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Posted 12/4/2014

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By Patrice Creel, ERDC PAO

VICKSBURG, Miss. – A U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC)-authored article in the September issue of Environmental Systems and Decisions titled, “Risk and resilience lessons from Venice” garnered worldwide attention through reprints and features in international publications and a broadcast from National Public Radio.

At the height of news reports on Ebola, this scientific paper outlined how resilience management can be a guide to dealing with emerging threats, such as the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and others like it, with comparisons to Venetian officials’ eventual successes in battling the black plague in the mid-1300s.

Authors of the often-quoted paper are the Environmental Laboratory (EL)’s Dr. Igor Linkov, Risk and Decision Science (RaDS) team leader; Cate Fox-Lent, EL research engineer; Jeff Keisler, University of Massachusetts professor and ERDC contractor; and collaborators Drs. Stefano Della Sala and Jorg Sieweke.

Advancing from superstitions and beliefs that vampires caused the black plague to public health measures, Venetian officials dealt with the crisis through protective clothing, inspections, quarantines on nearby islands and managing social interactions. Although proactive steps did not stop the plague’s initial devastation, these protective measures used for hundreds of years allowed Venice to flourish, while other European countries’ epidemics continued for centuries. 

“The way in which Venice dealt with the outbreak of the plague in the fourteenth century holds lessons on how to mitigate the consequences of today’s emerging threats, like climate change, terrorism and highly infectious or drug-resistant diseases,” said Fox-Lent. 

In explaining the RaDS team’s mission, Linkov said,  “At the forefront of this burgeoning field, we provide approaches for structuring and conducting risk assessment, stakeholder engagement, resource prioritization, planning and other emerging issue-analysis relevant to the Corps and the nation. We develop adaptive methods and models for describing relevant risks, along with decision analysis techniques to compare and guide the selection of risk management alternatives.”

 “Resilience is an emerging issue that is of crucial importance for USACE.  Resilience is a universal concept. Thinking about resilience in areas outside of what USACE does helps to gain a better perspective and see the big picture. It indeed helps us in developing a better product for the Army in the area of infrastructure and military resilience.

“Resilience management can be a guide to dealing with the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, and others like it, as well as other issues like population growth and the impacts of global climate change,” Linkov said. 

As a visiting professor teaching a sustainable development course in 2013 at Venice’s Foscari University, Linkov interacted with a group focusing on reviving Lazaretto Nuovo Island, the place where the 14th century quarantine was introduced. 

With his risk assessment background, Linkov said, “I started to think about how people 700 years ago could have used risk assessment to deal with plague.  The Venetians had a completely different way of thinking, such as the quarantine on Lazarette Island.  My hypothesis was that this different way of thinking represents resilience, and this is what needs to be done to address Ebola and other emerging threats.”

The popular paper, featured in articles from German newspapers to USA Today, also pointed out that “similar to what the officials of Venice did centuries ago, approaching resilience at the system level provides a way to deal with the unknown and unquantifiable threats we are facing with increasing frequency."