Interview with David Miller
Invest now to better manage disaster risk in the future

David Miller is Associate Administrator for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). An agency of the US Department of Homeland Security, FEMA supports residents and first responders with on-the-ground assistance for disaster recovery efforts. The agency also provides

David Miller

What role does the private sector play in building resilient infrastructure?

The private sector plays a key role in ways that we don’t fully appreciate or anticipate. Since 85 percent of the critical infrastructure in the US is privately owned, any time we want to build resilient infrastructure in a community, we have to have a discussion with those private infrastructure owners.

Private infrastructure owners view their mission differently than the public sector does. They need to know what kind of return they’ll get from incorporating resilience—and that it’s worth their investment. If we can’t make that quantitative argument, then it’s just theoretical. Because in the end, they’re going to determine if it fits their business model and if they can collaborate with us.

What incentives do both parties need to participate in the discussion?

One of the immediate tensions is using public money to benefit private companies. But if I turn that lens just a little bit, then you’re looking at investing in private industry to provide for the public good. That’s a discussion we have to have. The incentives are there; we just have to clarify them.

On the government side, we’ve got to make the business case that it’s in a company’s interest to make this investment—and illustrate the return on the investment. The government has access to critical information on natural and manmade disasters.

And both public and private sectors engage in research and development; combining resources could result in more meaningful outcomes that each sector might not be able to achieve on its own.

Post-disaster rebuilding presents an opportunity to build back smarter, safer, and stronger, but that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

It’s a complex issue, and it’s also critically important. After Hurricane Sandy, there’s been a lot of discussion in New York and New Jersey about the opportunities to build resilient infrastructure.

But it quickly becomes a discussion about affordability: “Who’s going to pay? For how long will they pay?” and, again, “What’s the return on the investment?” The private sector—whether it’s energy or transportation—may be able to incorporate a new standard or implement new technology into the infrastructure. But at the end of the day, unless we can illustrate return on investment, the company won’t evolve to the new resilient standard or technology. If it’s cost-prohibitive, they will probably opt instead to repair the infrastructure that’s already in place.

How can we focus more of our efforts on preparedness rather than response?

Often, the missing element in the public conversation is the risk analytic. As communities make decisions on redevelopment after a disaster, they need to understand how risk gets assigned in the decisions they’re making. Whether it’s land use planning or building codes, we need to understand how we assign, evaluate, and analyze risk before disasters happen.

Too often mitigation is viewed as a recovery function. Part of the challenge is to go back and look at it as an investment against future disasters. Ultimately, it gets down to a mentality of “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” And if you pay me later, it will cost you a lot more than if you invest prudently now.

For example, when electrical utilities adopt new standards and employ new technology after a disaster, that preparedness effort can mitigate risk the next time around. We’ve seen that play out time after time.

How does disaster preparedness play out across geographic boundaries?

We can’t restrict discussions about disaster risk by geographic boundaries. If we’re really going to examine how resilient infrastructure works, we need to come at it with a national—and sometimes an international—perspective in order to fully understand the delivery mechanisms.

For example, what happens in the Port of Seattle could have as profound an impact on Alaska as it does on Washington State. So Alaska is very interested in the disaster risk reduction efforts of the Port of Seattle.

It’s those kinds of discussions that we need to address more fully on a national level. We need to go back and say, “Okay. How does all this work? How does it intertwine? What are the interdependencies? What are the critical processes? What are the critical facilities?”

I’m convinced if we can better prepare for those interdependencies, we can develop the capacity to rebound from higher level disasters.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn