interesting. When the plan was written—before I was in this position—pandemic was identified as a shock and stress the city could experience, but the plan doesn't really have specific goals or efforts to combat it.

However, a lot of the work to make a resilient city —the preparedness, communication, and recovery—is going to look similar regardless of what the disaster is. But, out of all the shocks and stresses, pandemics are one of the most unknown; this is a once in a hundred-year event that we're experiencing. 

Resiliency isn't a new concept, but it's new for government. The Rockefeller Foundation was a huge player in getting the concept of resilience officers into city functions. I don't think COVID has changed the definition of it, but within “recovery,” the idea of building back stronger has been highlighted by COVID and looking at how and when we're able to reopen has become a huge part of that.

With both the pandemic and the cratering of city revenues, does the 2018 resilience plan need updating?

I would really like to focus less on new goals and more on how the city is doing toward its 96 resilience actions and show what we're doing to make for a more resilient city.

The pandemic has really highlighted and shown us where the vulnerabilities are: what parts of the city, what populations, and what challenges need to be focused on. When you look at many of the risk maps, they tend to overlap with the issues the city has been grappling with for decades—with income and health disparities or the digital divide.

For resilience, it's more than just dealing with a shock or stress in the moment, there's a long-range view, so a lot of the work continues with planning and looking at the city going forward. The budget implications are going to be a huge challenge, but we're looking for opportunities to be smart and more efficient in this horrible situation the world has found itself in. 

Update readers on what’s been done since the Japan House meeting to effectuate the city’s priorities.

We tried to coordinate city resources to make sure—out of our emergency operations center—that some of the supplies that were needed around the city were procured and distributed where they were needed. Protective equipment, as an example, was a big effort early on.

Equity has always been a big part of resilience, as has sustainability. Going forward with COVID, those themes continue to be an important part of the work that we do. Providing city services in underserved communities needs to be a greater focus.  

There’s also the amazing work that the LA Unified School District has been doing to provide food to school-age kids and their families. So with the city, part of our work has been to help coordinate some of the food banks and their networks to make sure that we can serve as many people as possible who can't go out, can't go to work, or aren't getting a paycheck and help them manage through this crisis.

Aaron, does the triage work that you just addressed make it difficult for the City to focus on the long-range resiliency goals that were in the 2018 plan? 

From my position, I'm really fortunate to be the chief resilience officer in such a large city; there are so many partners that have been able to focus on immediate needs.

I've been able to help where I can in those efforts, but also try to focus on the long-range outlook and what coming out of all of this is going to look like. What systems are we putting in place, not to get back to where we were, but to build back stronger?

The city is becoming more digitized, so people can get city services electronically without having to get in their cars and go to a city facility. The city is working with telecommunications companies and hardware companies to bridge that digital divide for those who aren't necessarily able to connect as easily to the internet and so kids can get an education when school starts up again and families have access to telemedicine, information, and telecommuting options for some. We're looking at building a stronger, more resilient city that is able to be more efficient and sustainable on the other side of this.

 

The legislature and California utilities have expressed great concern about California’s fall and the winter fire season. The Ridgecrest earthquake arguably tripled the chances of a large earthquake along the San Andreas fault in the next year. With those real challenges to contend with, how are you prioritizing your time, attention, and the city's resources?

Specifically, for fire danger, we have done a number of things to try to prepare ourselves for these cascading challenges. As an example, two months ago we had a tabletop drill in the Emergency Operation Center that simulated a hillside wildfire. Even though we didn't deploy the fire department or other emergency personnel to those areas, we were able to work through how we would deploy resources while keeping the functions of the COVID response.

The fire department has been instrumental in providing sites for COVID testing, and unfortunately that's taken a lot of their time and effort. Recently, we've been identifying and working with other partners—like medical volunteers and the Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE)—to help minimize the impact on the fire department. That has allowed us to pull some of our fire department personnel out of that work to allow them time for fire protection or—in the event there is a fire—actual fire deployment.

Regarding the increased fear and chances of an earthquake, to be honest, we've been expecting a giant earthquake for decades. I’m not sure that the Ridgecrest earthquake has increased our urgency to prepare for a major earthquake, but I think it raised awareness, and I hope the city and the region are taking advantage of that.Part of the challenge is that some of that preparation work requires getting people together to talk about what resources,assets, and vulnerabilities a given community might have.

Gathering people together tends to be one of the commonalities when dealing with shocks and stresses, but unfortunately, getting together during a pandemic is not what we're looking to do. So, we've been working with the Emergency Management Department and finding ways that we can continue some of the programs like the Map Your Neighborhood program and the Neighborhood Council emergency plan. Being able to continue those projects virtually has been a challenge, but it absolutely has to continue. In an crisis, first responders will be deployed to the areas of highest need but communities need to understand that the people who are most likely going to save your lives in a disaster are your neighbors.

TPR has repeatedly covered—including interviews with former city technology officer, Peter Marx—the need for better emergency communications. What progress has been made about LA’s communication system and how resilient it is to the challenges the metropolis will sure confirm this year. 

I'm not a technical expert, but I know that the interoperability program has been something that we've been working on long before there was a resilience plan. Some of the work Peter Marx started, working with telecommunications companies and our information technology agency, continues. We're working with those telecommunications companies not only for emergency preparedness and communication, but connectivity for all Angelenos.

Advertisement

The communication infrastructure needs to be upgraded both in terms of physical resilience but also in terms of reach.  For Los Angeles to be resilient, access to information must be easily and affordably accessible to all Anglenos.  Even the most advanced communcation system can only work if anyone in need assistance are in the loop, so we are working with those similar partners to bring access to all of Los Angeles.

We have increased the capacity of the NotifyLA program—a mass notification system—and have been using that as a tool to communicate. We've also been working closely with the federal government and the private sector to create a different network where first responders can communicate even if the systems go down. 

What should the pending federal stimulus bill—which may address infrastructure—include, and is that different than what it would have included a decade ago?

Some of the things that we had started talking about over the last few years, like the Green New Deal and some of the sustainability measures, are important. Having a more reliable energy and water system is important, and not only because it's more efficient, but it's more equitable. When the power is cleaner and we're putting less pollution into the air, it leads to better outcomes for those who are more vulnerable right now.

Food scarcity is something that needs to be addressed in the next stimulus deal: how do we make sure everybody has access to healthy food? This was a challenge before the COVID crisis, but it's been exacerbated. There are resources that can be put into those efforts to try to make life less hard for those that are more vulnerable.

At the same time, the mayor has really focused a lot of his time in office on housing, and the stimulus bill should look at that. We had a lot of people who are worried about not being able to pay rent or landlords who are having a challenge paying their mortgage. We need to think about housing as a way our federal government can help us solve some of the problems that we knew were here and have been exacerbated by COVID.

Aaron, you've only been LA CRO for a relatively short time, but obviously your beard already has turned gray. What in your experience prepared you for this challenging time? 

I've been in this role for a little under two years, but I've been working for the city for about 21 years. My experience working for elected officials in various areas and departments of the city has given me a wide understanding of how the city works.

A lot of what I do as a resilience officer is bringing people together to be able to implement the goals of the resilience plan. I find myself pulling on different pieces of my experience: my experience at the Department of Water and Power, in sustainability, or in code enforcement for Ruth Galanter back in the day when she was a councilmember. I used to work for the Port of Los Angeles, which gave me a sense of the supply chain, some of the issues of workers and truckers, and environmental issues.

My experience not only gives a broad picture of the city but a broad picture of the partners the city has. The city can't do it all itself. It's become more of a group effort than it ever has been before. We need to continue to engage those people who came out of the woodwork to help in addition to the partners we had before. We're all responsible for resilience, equity, and a sustainable society.

It is a challenge, and I expect to continue losing my hair, but it is encouraging to bring in more partners and find ways to help connect people to find solutions to our collective challenges. 

Some in the media have noted that the pandemic and the response—and bravery of first responders—has increased the public’s valuation of government services? True?

The COVID crisis has provided an opportunity for the city and county to coordinate in ways that we should have but haven't over the last number of decades—especially with regards to healthcare and homelessness.  I also think the public has seen a lot of value in government, just based on services that the City and County were able to provide such as food programs, housing assistance and protection, micro loans for small businesses, testing and information campaigns.

Because of the volatile economy and the resources being stretched thin, there's also been a highlight in communities being able to provide for themselves. That's one of the main themes of the Map Your Neighborhood program (RYLAN), one of the crowned jewels as far as preparedness, to help neighbors and neighborhoods understand that you need to help prepare yourself and your neighbors and communicate with your local nonprofits, because the city can only do so much

In addition to the city stepping up and doing more with less, the private and the nonprofit sector have been able to do that as well. There's a number of CBOs and private partners outside of what the city is doing, that have stepped up to provide health care, PPE, assistance and information. Continuing this engagement with local communities is essential and needs to continue even after we have a vaccine.

Has the pandemic and growing public health concerns regarding contagion engendered a rethink by the City of the merits of further densification of neighborhoods and of public transportation plans?

There's upsides and downsides to both. I was just listening to a discussion by the Homeland Security Advisory Council this morning about the supply chain, and one of the challenges of spreading people out is that the only way to get physical items to people is by bringing it to them. The further out people are, the more stress it puts on the supply chain.

The denser we are, the more opportunities for minimizing the stress on the electrical grid or water conveyance systems. Density can provide a more sustainable society, because people don't have to get into their cars to go to work, there are fewer cars on the road, and hopefully fewer traffic deaths. People being closer together also means that people can rely on each other more, Still,  the use and development of new technology is going to be essential for better communication and options to telecommute, distance learn or access tele-medicine regardless of your distance from the City center.

There are also unintended consequences. The more we are able to telecommute, the more we self-isolate and don't have those personal connections. So, it's a bit of a non-answer to your question, but I think that there are upsides and downsides to being more compact and being more spread out.  

Lastly, knowing the challenges you've just addressed and the resources, or lack thereof, what keeps you up at night?

I have two school-aged children, and what effect this crisis is going to have on children keeps me up at night. I'm also professionally trained as a social worker, and my fear is that a tidal wave of mental health issues that is already confronting the planet will continue. Not just children, but parents who are trying to do their jobs and provide. I'm talking about folks who are worried about paying rent, building owners who are worried about paying their mortgage, and what effect that has on everyone.

On top of that, there is so much sadness, isolation, and death that we're dealing with now—on a scale that nobody who's alive has seen. The mental health crisis is coming. Mental health needs to be accepted without stigma as something that everyone is going through and dealing with differently. We’re going to be dealing with the challenges of sadness, guilt, and fear for decades if not longer.

<

Advertisement

© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.