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GRI hosts security and resilience workshop at the ‘Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference’ in Washington state

Dr. Jennie Stephens presents on the resilience imperative.
Dr. Jennie Stephens presents on the resilience imperative.

Global Resilience Institute (GRI) Director for Strategic Research Collaborations Dr. Jennie Stephens and Doctoral Research Assistant Maria Robson represented Northeastern University at the annual Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference in Tacoma, Washington, last month. The pair presented at a workshop organized by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, entitled “Northeastern University’s Initiatives in Resilience, Security, and Emergency Preparedness.” The topic attracted a diverse group of stakeholders, from public officials to military professionals to private sector emergency managers.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches down the Pacific Northwest coast from British Columbia to California.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches down the Pacific Northwest coast from British Columbia to California  (Source: FEMA)

Dr. Stephens and Robson guided attendees through the resilience imperative and an exploration of key barriers to building resilience, illustrating their points by exploring the potential for a 9.0-magnitude “megaquake” in the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia Subduction Zone. The case study is a timely one, focusing on the rising likelihood of such a disaster event. Recognizing this risk, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) collaborated with regional stakeholders to hold a three-day simulation exercise in 2016.

GRI has conducted extensive work into this scenario, presenting its findings at a workshop co-hosted with the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) in Seattle in September 2017. Further reading on the work the Global Resilience Institute has done on this topic is available here.

The risk of a megaquake resonated with participants, who go about their days with the knowledge that Seattle is situated within the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Further compounding the situation, Washington state is located on the other side of a region deemed the “Ring of Fire” – the area spanning the Pacific Ocean that contains numerous volcanoes and fault lines and is the site of approximately 90% of the world’s earthquakes. Seattle is at risk of severe human casualties and infrastructure damage in the event of an earthquake similar to the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake that devastated parts of Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

To facilitate discussion, Dr. Stephens and Robson posed four sets of questions:

  1. What information that you do not already have would help you better prepare for disruptive events? Who do you expect has that information?
  2. What currently limits your ability to invest in your own resilience (as an emergency manager or as a private citizen) and what types of incentives would enable you to make a greater investment?
  3. In preparing for disruptions/crises, what impediments, if any, do you encounter that are not in your immediate control?
  4. What initiatives have you been part of to build resilience?
Maria Robson speaks with workshop participants about barriers to resilience
Maria Robson speaks with workshop participants about barriers to resilience

Three key themes emerged from the exercise: First, the importance of funding and effective resource allocation. Second, the critical need for communication and information on others’ emergency response plans to ensure that preparations complement each other rather than competing for scarce resources. Third, the significance of individual employees’ priorities — in the event of a disaster, employees’ first concern is likely to be the safety and security of their families.

Participants also emphasized the importance of knowing the locations of individuals and communities with special needs. One attendee mentioned the language barriers present in many local communities, giving the example of a 9-year-old child who had to serve as an unofficial translator between his parents and local authorities because his family does not speak English. Such language challenges must be acknowledged and incorporated into disaster plans.

The workshop closed with the following conclusion: we must be threat-agnostic – focusing on what is most valuable to our society, not just the hazards we face – when preparing for an event like a megaquake in the Pacific Northwest. All disasters inform the improvement of emergency management efforts; therefore, we must focus on the cascading effects of a shock to the system to determine the measures that should be in place for recovery.


Dr. Stephens and Robson will lead a three-day course in Seattle this June, entitled “Climate Resilience, Energy Justice, and Security: The Renewable Energy Transformation”. Learn more/register here: