Resiliency, a Primer

When the people of Fort McMurray began to return home after the devastating Horse River fire on June 1, 2016, they were met with cheers from firefighters, police and paramedics, and other essential service workers who had been working hard to ensure the municipality was ready for them. Most of them had fled through an inferno close to a month before when the fire had jumped the river and burned through forest surrounding the city. After the fires had been put out, residents, business owners, and families came back to find foundations left where memories had once lived. While some of them found the memories too difficult and chose not to return, the vast majority of them did come back and rebuilt the heart of Alberta’s oilsands.

Much can, and has been said about the men and women who stayed and attempted to save the city. By and large they were incredibly successful, managing to save significant portions of it, though many homes were lost. A lot of them were professional responders, or people who volunteered to do some of the dangerous work that was required. They are rightfully called by many names, and described in glowing terms. But this isn’t a book about them, it’s about the regular people who woke up one morning, fled through an inferno, and came back to a city where many homes had just simply ceased to exist.

In the face of extreme adversity, and facing incredible odds, not only did people return to Fort McMurray, they filled it with life again. They adapted to an awful scenario and found a new normal. They overcame things that would break many people, and not only survived but thrived.

When Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport was getting ready to build a new terminal, they faced a major design issue. Less than a decade before, Istanbul had been rocked by a massive magnitude 7.4 earthquake on August 17, 1999. A building that will accommodate tens of thousands of passengers and thousands more employees on a regular basis has to take that into account. This building, which accommodates more than twenty-five million passengers and ninety thousand tons of cargo, sits a mere fifteen miles from the Anatolian Fault, near the convergence of three tectonic plates. A structural failure from an earthquake would be devastating, both in terms of injuries and deaths, but also in reputation and financial loss.

When the new terminal opened in 2009, it was built with resilience in mind. In addition to incorporating the latest design in people movement and foot traffic, it was also built with some important features designed to decrease the possibility of injury or death as a result of building damage during an earthquake. In fact, the entire two hundred and twenty thousand square foot building sits on three hundred specially designed isolators. These isolators do exactly what their name implies, they isolate the building from the earth around it. When an earthquake strikes, the ground will shake back and forth, but the building itself will stay still in relation to the ground. With this new technology, Sabiha Gökçen’s largest terminal is resilient to earthquakes as strong as a magnitude 8.0.

A wonderfully dear friend of ours started losing some weight, and by some, I mean a hundred pounds in six months. Eventually, they asked me for some help and advice, given my background in advanced first-aid and emergency services. In our conversations over the next few months as they moved in and out of emergency departments, treatment centres, and specialist appointments, I began to get a whole new appreciation for them.

They had shared with my wife and I that they’d had some mental health concerns in the past, but as we supported them through the most trying time in their life, a whole new picture emerged of a person we thought we knew. We were shocked that this person was even still alive, much less a loving and caring parent. As the stories came out over the weeks and months, we were deeply shocked by the terrors that our friend had lived through. These terrors had resulted in mental health concerns which manifested as disordered eating. Long-term disordered eating began to manifest in health concerns, which was when we became deeply involved.

We celebrated with them as we were the first people to know that our friend identified as LGBTQ+, and continue to celebrate both the small and large achievements with them. How can we not, when them simply being alive is an achievement in itself!

The residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

An airport in Istanbul.

A dear friend with disordered eating.

Three very disparate and separate things, with no apparent connection between them at first glance. The fact that they’re all in the first part of this book should tell you that there is a thread that ties them all together. They are all examples of resilience in its many and varied forms. Resilience in community, in construction, and in people.

We praise people for their resilience in extreme circumstances, we build homes and infrastructure to be resilient, and we strive to increase personal and community resilience. But despite how many times we use the word, many of us don’t truly understand what we mean by it. So, before we go any further, we need to figure out what is resilience?

Resilience applies to not only people and buildings, but also organizations and systems, and while it is hard, there is a single definition that applies to resilience across all of those things. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defined resilience asThe ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform, and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management.”[1]

That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start by looking at who we are talking about here: “a system, community, or society exposed to hazards.” Right off the bat, you can see that people aren’t explicitly included in this definition. It doesn’t mean that they’re excluded either. They are most definitely part of a community (more about that word in a minute) and a society, and are an excellent example of a very complex system. So, even though they’re not explicitly included, we can assume that this definition applies to them as well. But we can start by looking at the key words in the first part of that definition: resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform, and recover. Any structure or organization is going to have to be flexible in order to meet those terms, and that is where we can start understanding what exactly resilience is.

I want you to imagine a circle, held aloft by a series of legs about 3 feet off the ground. Now, I want you to also imagine a bowling ball held above that circle, let’s say ten feet up, suspended over the exact center of that circle. If the bowling ball falls right now, it falls straight to the ground, through the center of the circle, and landing with a thud.

Now, instead of empty space in the middle of that circle, I want you to imagine that the circle contains a pane of glass. Nothing special about this glass, it’s not laminated, it’s not safety glass, it’s just a regular old sheet of glass. You can probably imagine where I’m going with this. When the bowling ball falls, the pane of glass offers no resistance to the impact of the ball. It shatters and the ball falls to the ground with a tinkle and a thud.

“Wait!” some of you more scientifically-minded people are saying. “Glass isn’t a solid, it’s a liquid. If you were to gently place the ball on the pane and let it sit for many years, it would soften the blow.”

Well, that’s true, but since when do disasters and emergencies happen slowly over many years?[2]

Just for argument’s sake, let’s take the glass out and replace it with a piece of wood. Let’s say ½” plywood, and it now covers the entire circle. The bowling ball is again suspended over the centre of the circle and we’ve set the stage for the next example. You probably can figure out on your own that wood is defined by many more of those resilience key words like resist and absorb. So, let’s see what happens when we drop our ball again.

This time when we drop the ball, there is a great splintering sound, and we suddenly find the ball wedged into a hole in the wood that is the same size and shape of the ball itself. Seeing the results, you think to yourself “Surely this must be a success! The ball didn’t hit the ground, so there was no impact!”

That might be true, but the impact we are looking at is on the wood and not on the ground itself. The ground merely represents the complete and total destruction of the organization represented by the wood. Even if the ball didn’t hit the ground, the organization, community, or system represented by the wood is now totally and completely defined by the ball, or disaster.[3]

But what happens if we increase the thickness of the wood, or decrease the diameter of the circle so that the tensile strength of the wood is increased? Yes, the wood will resist some damage, and absorb more before it breaks, but eventually it will break. In fact, you might even get a sense of security and start to lay underneath the wood, maybe move a sandbox into its shade and build a little sand castle. But, once it breaks, and it will eventually break, not only will you have a broken piece of wood above your head, you may have lost your sand castle, and maybe have a bowling ball in your own head. Just as with the pane of glass, there’s no putting it back together again.

This is what happened to the people of New Orleans during the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season which saw both Katrina and Rita damage the city. In the opening chapter of The Cure for Catastrophe, Robert Muir-Wood describes how people grew to be complacent, believing that the system of levees that surrounded the city would protect them. “Faced with homeowners unwilling to sacrifice any part of their waterside plots, the Corps had to construct very thin concrete walls along the drainage canals.”[4]

Just like someone who has built a sandcastle under our metaphorical wooden circle, the people of New Orleans thought that they would be protected by the very walls in whose shadow they had built their houses. And, just like sandcastle builder who ignores the repeated impacts against the wood over their head, the people of New Orleans weren’t paying attention to how their protective devices were changing with the impacts over time.

“After Katrina, puzzled as to why the walls had been built so low, surveyors discovered that the benchmarks used to level the city’s flood defenses had themselves sunk 16 inches (400 millimetres) unnoticed.”[5]

Let’s return to our imaginary circle, only this time it contains a mat of densely woven nylon, supported around the edges by a large number of springs. It now looks like exactly what it is: a trampoline. Suspending our ball one more time, we drop it and watch as the trampoline first resists and absorbs the impact; then accommodates, adapts, and transforms its shape to conform to the shape of the ball until finally recovering from the impact of the ball in a timely and efficient manner.

This is what resilience looks like.

A community that can resist and absorb the initial impact, accommodate, adapt, and transform its shape to conform to the needs of a disaster, before finally recovering from the disaster in a timely and efficient manner. Note that nowhere in the UNISDR definition of resilience does it say anything about the impacted community returning to exactly the same way it was before.

A trampoline mat is never the same after it has been jumped on (or in this case, had a ball dropped on it). There will always be changes to the mat and the springs supporting it. And, eventually, unless it is regularly maintained and occasionally replaced, it will eventually fail. It may even fail if it is subject to a severe enough stress.[6]

No community that is subject to a disaster is ever unchanged by it. Even the most resilient communities will find themselves changed in ways that they never expected after a disaster. And no community can ever be resilient enough to stand against all disasters. Eventually, the world’s most resilient community will be brought to its knees by a disaster they never anticipated.

So how do we build resilience? How do we take our communities from easily shattered to recovering in a timely and efficient manner?

There’s no simple answer here. There’s no magic pill, no twelve-steps to resilience program, and definitely no wand-waving or spell-weaving. What there is, is good old-fashioned community building. Resilience is built on the back of strong communities, on the interconnections between people in their everyday lives. Resilience thrives on the connections that we make each and every day with the people around us. Community is at the heart of resilience.

[1] Accessed 30 July 2018.

[2] Wait, before you start talking about climate change and other long-term changes that have an effect on disasters and emergencies, I want you to stop and consider this for a minute. While the conditions to create or exacerbate a disaster can occur over many years, the actual disaster or emergency happens suddenly, all at once. And when the pane of glass does eventually shatter, there is no putting it back together again.

[3] I, myself, have seen communities and people become defined by their own disasters. For many years, I defined myself by the bullying I received when I was in elementary school. It took decades of work, and a partner who wouldn’t give up on me, nor let me give up on myself, for me to stop defining myself by a single event. Because I didn’t have that resilience, it took me two decades, and a lot of stubborn love from my wife, to allow me to include that as part of my history without being defined by it.

[4] The Cure for Catastrophe by Robert Muir-Wood, Pg. 18

[5] Ibid. Pg. 25

[6] I’m a big guy, in every sense of the word, at my heaviest, I didn’t even dream of going on a trampoline because I would have gone right through it.


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