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Chief Resilience Officers: The New Leaders In Cities’ Fight To Bounce Back From Disasters

As New Orleans’ chief resilience officer Jeff Hebert shows: all cities need to plan for the worst–and those plans are making all cities stronger.

Chief Resilience Officers: The New Leaders In Cities’ Fight To Bounce Back From Disasters
[Top Photo: Wesley Bocxe/Getty Images]

After the waters receded and rebuilding began, there was one thing clear in post-Katrina New Orleans: more storms were coming. Katrina was so disastrous because city planners and engineers had never anticipated the confluences of events–storm surge, levees breaking–that the storm caused. And so it was clear the city needed a plan to survive not just the future storms it could imagine, but the storms–and other disasters–of which it couldn’t even conceive. Jeff Hebert, who was appointed as the city’s first ever Chief Resilience Officer, is the one in charge of making sure that the city and its residents have systems in place to help them bounce back from whatever is next.

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“The smart city is realizing that what happened in New Orleans, what happened in New York or what happened in Japan could happen in California, Peru, or Paris. Charlie Hebdo, right?” says Hebert. “These things could happen to any city. And as cities look to their own futures, they see issues. It’s smart to get a handle on it proactively now.”

Hebert’s main role is to bridge gaps–connecting city government with private companies, making sure the areas outside the city are all talking with each other, and finding the links between projects and goals that no one else would see. “My work is coordinating across city government, private, and nonprofit,” he says. “People are working very intently on advancing transformation in education, quality of life, environment, and infrastructure. But they aren’t not always looking at the benefits that they have with each other.” Hebert’s job is to pull those pieces together. His work has resulted in a comprehensive resilience strategy, the first of its kind for a city.

Flickr user Chris LeCroy

According to Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation–which is helping to build resiliency by working with city governments around the world to fund CRO positions –one of the vulnerabilities cities don’t often consider is how siloed different parts of government are. “The department of planning doesn’t connect with the department of agriculture. The private sector can be out of touch with the plans and dreams of civic and community leadership,” she says.

Flickr user Matt Morgan

But by working together, they can create plans for disasters that are far more effective than what they could achieve on their own—and make them happen with far bigger budgets.

With a decline in federal resources, cities have to be increasingly creative about how to finance large-scale innovations and the kind of infrastructure that can sustain their futures. The resilient ones are turning to partnerships like the ones Hebert dreams up. “City budgets can’t do it alone,” Hebert says. “We’re not a wealthy city, so part of what I look at is: what creative financial solutions are there out there for the city to be able to leverage funds that we have with private funds or with other philanthropic funds to actually do some of the things that we talk about?”

It’s a new way of thinking about how to create and pay for new city strategies. And it is one that looks further into the future—far further than you’d find in a typical mayor’s office or city master planning process. “Really what we’re interested in is for somebody who’s born today, what their life looks like 35 years from now,” Hebert says. “Cities aren’t traditionally very good at pegging themselves past a political cycle.”

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USDA Flickr

Rebuilding and Recovery

In 2005, Hebert, a New Orleans native, was living in New York doing neighborhood redevelopment work. Watching Katrina unfold on television, he felt the need to come home. A month later, Hebert’s brother picked him up and drove around the drowned city. His brother’s house was flooded. The entire first floor was ruined; mold had begun to eat the walls. The wooden floors were buckled and the smell was putrid. There was debris all over the streets, and there had been many fires in the neighborhood.

Hebert started doing volunteer work and ended up in the governor’s recovery office, putting plans together for the rebuilding of the city. He’s been in New Orleans ever since. When The Rockefeller Foundation first announced the CRO program, 400 cities across the world applied. Each city answered questions about strengths and weaknesses–things like social issues or infrastructure–as well as how they’d like to improve and where they think the Rockefeller program could help. Out of that process, 32 were chosen—New Orleans was among the first. (Hebert was appointed by the mayor’s office almost immediately. He’d already been on the ground doing it.)

Since then, there has been a second round of applications, 67 CROs in total have been appointed. And now a third round is open with a deadline of November 24, 2015. bringing the final number to one hundred chief resilience officers around the world “The Chief Resilience Officer is sort of the band leader of [a] disparate orchestra,” says Dr. Rodin. This yields benefits in the good times in not just the bad times. It’s in better social trust and social cohesion. We can’t always know what the next crisis will be so we have to build in the kind of plans and capacities that allow us to rebound effectively when something hits.”

What makes a good CRO? It’s creative mindset, community respect, and ability to connect people and ideas. It is also about the open-heartedness and intellectual curiosity to welcome and appreciate different points of view. Hebert is an urban designer by trade. The CRO in Mexico City is a climate scientist. The CRO of San Francisco ran the earthquake program for the city of San Francisco. “What is most interesting to me is that my colleagues all over the world come from so many different sectors,” says Hebert. “We all have different perspectives and that’s also what makes the conversation interesting, because we all have different points of view.”

While his position is officially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program for the first two years, part of the requirement is it has to be part of the city government’s work charter. He was appointed and hired by the mayor’s office.

How long will the position last? Hebert says: “It is as long as the city keeps it.”

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What Are Cities Learning From New Orleans?

Hebert has a view of what’s happening around resiliency everywhere—-and that doesn’t just mean in New Orleans. He regularly texts and has calls with the chief resilience officers of cities from Bangkok to Melbourne to Medellin. All of them trade ideas, and each city seems to have a unique area of specialization. “We look into Mexico City and what they have done with air quality,” says Hebert. “We talk with Medellin, Colombia, on violence reduction. We talk with San Francisco about their building retrofit programs for earthquakes.”

And everyone, he says, looks to New Orleans for water management–including cities like Rome, a place you might not immediately consider as facing issues similar to New Orleans.

As Hebert discovered, Rome also has massive flooding, aging infrastructure, and very similar de-investment problems to those in New Orleans. “Large sections of Rome are below sea level and aging infrastructure is a growing stress on the city,” says Hebert. “In March of 2015, Rome’s CRO, Alessandro Coppola, hosted a water management summit to discuss strategies. When I was there, there was a heavy rain and the subway flooded. Everyone was looking to us for advice.”

At the summit, New Orleans presented homegrown concepts of living with water, through the integration of green infrastructure as a support system for traditional infrastructure. The highlights of this Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan were released in late August as part of the comprehensive resilience strategy, the first of its kind for a city (President Obama and Rodin came to New Orleans to review it with Hebert).

The detailed version of the strategy includes 41 key initiatives from emergency savings accounts for low- and moderate-income citizens to pre-disaster planning. The intention: to help New Orleans become “a more equitable, adaptable and prosperous place for all residents” as the city approaches its three hundredth anniversary in 2018.

The strategy goes well beyond water management, and includes a resilience retrofit program with incentives for property owners to reduce their own risk, with assistance from 100 Resilient Cities partner, Deutsch Bank. It also features a “Digital divide innovation challenge”—an all-call for creative approaches to increasing digital access, literacy, and participation for all New Orleanians (part of the city’s focus on prioritizing racial equity). And a micro-grid pilot project—using small backup electrical systems that operate autonomously as reliable power to support water, hospital, and comms systems in case of outage.

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But the plan leads with what New Orleans is best known for: water management, drainage systems, and green infrastructure to delay and detain storm water.

The big question: how much does all this cost a city?

The official answer from Hebert’s office: “it is important to remember that this is not a master plan, so it does not have an overall cost projection, although individual projects within the proposal will as we move forward.” However, discrete pieces of the plan are already underway – and they do have numbers. Robin Barnes, COO of Greater New Orleans Inc, says, “The GNO Urban Water Plan is a 50 year plan, and we’ve estimated a cost of $6.2 billion over the next several decades.” That cost, though, comes with a benefit of $20 billion in increased property values and prevented flood damage. Plus, it’s a small price tag when you look at the total cost of the damage caused Hurricane Katrina—an estimated at $135 billion.

And, in New Orleans’ case, the investment comes with a secondary benefit. New Orleans is now not only managing water, but they are also exporting that knowledge. Southern Louisiana companies have about $325M worth of contracts helping New York and New Jersey with engineering, architecture, and re-building after Hurricane Sandy. In short: the city is transforming its own water challenges into an asset. And making being “Masters of Disaster” into an industry.

US Army Flickr

The Resilient City

Katrina made New Orleans a focus of global attention as a resilient city. What most people don’t remember: through its nearly 300-year history, it always has been. “We had Katrina. But over a 10 year period we also had Gustav, Isaac, Ike, and the BP oil spill,” says Hebert. “From 1718 to today, we’ve had countless hurricanes and public health disasters.” As Hebert points out, the original city burned down three or four times. They’ve had modern hurricanes that have flooded the city. They once survived the plague. They’ve been through it, and they continue to not only survive but to thrive with humor, easy grace, and strength found few other place in the world.

“A lot of people counted New Orleans out in 2005 because there is very little evidence of a city that was–prior to the disaster–on a decline, bouncing back. You can talk to any disaster researcher–we’ve had them all here in New Orleans,” says Hebert. “That’s why I say it’s something in our DNA. Everybody counted us out. There just is not a precedent for what happened here.”

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Hebert says it’s about social cohesion—making that a priority—and creating a culture where people feel deeply connected. “Clearly there are structural issues like sea walls, but what keeps this city going are the people. Continuing to invest in their quality of life and reinforce the social cohesion that this city has is what enabled us to come back.”

During the year-long process of creating the strategy, he brought in leaders from the academic, philanthropic, as business communities, as well as advocate organizations. He enlisted The Office of Neighborhood Engagement to convene a summit of neighborhood leaders. He gathered more than 350 individuals—often in groups, in the same room–to provide insight about: what contributes to and what detracts from the city’s resilience; what local expertise and knowledge exists; and what specific needs are not being met.

“People coming together to help each other,” says Hebert. “That is the key to resilience.”

About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies.

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