Advancing a City's Resilience, One Neighborhood at a Time

CDC Foundation and the Learning Office of CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response selected seven communities that are promising examples of community efforts that reflect and embody FEMA’s Whole Community Approach to emergency management. Daniel Homsey tells us more about his community’s story, the Resilient Diamond Heights Project in San Francisco, CA.

The Diamond Heights community of San Francisco, California

Often a city‘s identity is attached to a significant event in its past, and for San Francisco that event is the Earthquake of 1906.  That fateful occurrence, in which thousands perished and our City burned to the ground, captured the attention of the whole world. Its legacy forged a commitment in the psyche of every San Franciscan – never again. 

San Francisco’s commitment to resilience efforts began as soon as reconstruction commenced. Over 100 years, the city invested billions of dollars in systems and programs that will be invaluable in mitigating the impact of future earthquakes on our communities. 

In 1989, as millions watched the World Series taking place between bay cities San Francisco and Oakland, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. San Francisco had reclaimed its title as the “earthquake” city.  The event presented the City with many lessons learned, but two main priorities: first, bring older building stock (pre 1970s) up to a higher seismic performance standard and, second, empower residents to participate in the response phases for future events. 

The City’s efforts to address building performance started almost immediately and ultimately resulted in the creation of the Earthquake Safety Improvement Program.  A major step in protecting our residents occurred on Tuesday, February 5, 2013, when the first mandatory seismic retrofitting legislation for privately owned buildings was introduced at the City’s Board of Supervisors. To address resident empowerment, the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) initiated the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) program that trained thousands of San Franciscans to support the SFFD’s response to a major event. 

While these two programs have made critical progress in increasing our resilience, the media coverage of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy was filled with stories about residents courageously working side by side to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in the their community.  In hindsight, it was apparent that more could have been done to prepare them to respond to these challenges in a more empowered and coordinated manner. 

San Francisco’s Diamond Heights community initiated a campaign to prepare itself to be able to respond to any challenge with little or no immediate assistance from the City.  In 2010, the community formed a working group called Disaster Ready Diamond Heights that included concerned residents, merchants, faith-based leaders and property managers committed to explore potential  challenges after a major event, how best to mitigate its impact, and the response to any outcomes.  The organizational host for this cohort was St. Aidan’s Church which partnered with SF CARD, a local nonprofit that offers faith-based and nonprofit institutions support in continuity planning.  Over time, Diamond Heights made substantive progress in advancing on their goals, including convening local stakeholder organizations for workshops on continuity of operations planning and hosting NERT trainings for residents. In spite of the progress made, the community felt there were still looming challenges that would require additional support and resources to address.

In the fall of 2012 Disaster Ready Diamond Heights invited the Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN), a cohort of city agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, neighborhood organizations and academic institutions, to come and present its Advanced Community Disaster Resilience Project (ACDRP).  Modeled after FEMA’s Whole Community Approach, the ACDRP offers streamlined access to a suite of organizational, financial and political assets that can generate increased levels of resilience in a community.  Through this effort, the Resilient Diamond Heights Project began.

Over the course of the next few months, leaders from Diamond Heights drafted a community resilience action plan that outlined their goals as well as generated a framework to support their work in the coming year.  An executive steering committee was assembled, comprised of leads from several working groups created to implement the action plan.  These workgroups included Disaster Preparedness, Community Development, Private Sector and Lifeline Resilience.  In just the last few weeks each group has achieved significant milestones and the prospects of achieving a higher level of sustained resilience seems more likely with each passing day.

While nothing can be done to prevent a major earthquake from striking the Bay Area again, neighborhoods can take meaningful steps today to empower themselves to mitigate the impact of the event and provide for the most vulnerable members of their community. The ACDRP offers cities a framework that leverages existing assets and stakeholders to generate increased resilience at the neighborhood level.  We’re honored to be highlighted as promising example of FEMA’s Whole Community Approach, and are committed to sharing our experience.

Daniel Homsey is the director of strategic initiatives for the City Administrator’s Office of the City & County of San Francisco.