Remarks from “Flipping the Script on Disaster: A Tale of Three Resilient Cities” | May 31, 2017, Libby Schaaf, Mayor of Oakland
As Mayor of Oakland, I am a strong believer in getting at the underlying challenges behind the problems our city faces. We must do more to invest in resilience because, whatever issue matters most to you, it’s going to be best solved through a resilience framework. Resilience forces us to think comprehensively and holistically. It forces us to think both in the short-term and in the long-term. And it forces us not just to think about the dramatic crisis of the day, but the slow-burning crises too.
As a lifelong Oaklander and Mayor for these past two and a half years, I have seen many dramatic and slow-burning crises. Whether it is civil unrest, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, or the terrible tragedy of the Ghost Ship Fire, Oakland has attracted a lot of attention for the dramatic challenges that face our city. But I also witness every day the slow-burning disasters of income inequality, housing insecurity, racial injustice and barriers to inclusion and opportunity. These may not provide a compelling visual for CNN, but they are equally deserving of our attention.
One of these slow-burning disasters that has very much been on my mind recently is sea level rise. The people who are going to be the most impacted by that disaster in Oakland are the very people who are impacted by many of the other slow-burning disasters. If you look at the map of the flood plains in the Bay Area, the first people who are going to get flooded are our most vulnerable communities, the communities where an individual already can be twice as likely to be unemployed and have a life expectancy 15 years lower than another Oakland resident a mile away.
Many of these residents can’t afford to take a hit like getting their house flooded. Consider the many ways in which flooding can push a vulnerable household over the edge. Flooding can lead to mold, which can aggravate already high rates of asthma. If you’re an hourly worker and you have to take your kid to the hospital because they are having an asthma attack, you could lose your job. Many Oakland families don’t have enough savings to survive even three months of unemployment, and a job loss could push them onto the street. Our city is already facing a crushing homelessness burden, and we can ill afford to see it grow further.
These challenges are all bundled together and that is why I am so passionate and committed to resilience work, like minimizing sea-level rise and flood risk. Resilience is also smart because it thinks not only about the sudden shocks like the earthquake or fire but also the slow burning challenges like declining trust in government. Do we all remember during Hurricane Katrina how people would not evacuate their homes because they didn’t trust the government? Some of them died because of it. Trust in government is a resilience and disaster preparedness strategy.
The three pillars of Oakland’s strategy starts with a responsive trustworthy government. The Ghost Ship fire was a potent reminder of this fact. Responsiveness matters. If our city government had done its job properly in providing regular fire inspections and effectively putting together information, we could have avoided that tragedy. Building trust in government is key to preventing the next Ghost Ship. Many Oaklanders believed after the fire that the city was going to use the tragedy as an excuse to push poor people out of unregulated living spaces, which are the only spaces they can afford. I have made an executive order to protect residents living in these spaces from eviction because the only way we can protect people living in these spaces is if they feel comfortable enough to come forward to the city and work with us to keep them safe from fires.
Which brings us to the second pillar of Oakland’s strategy, which is being rooted and thriving in Oakland. The threat of displacement is a resilience challenge. It is something that makes us weak and unable to avoid other slow-burning disasters. For example, Oakland has a large stock of older, seismically unsound buildings that we need to retrofit so we can prevent people from dying in the next big earthquake. Oakland’s slow-burning but serious challenges with gentrification and income inequality drive people into unsafe buildings, and strain our capacity to upgrade all residences. The high cost of housing makes even temporary displacement devastating, and limits our options to resolve this challenge.
The final pillar of Oakland’s strategy is around building resilient infrastructure for a vibrant, connected Oakland. Infrastructure means dealing with less prominent challenges like the sewer system. It may not be very sexy, but it is unbelievably important if you care about public health. We all know what’s going to happen when an aging sewer system meets climate change-related flooding — disaster.
Oakland clearly has a lot of hard work in front of us. We have been dealing with many of these challenges for decades. However, if we use resilience strategies to get at the underlying drivers of these issues, we can open up new options for solving them and preventing even worse tragedies. I have already begun to apply these strategies, and look forward to keep working with partners inside and outside of Oakland’s government to make meaningful progress on our city’s biggest problems.
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