Emergency Action Plans for dams promote community resilience

 “…in this age of so much unpredictability and so much turmoil, we need to shift our paradigm. …we are very much focused now in the United States and around the world on relief and recovery, and not enough on preparedness and readiness,” Judith Rodin, author of “The Resilience Dividend,” said in a PBS Newshour interview broadcast earlier this week and available online.

Ms. Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, cited the example of how Boston, for at least six or seven years, had been rehearsing for something to go wrong, “whether it was a terrorist attack or a violent storm or flooding. They didn’t know what it would be. And, of course, none of us know what it will be. So this is about readiness for any kind of disruption makes you better ready for every disruption.”

It proved to be a bombing during the Boston Marathon, but the preparedness resulted in fast and effective and coordinated responses across many agencies (police, fire, hospitals) that contributed to helping Boston rise to the challenges.

“The idea here is that not every disruption has to become a disaster. The dividend that I talk about is really the investment in preparedness that pays off whether or not something goes wrong. And that’s the ambition,” Ms. Rodin said.

2014-12-05_Dudenhoffer_sink_holeThat is what Emergency Action Plans for High-Hazard Potential dams are all about. EAPs are formalized preparation and planning that can help keep an incident (seepage, a sink hole, overtopping) from becoming an emergency, and an emergency from becoming a disaster. EAPs mean knowing who is at risk and then getting them and whatever they can take with them out of harm’s way if a dam is failing. EAPs address what will be done and who will do it during varying levels of problems with dams. When an EAP is activated, the resulting rapid, coordinated responses create the kind of preparation and readiness that saves lives and creates resilience for the impacted community to better get through the unexpected.

One of Ms. Rodin’s examples has certain parallels with the EAP situation in the U.S. dams sector. A commission determined that some of what made the Fukushima, Japan nuclear plant disaster so much worse than it needed to be was the result of institutionalized culture and attitudes.

“…the culture of acquiescing, the culture of not being willing to call out something that goes wrong, the culture of not being able to be adaptable and flexible,” she noted.

House debris following flooding.
House debris following flooding.

And in several states – the ones where there is no statutory or regulatory authority to compel dam owners to have EAPs – there is a culture of acquiescing to dam owner complaints about regulations, buying into the “it won’t happen because my dam’s been there for decades” argument for inaction, and politicians being unwilling to adequately fund and staff dam safety, much less take action to mandate EAPs that would help protect and benefit public health and safety, economic stability, and environmental conservation.

“…we need to acknowledge potential risk or potential failure in order to cope better…part of resilience-building is learning how to fail safely, and not catastrophically, whether you’re a person or a city or a business,” said Ms. Rodin. “…we are building core elements of strength when we are building resilience in people, in institutions, and in our cities.” And – if they are willing – in those dam owners who currently fail to recognize that EAPs are among those core elements of individual and community strength to cope with risk.