Not Whether But When: It’s Time for a Cabinet-Level U.S. Department of Resiliency

By Dr. Mark Rocha

Ph.D. M.Engr., Senior Program Manager, CDM Smith, Inc. New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery


I was sleeping on Ground Zero of the magnitude-6.7 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles at 4:31am on January 17, 1994. I was an administrator living on the campus of Cal State Northridge. The entire campus was destroyed in 15 seconds. Among the sixty people who were killed in the earthquake, thirteen were our students who died in neighboring low-rise apartments when concrete support pillars pancaked. I-10, the interstate freeway that crisscrosses through the heart of Los Angeles, collapsed. This would be something akin to the Brooklyn Bridge going out.

So I read with great interest this week that geologic scientists had uncovered a newly identified fault line that could unleash a magnitude-7.4 in Southern California at any time. U.S. News and World Report also reported that the great San Andreas Fault was “overdue for a whopper of a temblor”. A major earthquake is therefore inevitable.

I have experienced a 6.7. I sure don’t want to experience a 7.4. That’s not a disaster, that’s an apocalypse.

Little did I know on the night of the Northridge Earthquake that twenty-three years later, I would work on another disaster recovery effort following Hurricane Sandy that hit Long Island on October 29, 2012, and damaged or destroyed nearly 100,000 homes.

In the state of New York the GOSR leadership of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery wisely established the principle of resilience as its core mission. Sure, we could have simply repaired the damaged homes relatively quickly. But GOSR also embarked on a comprehensive program to elevate homes above the flood level determined by FEMA.

Having worked this beat for a while, here are the five practical lessons learned and the key reasons why it’s time to establish a U.S. Department of Resiliency:

  1. Let’s dispose of the term “disaster”. There really is no such thing as a “natural disaster”. There are only natural events that science can now forecast. As a nation we can make a plan in advance to manage the risk of events that we know are inevitable. The origin of the word is from the Greek, meaning “bad star” and the idea was that catastrophic events were astrological. But as Shakespeare reminds us, “the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.” It’s time to discard the current “after the disaster” recovery model in favor of a “before the event” resilience-building model.

  2. Fix the current budget model. The current budget model for disaster recovery is badly broken and hugely expensive. It’s just common sense that investing in preparedness and resilience is much less costly than rebuilding after disasters, especially since we know these events will happen. The resilience model will end the pretense that these events are infrequent “emergencies”. Historical data will enable budgeting to be more even and regular over a long period. This will help transcend the politics of having to fund each emergency, one by one. This will also insure that resources are allocated more equitably to all regions of the nation.

  3. Reorganize resilience into a single national jurisdiction. Have you ever tried to pull a building permit following a disaster? Good luck! An event such as Hurricane Sandy occurs across dozens and sometimes hundreds of municipalities, each with their own building codes and requirements. A U.S. Department of Resilience would federalize building codes and the permitting process for resilience and recovery activities. I know, I know, you don’t want more Washington bureaucrats usurping local control. But I’m not talking about bureaucrats, I’m talking about engineers. And why must the new USDOR be headquartered in Washington? Why not California or Florida that are closer to the most frequent events? Finally, for my money, I would pull FEMA out of Homeland Security and subsume both it and the EPA under a new Department of Resilience. This could mean less government reorganized around the 21st century mission of resilience.

  4. Innovate by “Rezoning” the United States. Recently I drove across the country. One town looks like the next, zoned with a downtown core, radiating suburbs and a strip of commercial and retail. Many municipalities do not permit manufactured housing, for example, even though this can be an ideal solution for resilience development. This is much less expense and much more attractive than elevating homes that are forty years old or more. More and more construction of all types is pre-fabricated offsite, reducing costs and increasing quality. A U.S. Department of Resilience will help foster this kind of innovation for residences and small businesses.

  5. Re-Engineer Engineering Education. We need a “G.I. Bill” for engineering education: The taxpayers will pay your way through school if you agree to two years’ service in the US Department of Resilience. Engineering schools also need to update their curricula and research agendas to assist with the practical challenges of resilience.

A word about the politics of this proposal. There isn’t any. There is no Republican or Democrat way to estimate the wind load factor of a building or to design the depth of a helical pile for a residential elevation. There is only science and execution. We do not even need to debate the causes of climate change. The essential question of the U.S. Department of Resilience is non-political. Since we know another hurricane is going to hit Florida and the Gulf Coast, how do we prepare for it now?

Dr. Mark Rocha is a former California community college president and has a PhD from the University of Southern California and a Masters in Engineering from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He is one of the few to have worked in both California and New York on two of the biggest disaster recovery efforts in U.S. history.