Is San Antonio a Resilient City?

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San Antonio firefighters undergo swift water rescue training in May 2016.

Courtesy / San Antonio Fire Department

San Antonio firefighters undergo swift water rescue training in May 2016.

Like many of you, as I sat in line at my local H-E-B waiting for gas, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had Hurricane Harvey moved just 50 miles west and actually hit San Antonio.

For more than a week San Antonians unwittingly participated in a resiliency exercise, forced to adjust their routines based on social media posts and hysteria about a gas shortage that simply didn’t exist. That made me ask the question, "Are we a resilient city?"

The generally accepted definition of urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stressors and acute shocks they experience.

Examples of chronic stressors are traffic congestion, incremental increases in ambient temperature, lack of affordable housing, or increasing crime rates. Acute shocks would include hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks, severe hailstorms, or disease outbreak.

Citizens have always expected, and reasonably so, that their government officials equip and maintain the necessary number of first responders to ensure safety in times of crisis. Residents expect that their city will guard against flooding by ensuring appropriate drainage infrastructure. They expect their hospitals to be ready to treat them when they get sick or when they need emergency services, and they expect their roads to be drivable and safe. But does delivering on these mean that a city is resilient? The simple answer is no.

Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Harvey, and now Irma are cautionary examples of how a city that is convinced it is resilient may not be at all. None of the victims of these catastrophes will tell you that their cities were truly ready. In the end, those cities were able to recover, stand up, dust themselves off, and keep on walking. However, had they been more prepared, that recovery could have taken less time.

Resilience is about surviving and thriving regardless of the challenge. Chronic stressors have the potential to weaken a city on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, acute shocks are sharp, sudden, and a threat to our city. Since every city is different in terms of population, density, weather, topography, economics, demographics, and natural resources, the combination of vulnerabilities are unique and infinite.

Had Hurricane Harvey hit New York City instead of Houston, the consequences would have played out much differently. If the 2011 Tsunami had hit Southern California instead of Japan, the infrastructure destruction and the emergency response shared by counties, cities, state, and the federal government would not have looked the same as they did in Japan. Resilience comes in all shapes and sizes and a city’s resiliency plan needs to be customized and subject to change on short notice.

In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation created the 100 Resilient Cities initiative and developed a framework called the Resiliency Index. Today, that framework informs resilience programs across the globe and has helped spur a race among the world’s largest cities to achieve most resilient status. The Resiliency Index incorporates core dimensions of strategy, health, economy, society, infrastructure, and environment. Each dimension is defined by three individual "drivers" which reflect the actions cities can take to improve their resilience. Rockefeller’s intentions for the index were to provide planning and decision-making tools to help guide urban investments toward results that facilitate sustainable growth and achievable resilience. It was also designed to allow cities to learn from one another. The index is used by hundreds of cities throughout the world to identify areas of improvement, systemic weaknesses, and opportunities for mitigating risk.

With this in mind, I have been closely watching Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the cities across Texas devastated by its wind and rain. The flooding is astronomical; homes and businesses have been destroyed; and lives were lost. In the end, Houston’s resilience has been tested. How the city fares will largely be determined by the planning, or lack thereof, of city, county, and emergency management officials prior to the storm.

Resiliency only happens when we are willing to be reflective, study our vulnerabilities, benchmark the strategies that other communities have developed, and continuously improve.

In the coming weeks, City officials, the San Antonio River Authority, and other stakeholders will work together on an after-action analysis. However, in order to ensure that the report truly captures our vulnerabilities, resiliency must be included.

We can’t stop there. We need to consider our comprehensive resilience. We have to start talking about San Antonio’s preparedness for any catastrophic shocks or chronic stressors that threaten our city’s future. Nothing we do at City Hall will ever be as important as keeping our citizens safe.

In order to carry out that essential function of government, my colleagues on city council and I will have to engage all stakeholders and ask, “Are we truly ready?” And, we will all have to be courageous and vulnerable enough to answer that question truthfully.

I’m ready to have that conversation.

4 thoughts on “Is San Antonio a Resilient City?

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Councilman Pelaez. I believe San Antonio avoided 10 inches of rainfall by a mere 10 miles. 10″ of rain in San Antonio would cause major flooding, especially in the Southside where it has been a problem for decades and little has been down. Supposedly, although not tested, Riverwalk has it’s flood walls. But we all know that hundreds of people would be flooded in a torrential rain let alone a hurricane.
    I believe San Antonio would be in recovery mode, not surviving and thriving mode. We were once again lucky but let’s have this conversation and fix things instead of recover from them.

  2. Councilman Pelaez is showing real leadership by communicating publicly about resiliency – an important and very big picture issue. Improving our City’s resiliency begins with examining the vulnerabilities of our physical infrastructure as well as the circumstances of those in our City who are most vulnerable. Thinking ahead about how to mitigate the impacts of disasters and adapt to market changes, such as increasing housing costs, is a fundamentally important role for local government, in close partnership with the private sector. Allowing data to drive decisions about resiliency-focused public investments will allow the private market function more effectively and will make San Antonio a safer and more equitable city. Thank you for your thought leadership Councilman.

  3. Thank you for posing this question, councilman. I think I’ll look for these types of questions, answers, and planning in the modifiable SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan, as well and ongoing consulting for fixes that can be implemented in the short term.

    10 inches rainfall? We would’ve handled that, as long as the tunnels, Olmos Dam, and Riverwalk flood control measures were not compromised. The Southside would’ve recovered quickly enough. It’s the 40-50 inches that would’ve been a real test, and thank the gods for our summer-high pressure ridges (no more complaints from me!)!

  4. Voting the right people into local elections has deep impacts. As we see here, leadership starts just a few miles or blocks from your door step. So keep voting.
    As for a suggestion on how to counter the gas situation and other issues that might arise. In the military we have stages of base alerts or conditions. Each step brings more regulations. It’s very helpful because everyone knows at this condition this will happen, this condition that will happen. Setting up a state wide emergency condition code. Would allow everyone to understand what each city condition is under. So for example say San Antonio is in Condition Yellow for example. You may only fill your car up with fuel, no fills over 25 dollars (Set amount) no city schools are open. Only required city workers are required to be at work. The rest should stay home. City buses will only run Yellow Condition bus routes. And people are advised to stay home and off freeways. Something setup in that manner and each condition is setup by the state. And each city knows the conditons and the govener declares those conditions. Would be my suggestion. Hope that helps.

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