Interview with Patrick Otellini, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of San Francisco

Patrick Otellini is the Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for the City and County of San Francisco. Mr. Otellini was originally appointed by Mayor Ed Lee in October of 2012 as the Director of San Francisco’s Earthquake Safety Implementation Program. This public policy driven group has recently passed unanimously approved pieces of legislation that range from mandatory retrofits of soft story building to post-earthquake repair standards with the goal of making San Francisco more resilient in the face of disaster. Prior to his appointment Mr. Otellini was a Senior Associate with A.R. Sanchez-Corea & Associates, San Francisco’s premier permit and code consulting firm. His work there included the management of the permit and inspection process for over $2 Billion worth of construction in San Francisco. He is a Certified Building Inspector through the International Code Council (ICC) and a Certified Fire Protection Specialist through the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Patrick lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from Westmont College in Political Science.

Interview by Lily Yumagulova, Editor, HazNet


Lily: Where does San Francisco’s resilience story start?

Patrick: I think a lot of our story here stems from the fact that resilience is not a new challenge for San Francisco. It’s something that we’ve been discussing for quite some time. It is illustrated by my previous role with the city as Director of Earthquake safety and implementation of the work that the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety did. It was a ten year long community led effort for the city of San Francisco to give us some general policy guidelines and recommendations on how we should think about seismic policy moving forward.

Now it is translated into a big 30-year long earthquake safety implementation plan which I currently oversee. Adding this [RF] grant in mid-stream to our current workflow was a nice supplement to it because, obviously, resilience isn’t just about earthquakes. It allowed my staff to build up capacity in order to expand our purview and look at things like sea- level rise and housing affordability and all these other shocks and stressors. That’s something that we’ve always done, but through the lens of seismic safety. I would argue we still kind of consider that approach because we’re actually thinking about that in terms of that’s our most realistic and threatening hazard, that’s what we’re planning against and if we can have those conversations about making sure we maintain a sense of social justice and equity through a disaster then I think we’re actually accomplishing all of that. I think it is a good way to pivot our planning process.

Lily: In terms of the process of defining resilience for the city of San Francisco – did you have a definition when you started or was that defined throughout the past couple years?

Patrick: I think it’s something that is constantly evolving I don’t think the definition of resilience is ever going to be super static because our thinking keeps evolving, but I think it’s nothing new to us. If you look at our 30 year earthquake safety implementation program on the very first page of the 30 year plan it says ‘what is resilience’ and we talk about it specific to seismic hazards. We know our major hazards are seismic events. We haven’t had an earthquake of the magnitude of 1906 since 1906 (we had a small earthquake in 1989 where we saw substantial damage). But we know that that big earthquake is coming, it’s right around the corner so I think that’s always been the lens of the resilience conversation that’s taken place in San Francisco. I think it’s about much more than that but it’s a good way to get the conversation started. We’re in a housing crisis right now and you know what’s going to make that housing crisis a lot worse? An earthquake. Putting it in a context that’s relevant to today’s problems is also helpful for starting conversation.

Lily: What are some of the core principles that have been guiding resilience planning in your city?

Patrick: San Francisco has always been very disaster heavy. I think we’ve always focused on that recovery piece – we do respond pretty well but as cities, we don’t always do recov- ery very well. So the transition from response to recovery has always been a unique focus of Mayor Lee and something he’s wanted to plan against. That quickly countered with balancing our planning for the flood hazard: we have a unique focus on planning around sea-level rise which obviously isn’t going to happen overnight and displace thousands of people. But it’s a very real threat and if we don’t do anything about this and we don’t plan for future infrastructure to be able to handle this, we’re going to be looking at a very real cost and a very real disadvantage to the city moving forward.

Lily: What are some of the challenges of resilience planning in an era of austerity?

Patrick: It’s a really tricky one. Resilience planning is the right thing to do when we’re faced with measures like that because what it’s forcing you to do is get more to the table and be more efficient with the dollars that you’re using. It also requires a unique understanding of how silos work. I think there’s a good reason for why silos work but I also think it matters because why one creates a silo is because they can’t get work done with anyone else at the table. And sometimes that’s for a good reason and sometimes it’s because people are being lazy and they don’t want to include everybody. But it also means that when we’re thinking about this given our current economic status on things this is where resilience planning needs to happen. I think cities want/need to be resilient because you’re ultimately getting better projects, better de- sign, better priority setting that’s happening as a result of being smarter with what limited budget dollars we have.

It’s a normal and expected reaction from governments to try and cut items here and there but you have to look at it through the lens of ‘what’s it really going to cost us’ after. In our situation we look at our soft story ordinance: we’re requiring over 5,000 properties and these private property owners to spend $16,000 to $130,000 per building. That’s about a $500 million program that we’re asking the public to fund. We’re not even funding it as the government. The way that we’re able to do that is we made the demonstrations: if these buildings were to fall down during an earthquake (and we already know they’re dangerous) how that is going to negatively impact not only the cities response but also, ultimately, the recovery and the protection of our residents. If you do it in those terms all of it sudden it seems like this program is really a smart move because you’re able to demonstrate actual costs after the disaster. So I think our policy direction needs to be that nuanced in our city rather than ‘let’s just take some money from here because it will help us right now’. I think that’s short-sighted.

Lily: San Francisco is known for its unique public engagement policies and a culture of resilience. What is behind this culture and what have you been working on to enhance it?

Patrick: I think it speaks to the activist culture in San Francisco. San Francisco has an advantage because geographically we’re very small but very dense and that’s forced us to get connected to our neighbourhoods. I think that kind of cohesion is something that I know a city like Los Angeles really struggles with because they’re so spread out. So my counterpart Marissa Aho, the CRO in Los Angeles, one of the hardest parts there is attempting to do outreach to all those communities. It’s always a challenge but it’s not as big as a challenge here because we have very active communication networks throughout our communities. Because of that we’ve had so many voices clamouring at the table for so long that we’ve had to be smart with how we design our programs, when we are satisfying a multitude of stakeholders and not just one particular interest and that’s how you get good policy. I think you have to be willing to compromise and get something where everybody feels like they gave up a little bit of something but everyone feels like they won at the end of the day.

Lily: What advice do you have for other professionals in this field that are in similar positions trying to achieve a city- wide resilience planning initiative but do not have the RF funding?

Patrick: The framework that RF gives to cities to plan for these things is not necessarily brand new. I think cities can access this type of planning process with some very motivated individuals in-house; they don’t need a grant from the Rockefeller foundation in order to do resilience planning. That’s my first point.

I think the RF helps us build capacity and helps us to be able to do things maybe faster than we would’ve otherwise. So I think that’s a huge advantage of it but I also think that’s part of the responsibility of the member cities. You see San Francisco, Berkley and Oakland [also members of the RF program] are in the Bay area but we’ve always said from the very beginning that the last thing we want to do is create a micro-region. Our job is to help the Bay Area just as much as our individual cities so there’s a focus on trying to reach out to some of these smaller jurisdictions with less capacity be to be able help them advance their seismic planning programs and hazards planning programs.

Lily: What advice do you have for young people interested in the resilience planning field based on your experience from any part of your diverse background?

Patrick: You have to be authentic regarding the passion you feel for a particular city. And what I mean by that is I would never do this work in any other city except San Francisco and that’s because I’m from San Francisco and I love my city and I want to see my city do better.

Leave a Comment