By Alison De Luise, Senior Advisor

The Water Center

January 22, 2020


On January 16, the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania joined forces with Coastal Strategies and the Coastal States Organization to convene experts in the fields of finance, municipal administration, environmental management, engineering, risk and policy to discuss the pressing challenge of financing the ever expanding list of coastal resilience projects and programs.  It was a great event, set up as a kind of conversation between those actors responsible for developing and executing resilience infrastructure investments and those representing the worlds of finance, academia, engineering and government responsible for innovating around more efficient use of existing capital and the creation of new, previously untapped financial streams.

The more financially technical elements of the day’s discussion were grounded, pragmatic, realistic and at times even hopeful.  But it was the presentation delivered by Christine Caggiano, a proud UPenn Planning alum and currently a senior mitigation strategist for Michael Baker International, that addressed the elephant in the room – namely why it is so difficult to develop the political and civil leadership and will to urgently act with the existing financial resources while working to shift the disproportionately large amount of disaster response funding into proactive resilience building funding buckets. 

Christine’s presentation entitled ‘It Takes a Village: Building Surround-Sound Support for Resilience’ drew from her experience working with FEMA on a Community, Engagement and Risk Communication (CERC) contract, to articulately explain why plans or data, of which there were plenty, were not enough on their own to trigger proactive resilience action.  The physical way our brains have evolved has meant that information alone is insufficient to change people’s perceptions of risk or how we make rational choices around risk planning and action.  Instead, emotion acts as the primary driver in decision making.  This translates in commonly held beliefs that if there have been no recent disasters, it means that there will not be any in the near future.  We base future risk on past experience.   And even when we acknowledge the likelihood of there being a disaster, we believe it will happen somewhere else.  And finally, if it is going to happen nearby, we convince ourselves it will happen well into the future.  All of this leads to inaction.   

Armed with this understanding that awareness alone will therefore not lead to action, the onus on all of us working in the resilience space is to be much more deliberate in building the intermediate steps between awareness and action. 

Christine presented three key intermediate steps: – Building belief, value and ability.

Building belief goes back to acknowledging biases and therefore requires the identification of the right form of messaging to help translate intellectual understanding into emotional belief.  Such messaging could be through using trusted people as conduits of information.  But it could also involve exposing people to experiential learning or augmented realities to get people to safely experience an emergency scenario.

Building value focuses on getting people to value that acting is worth it.  A starting point may be to increase people’s understanding that every $1 invested in federal mitigation saves $6 later on.  Or that every $1 in building codes saves $11 in avoided losses.  But building value is a lot more than that.  It is about investing in relationships and about cultivating champions.  Christine shared the results of recent work she had undertaken identifying those critical elements for getting plans implemented.  It turns out that across all kinds of plans the common thread was that local champions drove the effort. 

Finally, building ability is about people, the dollars and the tools.  It is about building different forms of capacity, including lobbying for greater financial and technical resources. On the money side, while there will never be near enough federal funding, there are some funding policies underway that provide hope.  Through the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, the Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities (BRIC) is a useful example.  It takes a 6% set aside of previous year’s disaster recovery expenditures and moves it into a pre-disaster spending bucket, translating into between $200-500 million of new money available for resilience preparedness work. 

Going back to Christine’s opening premise that emotions play a big role in proactive disaster preparedness efforts, she ended her presentation promoting the value of emotional storytelling, encouraging professionals working in this space to talk about communities that look like the community they are working in that have successfully executed resilience plans despite obvious barriers and obstacles.  Given the near universal acceptance of increased future severe weather events and sea level rise, protecting our coastal communities is going to require us to use every tool in our tool box to accelerate our resilience planning and execution efforts.  Our success in tapping into human emotions will factor largely in our success or failure.