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Limits of our imagination

Planning for disaster often means implementing measures that would have helped in the last disaster. While learning from experience is critical, looking backward can often limit our imaginations as to what future disasters might bring. This is the strength of using a resilience lens – by looking at the resources, capacity and connections of our residents, agencies and organizations, the diversity, modularity and redundancy of our infrastructure, and the rules we live by we can pose questions that will help respond to disasters we cannot yet imagine. In Boulder, emergency responders had trained well to respond to floods on one to two drainages, but never all fourteen at the same time. Public utilities and emergency responders are trained to respond to local power outages, but what about a power outage across the state? Terrorist attack? Wildfire in the city? Other unforeseen disasters? What other unforeseen disasters might we experience in the near future? We can look at a matrix of cost and risk tradeoffs in this thought experiment. It is simple to imagine high-risk, high-cost interventions, and those can often get the most attention. But consider the diagram below—how can we move those interventions to another quadrant? Failure of the city-wide Boulder sewage system would be very expensive to mitigate or deal with, and in light of the experience in the flood, the risk of it is fairly high. Replacing the entire 400 miles of piping across the city would cost half a billion dollars. However, we can focus on the few neighborhoods where it the sewage system failed and think about interventions that could apply to those locations alone. This begins to identify other options that are available at much lower costs. These could include creating incentives for homeowners and landlords to install backflow devices on basement and garden-level apartments to prevent backflow into homes, or strengthening the sewage drainage system just in high-risk neighborhoods. The goal in this type of exercise is to shift problems from the high risk, high cost quadrant to the high risk, low cost quadrant by finding smaller, more modular, more distributed and more collaborative solutions. In many cases, multiple small solutions will be far more effective than one large solution.

PERC Reports