What Does It Take to Become Resilient?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Items are placed by people visiting a makeshift memorial for victims near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings two days after the second suspect was captured on April 21, 2013 in Boston, MA. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

As we approach the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, we want to consider what it takes to be resilient.

A recent report by Harvard University about the emergency response to the explosions at last year’s marathon finish line found that the city of Boston showed strength, resilience, and even defiance in the wake of the attack.

“Boston Strong,” as the response became known, was no accident, but instead “reflected effort literally over decades to create the capabilities and the coordination that were so visibly on display” in the aftermath of the attack, its authors concluded.

So, what does it take for people and places to become resilient? According to Andrew Zolli, the author of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back,” it helps to have some prior experience.

“Very frequently, the communities that are most resilient are the ones that paradoxically have a history of prior disruption and the reason for that is because the memory of past failure and past disruption is a critically important part of readiness and adaptability,” Zolli says.

Rich Serino, the former Deputy Administrator at FEMA who has responded to disasters all over the country, including last year’s attack at the Boston Marathon, and Kara Miller, host of PRI and WGBH’s “Innovation Hub,” consider what communities can do to cultivate resilience.

"One thing that was very impressive to look at is to see how people responded—both the first responders and the general public at large," says Serino. "Boston Strong has become the anthem here, and that was no accident. It was no accident that people were prepared."

According to Serino, years of emergency training made first responders agile enough to deal with the crisis and provide a clear and coordinated response.

"One way to cultivate resilience is to make sure that the people who are responding are a diverse group of people," says Miller. "You had the medical community, fire, and police. You want them to be diverse both across departments, but also racially and in terms of gender because you have to think about the people who are being affected by the tragedy—if you have everyone thinking the same way, you're only going to be able to project for a certain group of people and how they're going to respond."

Miller says that in many ways, resilience comes natural to humans because we are biologically designed to bounce back. When examining resilience, Miller adds that recent studies have show that people and communities that bounce back best have a strong connection in place before tragedy strikes.

"People who don't have those kinds of pre-existing relationships going into a tragedy have a very, very tough time bouncing back," she says.

Serino echoes Miller's comments, saying that strong community relationships are extremely important for an effective emergency response and long-term recovery. When it comes to the marathon bombing, Serino says that all of the different stakeholders had worked together for decades.

"It goes past just meeting each other, its also developing trust over time," says Serino. 

Listen to the full interview for more analysis from Serino and Miller. 


Kara Miller and Rich Serino

Produced by:

Elizabeth Ross


T.J. Raphael

Comments [2]

Scott A from SF, CA

Contrary to what Ms. Miller stated, apparently not all of the "shelter in place" was voluntary. Some citizens were forced into compliance at gunpoint by heavily armed and over-zealous responders - and then kept handcuffed for hours without cause.

"Gabriel Camacho said six of his neighbors were told, at gunpoint, to leave their homes, cuffed with plastic restraints, and questioned for as long as two hours. His entire neighborhood, he said, was effectively under house arrest."


Apr. 14 2014 04:29 PM
Scott A from SF, CA

At one point while describing why 1st responders efforts worked so well, Mr. Serino repeatedly used the phrase "___ was no accident, ___ was no accident" to bolster claims that the response was a well-orchestrated response that we could have expected to happen _on any other day_ in Boston. I have no idea why he would go on like that, knowing it wasn't true.

While the health-based 1st responders truely did a fantastic job, there WERE a series of happy accidents that led to such impressive aid being rendered. I can think of at least 3 of the top of my head.

Accident 1: The day was far warmer than usual. Result: more EMS were stationed on Boylston Street to deal with possible heat exhaustion/dehydration.

Accident 2: The detonation hit 10min before most of the local hospitals had a scheduled shift change. Result: a near doubling of key personal on hand.

Accident 3: It was a weekday holiday (Mass celebrates the state holliday of "Patriot Day" on the 15th). Result: higher base staffing levels at hospitals than would be present on a weekend or night-time, while reducing other demands on the hospital.

I'm sure there are more - and to dismiss them is dishonest.


Apr. 14 2014 04:24 PM

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