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Building a Resilient Bayview, One Person at a Time

"Turn people into rescuers, not the rescued.”


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For Felisia Thibodeaux, director of operations at Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services, disaster resilience is more than a professional goal—it’s a personal one, too. “I had a family member pass away in Katrina and a lot of family who were relocated,” she says. “I’m directly affected.” Her experience with natural calamity lends urgency to her role in planning the Bayview’s first local disaster resilience plan, which aims, in her words, “to turn people into rescuers, not the rescued.”

The initiative, known as Resilient Bayview, is a pilot project of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN), a city agency that trains community leaders to develop local contingency programs. Formed to prevent a breakdown of social order on the scale of post-Katrina New Orleans, NEN is working with Diamond Heights and Miraloma Park as well (the three prototype neighborhoods represent a cross-section of the city) as they build programs to facilitate survival without aid for several days after a major disaster. The NEN’s model, though still in early stages, is specifically designed to return part of the responsibility for disaster recovery to the neighborhood level. In the Bayview, this could involve anything from coordinating with the local Walgreens for access to first-aid supplies, to the proper disposal of bodies, to identification of at-risk senior housing units. In short, the Bayview won’t be waiting for FEMA to bail it out after a disaster. “We’ve learned that you can’t base disaster resilience around one agency,” Thibodeaux says. “There are over 200 nonprofits in this community, and we’re mapping out the who, when, and where, and what assets we have.”

Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s chief resilience officer—and one of the first resilience officers in the world—is impressed by what he has seen at NEN meetings in the three neighborhoods. While they share overarching concerns about earthquake safety, their plans differ as a consequence of their individual topography and cultural fabric. “Resilience is always defined at a hyper-local level,” Otellini says. “The definitions alter slightly, but the themes reoccur.”

Given that resilience applies to everything from earthquake preparedness to economic stability to climate change, the operative word in Otellini’s title invites limitless definition. So what, exactly, does a chief resilience officer do? The job, says Otellini, encompasses grassroots projects like Resilient Bayview as well as top-down approaches to resilience: “It’s a delicate dance of making sure you’re the person working between the silos.” He ensures that development and infrastructure decisions in San Francisco include disaster preparedness, with plans for both long-term stressors like sea level rise and unpredictable shocks like an earthquake or terrorist attack. The current upgrade to San Francisco’s seawall, for example, is requiring public working groups that incorporate seismologists, climate change experts, and BART officials. Otellini’s connection to the Mayor’s Office affords him the speed and agenda-setting authority to negotiate with them all. “The meetings are emotional and long and hard,” he says, “but they are crucial.”

Of the worldwide cities that received Rockefeller Foundation funding in 2014 to engage a chief resilience officer, no three are in closer proximity than San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. Whenever Otellini needs to talk things out, he simply grabs dinner with his fellow Bay Area CROs, who were appointed just months after he took office in March 2014. “There are only a few folks who understand how personally involved we have to get in this work,” he says, echoing Thibodeaux. “And disasters don’t stop at the county line. We have to work together.”


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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