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Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.


Perspectives on Resilient Communities

BOX 3-1 Points Highlighted by Individual Speakers

  • Resilience is a concept that is well understood by communities and is a means to link and address chronic issues that thwart public health on a daily basis and acute stresses that accompany disasters (Chandra).
  • Resilience is a new way of operating; it requires a transdisciplinary workforce and new approaches to civic engagement, in which communities are partners (Chandra).
  • Top-down (or formal) approaches to resilience could be better integrated with the social networks, mobility, and ingenuity of local (inherent) resilience practices that have allowed communities to successfully adapt and respond to a variety of past challenges (Colten).
  • Measuring and mapping community assets and monitoring them over the long term can provide baseline information and reveal successful resilience strategies (Colten).
  • A resilient community is educated, equipped, empowered, engaged, and experienced. Ensuring community involvement in and benefit from resilience-related research is an important way to develop these characteristics (Hosey).
  • Technological disasters are often followed by a “money spill” including back-end litigation, which can drain the social capital of communities (Picou).
  • Renewable resource communities are particularly vulnerable to emergent and unanticipated ecological problems that follow disasters (Picou).
  • Psychosocial effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill are still evident 15–25 years after the disaster. Education, outreach, and other activities that build participatory social capital have been useful tools for building trust and mitigating negative impacts (Picou).

The Gulf region has experienced a variety of disasters in the past decade—from droughts that devastated fishing communities to a series of powerful hurricanes, the 2008 economic recession, and the 2010 DWH oil spill, noted LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. He noted that discussion of resilience often focuses on the built environment, but that this workshop would focus on the human side of resilience, which is influenced by complex interactions among health, social, and environmental factors. He also observed that, in his experience, the characteristics of resilient communities seem to transcend any one particular disaster.

Presentations summarized in this chapter provided a brief introduction to characteristics of resilient communities and identified some important considerations for developing programs to improve the health, well-being, and resilience of Gulf communities.


Anita Chandra, senior policy researcher and director of Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment at the RAND Cooperation, has spent the past decade working to improve resilience and long-term disaster recovery in communities in the United States and across the globe. In her presentation, Chandra offered three observations from her work to effectively partner with communities and to ensure that resilience-building activities, which generally target infrastructure, environment, and economic issues, also include consideration of health, social, and human services.

According to Chandra, activities to build resilience in the Gulf region are tremendous opportunities to address disaster preparedness and recovery in language that communities embrace and understand. The concept of resilience provides a means to talk with people

Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.

about the risk continuum in which they live and ways to strengthen and protect their communities, she said. Both the asset-based framework that guides resilience planning (i.e., not simply focusing on community risks and vulnerabilities but the resources a community has to overcome those risks) and its requirement for civic engagement across a wide variety of stakeholders is resonant with communities, she said (Chandra et al., 2011).

Particularly important is to develop a “resilience mindset,”1 said Chandra. Such a mindset allows communities to link sources of chronic stress that thwart public health on a daily basis (e.g., economic downturns, housing difficulties, community violence) with acute stresses that accompany technological accidents and natural disasters. A resilience mindset also provides a common framework to address these stressors through routine community activities like health promotion or economic development (Chandra et al., 2011).

Chandra emphasized the importance of embedding resilience development within ongoing civic engagement processes. Integrating the work of governmental and nongovernmental organizations can be difficult for government leaders, because it means changing the dynamics of governance. “What does power mean? What does asset mapping mean when you are trying to have that infuse both local and national policy?” When governmental and nongovernmental organizations are working hand in hand, she said, communities are more resilient (Acosta and Chandra, 2013).

Another important need is to build a workforce to support resilience, noted Chandra. Developing resilience is an inherently transdisciplinary undertaking.2 But, she said, those who work on resilience have not yet “made good” on coalescing around a common framework and metrics for resilience, and a core set of disciplines. Public health could potentially take the lead in developing a common framework for resilience, because public health research and practice occurs in “multidisciplinary settings as a matter of course,” said Chandra. “How do we integrate public health approaches to resilience with those of environmental science, technology, industry, and economics,” she asked. Understanding how disciplines work together, what metrics are common and shared, and how systems interact for resilience development are important research needs.

Today, people tend to view resilience as an overlay to policy. It needs to become a nested and routine part of the conversation, Chandra said. Having public health considerations embedded in guidelines and frameworks requires having a different composition of people sitting in panels, committees, and other government structures. “That’s going to be the key motivation that moves human health into the larger conversations around resilience,” she concluded.


Building resilience demands a long-term perspective, in which communities learn from the past as they plan for the future, said Craig Colten, Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University and director of human dimensions at the Water Institute of the Gulf. In his presentation, Colten stated that much could be learned from the ways in which economic and environmental factors have affected the health and well-being of communities in Louisiana. In addition, a great deal can be learned from the communities themselves and the ways in which coastal communities have successfully adapted and responded to a variety of past challenges.

Louisiana’s environment has been dramatically transformed by external economic activities, he said. For example, since the 18th century, levees3 have been built on the Mississippi River to support and protect agriculture, cities, and the petrochemical industry. However, these structures also have contributed to coastal land loss4 and, by creating clusters of industrial activity, have had profound effects—from atmospheric pollution, residual chemical dumps, and superfund sites—that have contributed to environmental justice concerns and impacted the health and well-being of surrounding communities. “We need to consider these kinds of impacts when we talk about planning future coastal restoration projects and other environmental changes,” said Colten.

Other examples of environmental change that have negatively impacted communities in Louisiana include the construction of canals and pipelines, intentional river diversions, and oil spills. All three have been occurring in the Gulf region for decades. Canals have benefited loggers, trappers, and fishermen alike but have also contributed to coastal land loss and wetland degradation. Intentional diversions such as the Bonnet Carré and the Morganza Spillways have damaged marine resources by altering coastal salinities when used to redirect freshwater into bays and estuaries. Oil spills are quite frequent in Louisiana he noted, and while not on the scale of DWH, these events have severe impacts on the environment (Colten et al., 2012).


1 See

2 Transdisciplinary research is defined as when investigators from different disciplines work together to create new conceptual and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem.

3 An embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river.

4 Levees prevent regular flooding which in the past deposited sediment across the floodplain. By directing sediment into the Gulf of Mexico these structures have largely eliminated natural processes that offset subsidence of the delta (Gagliano et al., 1981).

Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.

All of these activities have become larger and more impactful over the years. A series of events in a short span of time can overwhelm the capacity of communities to cope. For example, oil spills force the closure of fisheries, which produces a temporary loss of activity and income that has ripple effects through local economies in general. As the region loses market share, such events begin to have regional impacts, affecting the commodity chain—including suppliers, providers, and shippers. As a result, the strain on communities becomes even more profound. In this way, environmental impacts have regional effects, said Colten.

Colten introduced the concepts of formal and inherent resilience and identified their integration as a key opportunity for strengthening resilience in the Gulf region (Table 3-1). Formal resilience is the result of government and corporate resilience programs, which tend to have sizable budgets and large organizational infrastructures. Inherent resilience is unplanned, locally based, and finely attuned to local environmental situations (Colten et al., 2012). “Such practices are sustained by social memory, not by big manuals on the shelf.” Formal resilience works well for frequent small-scale events, but with larger events, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita5 and the 2010 oil spill, the incidents exceed the capacities to respond. “This is when stress really gets compounded at the local level and produces great strain.” In addition, greater reliance on formal resilience tends to diminish inherent resilience over time, and when formal resilience fails, an incident can become a disaster.

What is needed is to bring together the social networks, mobility, and ingenuity of local inherent resilience practices with large-scale, better-organized, and better-financed formal resilience programs, said Colten. On one hand, formal plans do not include procedures to take advantage of the highly effective local social networks, and can be slow to reach communities and poorly integrate local expertise. Small communities, on the other hand, that rely on social memory may not be able to mobilize the latest technologies in response to a calamity. By merging formal and inherent, these gaps in capacity can be reduced. This integrated approach then needs to be sustained and not lapse over time, which fits well with the duration of the Gulf Research Program. “How do we prevent the lessons learned from becoming the lessons lost? Already we are hearing here in New Orleans with the start of this hurricane season that there is a loss of urgency, a sense of complacency emerging, 9 years after Katrina.6 Unthinkable.”

Communities can and have been resilient to past disasters, but we need better ways to measure resilience to understand how and why. This will require going beyond the usual metrics, which in turn requires working with communities. A significant opportunity for the Gulf Research Program is to help coastal communities map, measure, and monitor things that are currently “immeasurable.” Researchers need to work with communities to identify things that matter to communities, not just what economists consider important, Colten said. For example, despite regular hurricanes, coastal residents are resistant to suggestions that they relocate inland. Attachments to place and family connections are among the immeasurable forces that motivate them to stay and are overlooked in resilience tools that rely on proxy data.

Resilience is a fundamental building block of a sustainable society. Understanding resilience demands a long-term perspective, such as that offered by the Gulf Research Program’s 30–year duration. Measuring and mapping community assets over the long term can provide important baseline information for communities. It can also reveal how communities respond and adapt to challenges, whether hurricanes or shifting demographics, and thus help communities to learn from successful resilience programs in the past, he concluded.


John Hosey, the Gulf Coast Restoration Initiative Director of Development for The Corps Network, has worked on a variety of programs to improve disaster recovery and resilience in Gulf communities, including working as a Board Member and President of the South Mississippi Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. More recently, Hosey has worked on developing community partnerships between government and non-governmental organizations to develop workforce programs designed to train at-risk young adults (18–28 years old) and recently returning veterans to assist with the ecological and economic restoration efforts in the Gulf region.

Like any recipe for gumbo, Hosey said, resilience is a mixture of essential ingredients.

  • First, a resilient community is educated. Hosey emphasized the importance of reaching out to young people. “If you are going to change a culture, you have to change from the beginning, when people are teachable.”


5 In late summer of 2005, two hurricanes—Katrina and Rita—caused nearly 2,000 deaths and an estimated economic cost of $160 billion, including heavy losses for the commercial fishing and other industries. Louisiana bore much of the burden, but coastal counties in AL, MS, LA, and FL were affected. See

6 Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees protecting New Orleans, inundated 80 percent of the city, and caused more than 1,000 fatalities.

Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.

TABLE 3-1 Integrating Formal and Inherent Resilience

FORMAL RESILIENCE Anticipate Reduce Vulnerability Respond Recover
Government Contingency plans Drills Close fisheries
Monitor seafood quality
Biological analysis
Alternate employment programs
Oversight of response
Postpill legislation
Compensation program
Natural Resource Damage
Assessment (NRDA) process (hold responsible parties liable for costs)
Corporate Organization with response capabilities Blowout preventers Containment devices Cap well, skimming, burning, dispersant, boom Beach cleanup
Community/Family Social memory Social/kin networks Family aid
Fish elsewhere
Personal economic diversification

a NRDA is a process, which collects data and conducts studies to determine the extent of damage to resources, methods for restoring those resources, and the type and amount of restoration required. SOURCE: Colten et al. (2012). Presented by Craig Colten on September 23, 2014.

  • Second, a resilient community is equipped. They have tools like resilience indexes, training, and the necessary resources for recovery.
  • Third, a resilient community is empowered. “They are not someone who gets a deliverable. They are the ones who help create the deliverable.”
  • Fourth, a resilient community is engaged. The more engaged a community is in the process of recovery, said Hosey, the more independent they are and the stronger they are in their response to disasters and hardship. The community is part of the solution, not the problem. They help prepare their neighbors, friends, and family members.
  • Finally, a resilient community is experienced. Community members are trained for specific roles and tasks and they practice these roles.

One way to achieve all these ends, said Hosey, is to involve communities in resilience-related research. Communities need not only to inform and participate in research but to benefit from that research, Hosey said. They need to learn about the findings of a research project and the implications for that community.

In response to a question, Hosey also identified four barriers to achieving the ends he described. One is poverty. Workforce development, especially at the middle-skilled7 level, will be essential to build resilience, he said. A second barrier is communicating with communities in ways that foster a culture of resilience. He suggested that social media tools could be used to help educate and communicate with communities. A third barrier is trust. Many people do not trust government agencies or businesses to respond in a way that will speed response and start recovery. “There are opportunities for us to think about how we build trust in communities, and that takes a long time.” The fourth barrier is complacency. Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago, and already people are forgetting its lessons, he said.


The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in 1989 when an oil tanker setting out for California struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into an environmentally sensitive area. The oil from the spill washed on shore across approximately 1,300 miles of coastline and caused an estimated $300 million of immediate economic harm to those whose livelihoods depended upon commercial fishing.8 The effects of the spill on affected communities have been studied for 25 years, noted J. Steven Picou, professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama—nearly as long as the planned duration of the Gulf Research Program. While there are some important differences between the spills, thanks to 25 years of monitoring, Picou said, we have learned many important lessons about the social impacts of a major oil spill. These lessons can inform the use of mitigation strategies for building community capacity and enhancing recovery from the DWH spill.

First, the economic, social, and psychological impacts of such an event persist well into the future—“15


7 Middle-skilled occupations are those that require considerable skill but not an advanced degree. See Gulf Research Program (2014b).

8 See

Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.

to 25 years,” said Picou. Uncertainty, conflict, disruption, and psychological stress, among other factors, can have dramatic consequences for communities. Among these impacts are increasing bankruptcies among people and communities, business failures, increases in domestic violence, increases in divorce, increases in juvenile delinquency, increases in the number of people affected by depression and intensity of their depression, suicide, and health care delivery problems as support systems in communities become ineffective. These are “corrosive communities,” Picou said, communities that have been drained of social capital (Picou et al., 2004, 2009).

Many forces drive this pattern of effects, Picou observed. In Alaska, renewable resource communities9—were particularly vulnerable to emergent and unanticipated ecological problems. The Pacific herring population, a major resource for the community,10 disappeared in some areas, and strange patterns appeared in the salmon fishery 5 to 10 years after the oil spill. As of 2010, only 10 of the 26 resources/species are considered recovered (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, 2010). These effects have had powerful consequences for the people in fishing communities.

In addition, said Picou, “back-end” litigation sparked by a technological disaster like an oil spill can last for many years. Ten years after the Exxon Valdez, he said, the main source of stress and disruption was no longer the oil spill but the litigation it created. “The litigation takes on a life of its own” (Picou, 2009).

Picou also noted that the “money spill” that occurred after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the DWH oil spill further disrupts communities due to issues of inequitable distributions of damage payments to survivors. In such circumstances, rumors and misconceptions can flourish as opportunists try to take advantage of the vulnerability of the survivors.

Finally, Picou mentioned that long-term fears concerning personal exposure to toxins, the future of commercial fishing, the safety of harvested seafood and overall public health combine to negatively impact the mental health of survivors.

All of these drivers threaten community resilience, disaster preparedness, and social capital, he said. These issues will be contested in the courts. Litigation outcomes provide no consensus and so the debate concerning the damages, their origins and who is responsible will lead to further social disruption.

The good news, Picou continued, is that these chronic community impacts can be mitigated. Education, outreach, training and the building of participatory social capital can enhance resiliency. Understanding the human impacts of disasters—including social disruption, economic impacts, and psychological impacts—can help individuals and communities transform themselves, Picou said. Faith-based groups, churches, educators, and other institutions in the local community that are transparent, trusted, and long standing can help dispel rumors and educate communities about possible solutions. Picou noted that there are several active programs in the Gulf region that are applying lessons learned in Alaska to communities impacted by the DWH oil spill. Examples are the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program11 (GRHOP) and the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities. Both of these efforts focus on building community capacity through enhancing medical infrastructure, mental health services, providing community health workers, training community volunteers and facilitating the activities of faith-based organizations, free clinics, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and other community groups. Taken together, these efforts build social capital and community resilience.

In conclusion, Picou especially emphasized the importance of using a participatory model for research and mitigation, which was a theme throughout the workshop. The more the community is involved, the better research results will be received, he said. This participatory model in itself is therapeutic, and it requires an organizational infrastructure. In Alaska, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (PWSRCAC) serves this role. People in the community serve on the council, which builds trust and transparency, and the council serves as an intermediary between government and business.


During the discussion session, several participants commented on the importance of building resilience into routine practices of governments, industry, and communities.

Chandra noted that federal approaches to preparedness and response take an “all hazards” approach that embrace resilience principles, but the challenge remains to integrate local emergency preparedness and response personnel with departments of public health that may have valuable and ongoing connections to community partners. Such alignment is needed across all government agencies and across every sector, so that responses to disasters are built into their routine activities.


9 Communities that depend upon renewable natural resources, such as seafood, for their social, cultural, and economic existence.

10 In the Alaskan community of Cordova, the herring industry pre-disaster was worth $12 million. “It accounted for almost one-third of the local economy, employed more than 1,100 people, and provided economic stability” (Gill et al., 2014).

11 See

Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.

Maureen Lichtveld of Tulane University noted the need for community capacity building in the period between disasters. “We cannot just partner with communities when we want to do research,” she said. “We need to invest in communities,” she said, by building capacity such as environmental health literacy or mapping and linking community assets. Such investments lead to relationships and information that can be essential during disasters, she said. Lynn Goldman of George Washington University pointed to the need to better involve the social sciences and behavioral health sciences to better understand community needs and how to change the relationship between communities, their government, and companies in ways that will make communities more resilient.

Paul Sandifer, noted that resilience is a concept that can help communities “bounce forward,” rather than back to the way things were before a disaster, and he encouraged participants to think more about “what do we need to do to get to where we ought to be, both from an environmental standpoint and, especially, from the social cultural and the public health standpoints.”


Summarized below are responses generated by a breakout discussion that explored the following question:

Breakout question: What are the potential opportunities for research (basic or translational) and monitoring that could significantly advance understanding of the factors that support and enhance resilience of communities in the Gulf region?

As a summary of the breakout discussion, LaDon Swann, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, presented the list, below, to all workshop participants. This list summarizes items suggested by individual or multiple participants during the breakout discussion and should not be seen as the consensus recommendations of the workshop participants; nor are they necessarily actions that the Gulf Research Program should undertake:

  • Assess effectiveness of past resilience-building activities to identify lessons learned and successful strategies.
  • Encourage researchers to explore resilience factors within a common framework to allow comparisons across case studies. Develop a common platform for aggregating and integrating analyses from different research teams.
  • Develop an integrated framework for resilience that includes consideration of ecosystem, social, health, and economic factors that influence the resilience of communities. System level analyses could inform the development of common resilience metrics, improve understanding of how different systems interact and how disciplines could work together to build resilience.
  • Develop core resilience measures that have comparative and practical value (i.e., can be used to develop best practices). Core metrics could guide the development of more informative monitoring systems. Individual participants identified several areas of related research:
    • Opportunities to use existing health datasets to measure resilience
    • Importance of cultural context in developing and sustaining resilience
    • Metrics for community versus individual resilience
    • Metrics for formal versus inherent resilience
    • Metrics for capacity and processes
    • Linking metrics to resilience practices
    • Understanding the value of ecosystems (community and economic perspectives)
  • Explore needs and opportunities for linking environmental, social, and health data.
    • Data architecture needs for socio-ecological resilience research.
    • Platform and other technology needs for improved integration, availability, and use of data.
    • Improved methods for integrating social, ecological, and health data at the time of collection; methods for linking and mining existing datasets.
    • The use of standard open source approaches to support the development of easily retrievable and sharable code.
  • Build models to improve ability to forecast socio-ecological-health issues relevant to resilience of communities.
  • Develop capacity for cross-boundary interactions. Resilience is a new and dynamic field of research that requires better integration of concepts and practices across disciplines (e.g., disaster preparedness, sociology, ecology, health). This could be facilitated through:
    • Linked grants, education, and training opportunities that support interactions across disciplines and sectors and cross-boundary knowledge development.
    • Providing opportunities for groups funded by the Gulf Research Program to interact with each other in ways that encourage a more system-level and systematic approach to researching and monitoring factors that influence resilience.
Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.
Page 12
Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.
Page 13
Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.
Page 14
Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.
Page 15
Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.
Page 16
Suggested Citation:"3 Perspectives on Resilient Communities." National Research Council. 2015. Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21691.
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There are many connections between human communities and their surrounding environments that influence community resilience and health in the Gulf of Mexico. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Gulf communities and ecosystems - coupled with the region's preexisting health challenges and environmental stressors - illustrate the need to better understand these connections. In the future, natural and man-made disasters, climate change impacts, and other environmental stressors will present complex challenges to the physical, mental, and social well-being of communities in the Gulf. Understanding the interrelationships among health, ecological, and economic impacts of disasters and other environmental stressors will be crucial to addressing these challenges.

Opportunities for the Gulf Research Program: Community Resilience and Health summarizes a Gulf Research Program workshop held on September 22-23, 2014, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The workshop examined opportunities to improve the health, well-being, and resilience of communities in the Gulf region through discussions with about 50 participants with diverse expertise and experience. These discussions identified perceived needs, challenges, and opportunities that align with the Gulf Research Program's mission and goals - particularly its goal to improve understanding of the connections between human health and the environment to support the development of health and resilient Gulf communities. This workshop is expected to lead to the development of additional Program activities and opportunities for the research community.

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