There’s been a lot of talk lately from a lot of different voices about ‘resiliency.’  We’ve had a month’s worth of Congressional hearings on the subject that put real substance over the usual finger-pointing we so often see displayed.  Thanks in large part to House Homeland Chairman Thompson, the Committee Members, the excellent witnesses and most certainly the Staffers who made it all happen, we have a much better understanding of what resilience means to many different constituencies.

In addition to the hearings, we’ve had Secretary Chertoff, FEMA Administrator Paulison and others from DHS in the weeks leading up to the opening of Hurricane Season 2008 go to great lengths to describe the need for communities and in particular, individual citizens to make themselves ready for any number of disasters.  Both of these gentlemen have specifically stated that the individual is “the cornerstone of preparedness.

All of these efforts are evidence that we are all becoming more versed and open about the roles, responsibilities and capabilities necessary to succeed, and even more importantly, to survive in today’s world.

As our ‘conditioning’ in this increasingly challenging environment progresses, it is important to be mindful of what ‘resilience’ really is, and what it is not.  Given our propensity (particularly in Washington) to latch on to the next new thing (particularly new words and hip greetings (e.g chest bumps, fist-bumps, etc.)), there is every reason to believe that the word ‘resiliency’ is in mortal danger of becoming the all-encompassing ‘buzzword.’  As such it will become a mandatory fixture for inclusion in speeches, PowerPoint charts and talking points by those who know what it is but mostly by those who do not but want to look smart, savvy and well-informed any way.  While the word has definite meaning, we all too often miss real life examples of the word in action until the moment has passed us by.

If you are looking for real-life resiliency happening today, pay close attention to what is happening right now in the heartland of America.  Over the past several days, the citizens of Cedar Falls, Iowa, have filled hundreds of thousands of sandbags to save their City from the rising waters of the Cedar River.  Thousands of volunteers of every age and walk of life have stepped forward to fill bag after bag and put them in place to save their ‘homeland’ and preserve the ‘security’ that it brings to them.

In the words of one volunteer, “If this breaks, the whole downtown will be flooded…. Everything goes on down here. It would be a big hit to the community.”

Despite their tremendous efforts (and the coordinated emergency plans put into place by State and local officials), there is no guarantee the floodwaters will stay out of their community.  More rainfall is predicted for tonight and the coming days. While Mother Nature is neither patient nor forgiving to communities in times like these, Cedar Falls and others like her in the Midwest that are fighting the ‘battle’ for survival represent the personification of resilience.  They are offering us all a teachable moment and we all have a lot to learn.  As we watch this lesson unfold (and hopefully help them overcome their current threats along the way), we should all be asking ourselves, “Are we ready to do the same things for our community, our families and ourselves?”

While pondering that question, let’s put the following facts on the table.  There was no legislative mandate that made the citizens of Cedar Falls step forward to fill sandbags and stack them atop one another.  Nor were there FEMA checks handed out to make them come downtown to save the City streets from more ruin.  They just showed up and did it.  They were business owners, employees, parents, students, etc.  – all citizens committed to the survival of what is important to them.   That is what resilience is: action that enables survival. Before we allow the word to become so overused that it loses its meaning (e.g. interoperability), we need to remember that people focused on a mission are at the center of resilience.

The example of Cedar Rapids and other Midwest towns fighting floodwaters from taking what they have left is not unique.  We’ve seen it in the West during large wild-fire outbreaks.  We’ve seen it in coastal communities that have been struck by hurricanes.  We saw it on the evening of September 11th when construction workers and others showed up in lower Manhattan to start the grim recovery work.

All of these examples and more are emblematic of a spirit we saw heroically manifested on United Flight 93.  Average citizens with no prior connection to one another other than a common purchase of an ill-fated plane ticket, came together and stopped further carnage so others could survive.  [Steven Flynn’s recent article in Foreign Affairs did an exceptional job chronicling this condition and if you’ve not read it yet, do so.]

As we move the word ‘resilience’ forward in our policies, programs, plans and daily lives, we would bode well to remember that at the heart of resilience are people willing to sacrifice for survival.  There are no steps, flowcharts or buzzwords that can adequately capture that fact but the people in Cedar Falls and throughout the flood ravaged Midwest are giving us a real time lesson in how it’s done.  They are fighting for their ‘homeland’ and we should all be prepared to do the same when the time comes.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More