Mitigating Disaster: Bolstering Southern California’s Resiliency

02/20/2019 11:50 AM | Bill Hess for SCDF

Among the various challenges associated with life in Southern California, resiliency is one that needs to be discussed with greater frequency. Surely the devastation of the recent Woolsey Fire, and the potential threat of mudslides almost immediately after serve as the most recent example of our vulnerability to the surrounding natural environment. The moments that follow a natural disaster, from realization to actual rebuilding are what seems to be when people are most concerned with resiliency. However, our February panel event speakers explained why resiliency measures need to become a continuous dialogue, rather than limited only to the moments after suffering a catastrophic loss of property or lives.

The Issue of Perception

The event was moderated by John Bwarie, deputy director at Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. The center was founded with the intent to activate the use of science in the creation of more resilient communities. John began the conversation by pointing out that while resilience and sustainability are both topics of concern in the development community, there is an added level of difficulty surrounding them as both concepts deal with an issue of perception. What is perceived as a resilient measure in one community, may not be as applicable to another. For example, the panel’s next guest speaker, Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, who was recently re-elected as mayor for the city of Malibu, lives in a community where truly sustainable building practices would include preventative fire safety measures. This should come as no surprise given that the recent Woolsey Fire tore through his city, destroying 670 total structures including at least 400 single-family homes. In total, the fire burned about 96 thousand acres. Given the topography of Malibu, the threat of fire is much more likely than perhaps Downtown Los Angeles where the panel was held. A community such as Downtown Los Angeles would more likely be concerned about seismic resiliency rather than wildfire resiliency. This difference in need contributes the issue of how resiliency is perceived. Like sustainability, resiliency can be open to interpretation, which means it can be difficult to incorporate when considering re-development opportunities. A second panelist, Matt Barnard, principal at Degenkolb, agreed that because resiliency is a localized experience, it is difficult to broadly define. All panelists agreed that regardless of our difficulty in defining resiliency, there needs to be more discussion to move Southern California into a resilient direction.

What Keeps You Up At Night?

Another common theme for the panel discussion was a simple question often asked of leaders and decision makers: What keeps you up at night? Carey Upton, Chief Operations Officer at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District stated that a primary area of concern within the school district is ensuring that children will have the ability to safely attend school. Additionally, public schools are sometimes used as evacuation facilities. As schools are a cornerstone of any community, they will always need to be designed for safety as well as resiliency.  School districts also have the challenge of incorporating resiliency measures into the structure not just for today, but for the generations of tomorrow.

Christian Johnston, founder of the Sustainable Building Council, added that his work has taken him to visit many communities who are freshly in the wake of coping with natural disaster. The devastation endured by residents and the overwhelming desire for families and individuals to rebuild their lives, and more importantly, the need to help these people, is what keeps him awake at night. While panelists all had different aspects of resiliency and sustainability that might stir in their minds, all agreed that the Northridge Earthquake of 1994is the Southern California natural disaster that is one of the most pronounced in their minds when considering how to better plan for resiliency to seismic activity. However Matt pointed out that the Northridge earthquake, although memorable, is not large compared to “the Big One” that threatens Southern California. 

Risk

Another common connection made among all panelists was risk. Many communities are built in areas at high risk of enduring a natural disaster, and if a disaster occurs, we have seen them be rebuilt, only with the same structures and infrastructure as before. One audience member pointed out that Tejon Ranch, a master-planned community near the Grapevine in northern Los Angeles County, was approved for additional home construction sites in high-risk burn areas less than a month after the destruction of the Woolsey Fire ended on the other side of Los Angeles County. This has led many sustainability- and resiliency-oriented development professionals to question not just how rebuilding should occur but also if the risk of disaster outweighs the need to rebuild at all in specific areas especially prone to disaster. However, eliminating a community’s attempt to rebuild in the area they have known as home can be a restrictive tactic that may meet fierce opposition by recently displaced residents who want to rebuild their community.

The key takeaway is that resiliency needs to be approached more eagerly and with the entire community’s best interests at heart. Truly, resilience is the capacity for humans to survive, adapt and grow, regardless of what shocks or stressors ensue. It is an effort that will take full cooperation by developers, residents, and governments, alike.


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