A Year in the Life of New Orleans' Chief Resilience Officer

The position of Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) in Urban America has only been in existence for little more than a year, but already there are at least 14 CROs in the United States thanks to an ongoing grant from the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Program.
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The position of Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) in Urban America has only been in existence for little more than a year, but already there are at least 14 CROs in the United States thanks to an ongoing grant from the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Program.

And what is a CRO, exactly? He or she is a top-level advisor that reports directly to the city mayor, and is tasked with establishing a compelling resilience vision for his or her city, working across departments and with the local community to maximize innovation and minimize the impact of unforeseen events on anything involving city operations, from budgets to buildings.

We wanted to speak to one of the first CROs in the country - Jeff Hebert of New Orleans - to find out what his first year in office was like. On January 24, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded New Orleans $141.2 million from the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The award is the second largest among the 13 total awardees, making nearly $1 billion available to states and counties/parishes to fix damage from presidentially declared disasters in 2011, 2012, or 2013.

A graduate of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, Hebert has been on the job since November 2014. Here's our edited discussion:

Q: As one of the first - if not THE first - CROs in the country, you have a unique vantage point. During the first year, what were your major challenges? What did you learn that other CROs might benefit from across the country?

A: We have two big accomplishments. The first was the development of New Orleans' first resilience strategy and to have it done in time for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Its main goal was to move New Orleans from thinking of recovery to thinking through the lens of resilience, which means looking forward. We were also developing our proposal for the National Resilience Disaster competition as soon as we got the strategy done. Then just last Thursday we were announced as one of the recipients of National Disaster Resilience Competition - the second largest award in the country. Those were two key wins that were big down payments on the future of the city.

Q: What was so hard about putting together the resilience strategy?

A: The strategy is not a regular plan; it's much more far reaching. It's really a holistic view of the shocks and stresses that the city will encounter in the future as well as a holistic list of tasks to try to work within that structure. A big challenge was outlining guiding principles and collaborative actions that could be applied across city government. This strategy goes beyond traditional public sector silos, serving as a call to action on generational issues.

Q; Can it be a template for other city governments to use?

A: Yes. New Orleans was the first city to finish using this approach. Norfolk, Virginia was the second. We designed the strategy to be transferrable to other places - such as Porto Alegre in Brazil, Melbourne, Australia and San Francisco - and as a template to other cities around the world.

Q: What other challenges have you faced in your first year?

A: The CRO position is a new position. It has a cross departmental mandate. The challenge is how to deliver value to other departments so that they can engage in the process. In city government, bureaucracies operate in silos and the whole purpose of a CRO is to disrupt those silos. There's an inherent tension inside of municipal bureaucracies. I and some of my colleagues are in the position of having worked in city governments for a while but some other colleagues - not so much.
Your portfolio is how to connect things together and how to innovate new ideas. A lot of our work will be green infrastructure-based but we have a huge need for jobs for underemployed people - how do we connect the jobs to the people...how do we focus those workforce development programs on really innovative green infrastructure work.
That kind of work is challenging - which is not me sitting in my office doing my own thing - it's sitting with people in economic development, public works and the sewage and water board. It's a process that takes a lot of coordination.

Q: How do you prove your worth?

A: It's the ability to work together to prepare for what's coming in the future, by highlighting areas of weakness or gaps that we can fill. For example, we've been focusing a lot on disaster recovery and rebuilding the city after Katrina. What we haven't been focusing a lot on is our carbon footprint and our greenhouse gas emissions. The city's come back gangbusters from Katrina, but we haven't attacked the root cause of climate change - what we're putting into the atmosphere - even though we are one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to the effects of climate change. My job is to find a solution.
With our NDRC grant, I would hope someone would think that we brought some value - particularly monetary value - because that's what a lot of people are judged by. Just rainfall for us can be an issue, which is why we've focused so much on storm water management as a large part of our resilient strategy.

Q: How helpful has the 100 Resilient Cities been to this effort?

A: It's been transformative for us in New Orleans in terms of moving the focus from just the past to how do we make the city more resilient in the future. It's pushing us to think about the future: if this is where we want to be, then how do you back up to today. That's not something we were doing. How do we rebuild after Katrina isn't our only problem - such as how we build our levees stronger and our houses better - it's also about sea level rise calculation that will affect New Orleans, Miami, Norfolk, New York and Boston. We have to have a different eye to the future. The support we've gotten - particularly on the technical assistance side - has been tremendous.

Q: How do imagine that design and architects can address some of the challenges we've talked about?

A: I'm a designer myself; the way the design profession has an impact on this kind of work is that we're trained as design thinkers, and design thinking is a very multi-disciplinary kind of process, in a way that is foreign to us. I have a different approach to my work because I am used to working in teams and the iterative process of design. What you learn through design training is a process which is all about continuing to improve something - you start with one design, you continue to improve it. That's not something that everyone is trained to do.

Q: What is your biggest challenge for 2016?

A: It will be large scale community education and outreach - around climate change for our region, and to complete our climate action plan for the city. We want to institutionalize this work in city government for the long haul.

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