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John Hennessy III,

Critical Transportation Infrastructure and Societal Resilience

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, June 13th, 2012



The key to assuring security, safety and prosperity in the 21st Century will be possessing resilience in face of chronic and catastrophic risks. The years ahead will be marked by turbulence, fueled by unconventional conflict, likely changes in climate, and the sheer complexity and inter-dependencies of modern systems and networks. This places a premium on assuring that individuals, communities, and critical infrastructure have the capacity to withstand, respond, rapidly recover, and adapt to man-made and natural disturbances.

Building resilience requires a broad and sustained engagement of citizens, companies, and communities. For individuals and families, it requires a commitment to a greater degree of self-reliance. At the neighborhood and community level, it requires civic engagement and volunteerism. Businesses must recognize that their ability to operate in good times as well as bad is dependent on the capabilities of the communities that host them. Thus, close collaboration between the private and public sector becomes essential to the success of both.

Resilience building requires creating capabilities from the bottom-up. Concrete policy actions must be shaped by stakeholders from the private and public sectors, drawn primarily from outside the usual Washington, DC policy circles. This will require both a shift in approach and emphasis to the post-9/ll homeland response. The civilian population and private sector will need to be enlisted as full partners in strengthening societal and infrastructure resilience. This effort must be extended beyond the task of detecting and intercepting terrorists in advance of an attack. In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, too little time and energy was assigned to the elements of homeland security most relevant to resilience——pr0tecti0n, response, and recovery. It was largely only due to pressure from Congress that DHS started to pay real attention to critical infrastructure protection. It Was not until 2006 that the first “National Infrastructure Protection Plan” was issued — and the plan only established a process for setting priorities and provided a suggested action plan for protection activities.

When President Barack Obama came into office, he made a commitment to recraft the homeland security mission in important ways. First was to explicitly incorporate homeland security into national security; second, to broaden the focus of the homeland security mission to include natural and man-made disasters; and third to identify resilience as strategic element of homeland and national security.

One outcome of broadening the homeland security mission to include natural disasters and placing greater emphasis on resilience is that it has begun the process of recalibrating public expectations about the inherent limits of preventing all catastrophic risks, including the risk of terrorism. The U.S. government is powerless when it comes to preventing a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado. However, American society possesses the means to mitigate the consequences of these events, recover quickly, and adapt. In other words, the actions that are necessary to deal with natural disasters can also support building the kind of resilience that will make man-made threats far less consequential. By including natural disasters and other catastrophic risks, homeland security generally, and resilience specifically, becomes much more relevant to communities and companies.

To overlook the resilience imperative is to put in peril the future prosperity of the nation. When critical systems such as transportation and logistics do not have the robustness and nimbleness to recover, they present attractive targets for those who are intent on inflicting harm. This is because it offers America’s current and potential adversaries a big potential destructive and disruptive bang for their buck. Furthermore, vulnerable systems amplify the deadly and costly consequences that can be wrought by natural disasters. Companies striving to be grow strong and prosperous and then remain so, don’t stay in societies that are easy to knock down and slow to get up. These companies know that if they are a part of a supply chain or depend on one that lacks resilient elements, they will wither and die. So they move to safer harbors that can better assure business continuity. And people with the means to do so, will generally select to live in places that demonstrate a capacity to cope with chronic disruptions.

Given the benefits of resilience—and the direct and indirect risks associated with fragile communities and systems~—it is very much in the interest of Americans to embrace it. This will require developing policies and incentives that encourage community resilience at the local level, and within and across networks and infrastructure sectors such as transportation at all levels. It also requires acknowledging that safety and security efforts that aim to eliminate risks will always reach a point of diminishing returns. In most cases, a more prudent and realistic investment is to manage risks by building the skills and capabilities to do three things: (1) maintain continuity of function in the face of chronic disturbances, (2) develop the means for graceful degradation of function when placed under severe stress, and (3) sustain the ability to quickly recover to a desired level of functionality when extreme events overwhelm mitigation measures.

An emphasis on resilience provides a compelling rationale for greater levels of cooperation and collaboration between the public and private sectors. When it comes to assuring the continuity of operations for essential systems and networks, the users, designers, operators, managers, and regulators all have a shared interest in infrastructure resilience and each has an important role to play. There should be no higher priority than engaging and integrating the multiplicity of parties into a common effort that ensures that society’s critical foundations such as transportation are resilient.

The simple fact is that there never will be enough professionals at the right place at the right time when terrorists or disasters strike. The United States has vast transportation networks that operate at the local, state, regional, continental, and global levels. Intelligence and technologies are fallible and Mother Nature cannot be deterred. As appealing as it might be to leave security and emergency preparedness and response to professionals, when it comes to detecting and intercepting ten’orist activities or dealing with a catastrophic natural event, the first preventers and first responders will almost always be civilians and system operators who by circumstance find themselves unwitting targets of terrorists or in the path of a disaster when it strikes.

Download full report (PDF): Critical Transportation Infrastructure and Societal Resilience

About The Center for National Policy
“The Center for National Policy is an independent think tank dedicated to advancing the economic and national security of the United States. We bring together thought leaders and decision makers who are focused on the revitalization of our economy for the benefit of all Americans and the strengthening of the values of human rights and democracy at home and across the globe. “

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