September 18, 2023 - From the September, 2023 issue

U.C.’s ‘Disaster Resilience Network’ – Connecting Expert Academic Resources to Better Mitigate Climate Catastrophes

The extreme effects of climate change continues to toss a growing number of unheard of disasters — Hurricane Hilary in the US, the Morocco earthquake, Libya’s flooding, etc. — onto the plate of disaster response teams nationwide & globally. In an effort to mitigate the effects, and maybe even prevent disasters, the University of California has assembled a Disaster Resilience Network to better connect and provide the vast and, sometimes, siloed resources of the university system to jurisdictions in need of assistance. Ahead of Disaster Resilience Day 2023, taking place October 12th, TPR recently interviewed Ed Blakely, a seasoned veteran with decades of experience in disaster recovery who now sits on the advisory board for the network, to learn how the UCDRN could help with disaster preparedness. Also interviewed here, the network’s executive director, Joe Leitmann.

Ed Blakely

“[University of California] has experts from around the world… on earthquakes, floods, fires and more who cover both mitigation and preparation… I'd like to see us help every city put together a disaster plan using the university's resources.” - Edward Blakely, Chair, UC Disaster Resilience Network Advisory Board

TPR: You’ve been involved with disaster mitigation for decades now, whether it be working in the aftermath of California fires, Hurricane Katrina, or advising other governments following any number of catastrophes. Most recently, you were selected to sit on the advisory board for the UC Disaster Resilience Network, a relatively new brain trust and educational network which has been set up to combat and prepare for potential disasters. Talk about the mission of this network.

Ed Blakely: The mission of the network is really quite simple. The University of California is the states land grant university; it is the University's responsibility to provide its services to the State of California and all of its people. Part of our mission is to be involved with those things which are critical and crucial to the state.

The reason the University of California is so powerful today is it helped develop most of the state's infrastructure and agriculture. Agriculture in California is number one because of the University of California. It runs the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other labs related to atomic energy. Its a powerful institution and we have enormous resources here. 

We have experts from around the world, as a matter of fact, on earthquakes, floods, fires and more who cover both mitigation and preparation. We're involved in all the things that are associated with the current issues we're having now with climate change. We look at how to mitigate these things before they hit us and how to organize the services in the state so that we can be there first, and do the best we can.

There’s likely no person with more experience to chair UC’s Disaster & Resiliency Network advisory board. Share with our readers what experience you bring to this role.

I started out in Oakland. If you remember, Oakland has had its share of disasters. The freeway fell down and the mayor said to us, fix it. I turned to the University of California and we got that freeway up and we got the bridges up. But that job wasn't enough. A few years later, we had the largest fire in California history, in the Oakland Hills. The mayor said to us, fix it. And we did. We brought back every resident who lost his or her home into either the same home or a better home within three years. 

Later, I was in New Orleans and I had to do everything I could to bring that city out of its disaster. In that process, I learned you have to prepare for the next disaster and not merely deal with the current one. That's what we've done in New Orleans. The city has had no severe disasters since Hurricane Katrina. That's because we prepared for what we thought could be the oncoming disasters and are still preparing. 

So, I know a little bit about disasters, but I also know a little bit about the University of California and the resources it brings.

Given your experiences, opine on the value of UC’s Network and academic research for those officials responsible in real time for addressing climate events and disasters.

First of all, you have to use it before you get there. The universities cannot turn on a dime. They have scientists, they have a lot of deep knowledge and information, but that's all hidden from the ordinary public. We have to get that information to the public. The public has the Red Cross, climate change officers in every city, fire departments, ambulances and hospitals. All those people have to know what resources the University has. And they have to be prepared to use it like an army. You can't call up the artillery at the last minute, you have to have a game-plan. So, what we are is kind of the master sergeant who has arranged his army so that when were needed, you can receive that information and training fast.

Every city has to have a disaster preparedness plan. Were required to in California, so every city has one. I participated in one for Los Angeles a long time ago. We prepared mostly for potential military issues and drug issues. When we had the Watts Riots, we were prepared. The preparation today is much more in-depth and ongoing than it was 20 years ago when I started out. 

You don't know when these things are going to happen. A hurricane in California? Come on. A big fire in Maui? That's a bad movie. These are not things we were really prepared for and, unfortunately, in Maui, they got too relaxed. You have to have heavy preparation, you have to have systems ready. The alarms have to go off, the evacuation routes have to be in place. And when you do evacuate, you don't do this one person at a time, in a car by themselves or walking down the street. We learned that in New Orleans. We had our buses go to certain locations which were being monitored by people in every community who knew where the crippled were, who knew where the bedridden were, who knew who needed help. That's the kind of thing you can do when a disaster hits, but by having preparation before that, you can mitigate a lot of disasters.

Address whether there is an emotional preparedness challenge involved with disaster resilience.

There is. UC San Francisco, as well as UC Irvine, are working on helping people understand how to deal with the first responders and also with the citizens. How do you prepare your child for disaster? We've all sort of done that when we teach a child to watch out for how you cross the street. We have drills. You're more emotionally responsible and capable if you have drills, learning how to do and what to do at the time of the event. Those are the kinds of things we want to help people with. But, the most important thing is to make sure every county, every city in California has a plan and the citizens are involved in it. If they're involved in it, they're more able and more capable of dealing with disasters.

What are the current gaps, in providing disaster relief and enhancing resiliency, that you’d like the UC network to prioritize?

The most important one is to have all the digital information we have combined in a way that is accessible and in a format that any city, any municipality or any jurisdiction, could receive on short notice. The second thing is to help the cities prepare for the kinds of disasters they're most likely to face. I'd like to see us help every city put together a disaster plan using the university's resources. They can do that digitally, they don't have to come to a campus, but they need to get involved with the people on campuses. We have a mechanism for that, its what we do in agriculture right now. It's called the University Extension program. We go to every county in the state, the 4-H clubs, and prepare the citizens to grow the best crops in the world.

How, honestly, does one effectively organize and focus the immense academic resources of the University of California and its 10 campuses?

That is a huge task. Each campus has someone with responsibilities in this area and we're mobilizing those people so they're able to respond. My colleague Joe Leitmann could tell you more.

Joe, please introduce yourself to our readers and give us your take on that last question, as well?

Joe Leitmann: Im the executive director of the UC Disaster Resilience network. I'm a UC Berkeley PhD and Ed was the chair of my department when I got my PhD. So, we go way back. I also have 35 years of experience on resilience and sustainable development work with the World Bank

The challenge that I see that we really have to confront in the UC system is this division of knowledge, experience and expertise by silos. We have the classic departmental or disciplinary silos, but then we have these geographic silos campus by campus. We can add in the three national labs and the six medical centers, as well. So, what we're trying to do is cut through all of that and say, look, we're stronger if we can get the power of 10 campuses working together. We can bring together complementary expertise across the system to address some of these existential challenges that disasters pose to society in California and beyond that, as well. I fully agree that we need to make the information available. We have to get up front with preparedness. 

There are a couple of other things that we should also be thinking about. One is reducing the risk of disasters by having more resilient infrastructure, better city planning, better spatial organization and better awareness of the risks. That's something that the university can do as part of its bread and butter. A second thing I think we can help with is the pace of recovery once a disaster occurs, and Ed knows this very well from his experience in New Orleans and elsewhere. A lot of the frustration and a lot of the cost of responding and recovering from a disaster has to do with the red tape, the paperwork, cross cutting and overlapping jurisdictions… We really need to work towards more efficient and faster recoveries. 

When I was at the World Bank, we did a study on the amount of money you could save by accelerating disaster recovery, and it's in the 10s of billions of dollars every year. So, I think risk reduction is important but so is working faster and more responsibly once a disaster has occurred, because no matter what we do to mitigate the risks, we're still going to have these events affecting people and our economy.

At the last VerdeXchange, speakers and attendees concentrated on implementing the Inflation Reduction Act and prioritizing the federal, state and local investment now available for local infrastructure projects. Is this new funding likely to align with what’s needed to prepare for future climate disasters? Might the Network have input into these decisions?

Joe Leitmann: It depends on the jurisdiction and it depends on the foresight that they have. Are they thinking about how quickly we can use this money and how many kilometers miles of road we can build with it? Are they thinking into the future? 

How can we build in a way that we maintain these assets in the face of the different risks that are likely to occur? There's a whole coalition, globally, for disaster resilient infrastructure that's being led out of the G20 by India (Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, CDRI). They've seen firsthand the extra costs that they have to incur as a developing economy when disasters destroy poorly built or inadequately located infrastructure. The same can be said for the industrialized West. We often make decisions without considering the climate and other risks that we face. These problems need to be internalized in planning and investment decisions. 

People are saying that we're going to build more infrastructure globally in the next 20 years than has been built in the last 200 years. There's so much money around the world thats going into investments for infrastructure and we have this unique opportunity to make sure that it's done right. We think that the university, with its experience in building and in preparedness, can play a role in this process.

Ed Blakely: That's really important, because I think [the VerdeXchange crowd] are the people at the coalface of this. The planners, the people looking to do work green and sustainably. There are two levels that I think are crucial for us. One of them is reaching regional governments around the state. Those planning organizations touch every local government, they provide technical assistance to local governments. We can't get to every local government, but SCAG, SANDAG and the rest can. 

We need to get to them so that when they provide their technical assistance on building bridges or on building housing, they do it while having the best available information. They also need to know who to turn to in order to ask questions and wed like to be that organization. It is a big challenge though, because there's so much information out there and a lot of it is bad. We have to turn this into something that works, at least in California. If we do well here, we can also do a good job for the entire United States and the world.

Lastly, disaster resiliency is a global concern. How might UC, which is a global institution in its reach, offer valued input to global policymaking? 

Joe Leitmann: Were positioned to approach this from a high level and from a ground up perspective. We have to be present and showcase the relevant work in this area that the universities do. For example, on October 12, were organizing a Disaster Resilience Day in Sacramento to share what the University is contributing to the state, and beyond, in terms of Disaster Resilience. 

When we're talking about global reach, a lot of it has to do with the one-to-one relationships that individual campuses, or even the whole UC system, have with foreign entities, particularly with overseas universities. We're forging a partnership with the University of Chile because they mirror so many of the problems that California faces south of the equator. We're finding that we've got a lot to learn from them and vice-versa. We're doing the same in India with the Indian Institutes of Technology. Its a very grassroots approach to transferring and sharing knowledge from the UC system to overseas entities. 

A third approach is really the role that the University's faculty play as contractors, as experts and as consultants. Many of them work for and through the United Nationssystem and through the Multilateral Development Banks, for example, or with the European Union. We've got different pathways to influencing thinking around the world.

Ed Blakely: We're the number one public university in the world. That's a large responsibility, but also an asset. I think we have to be involved with conferences like [VerdeXchange] and people from those organizations need to be involved with us. That's the key. We need to open the doors of information exchange.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.