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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Lessons For Building Disaster Resilience In New Orleans & The Rest Of “A Turbulent Planet”

August 15th, 2010 · No Comments

Andrew Revkin’s terrific DotEarth blog has two interesting posts this week with contributions from two experts on disasters and resilience.

1) In “Lessons In Resilience From New Orleans,” Robert Kates, a scholar studying human development patterns, offered some lessons on building resilient communities derived from the history of New Orleans. The lessons are:

The United States is vulnerable to enormous disasters despite being the richest and most powerful nation on earth, creating community resilience is a long-term process, surprises should be expected, the  best scientific and technological knowledge does not get used or widely disseminated, Major response capability and resources were invisible, refused, or poorly used, Disasters accelerate existing pre-disaster trends, overall vulnerability to hurricanes has grown from multiple causes, and efforts to provide protection reduced vulnerability to frequent small events but increased vulnerability to rare catastrophic events.

In regard to citizen involvement in developing that resilience, Kates argues:

In coping with extreme events from climate change and other hazards, there is much talk of partnerships. In every disaster there are unanticipated or unaddressed needs and “shadow responders” often emerge from households, friends and family, neighborhoods, non-governmental and voluntary organizations, businesses, and industry. In responding to Katrina, they were sometimes refused or poorly used by government officials, even though they provided most of the initial evacuation capacity, sheltering, feeding, health care, and rebuilding, and much of the search and rescue, cleanup, and post-Katrina funding. For resilient communities, in advance of hazard events, the tri-level system (city, state, federal) of emergency response needs to welcome, effectively use, collaborate with, and coordinate the combined public and private efforts.

The full post can be found here.

A flooded New Orleans in wake of Hurricane Katrina (Photo: Vincent Foret/New York Times)

The other post, “Building Resilience On A Turbulent Planet,” is an interview is with Robert R.M. Verchick, the director of Loyola University’s Center for Environmental Law and Land Use. He’s on leave as a deputy associate administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he is working on developing a national plan for adapting to climate change. Verchick is also the author of a new book, Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard Univ. Press).

I thought I would excerpt one question and answer from the interesting interview:

Q: One glaring question is why — even here in a rich, scientifically enabled country — we still tolerate and even subsidize building in harm’s way? (For instance: “Climate Experts Warn of More Coastal Building” and “Development Rises on St. Louis Area Flood Plains.”)

A: Here are two of the biggest reasons, which are related: markets and psychology. Our economic and political markets do not correctly value the benefit of keeping people and development out of harm’s way. Businesses, for instance, have large economic incentives to exploit or develop cheap land — land which could provide a protective barrier from storm surge or which could be a flood plain that would put a proposed residential area at future risk…

When markets fail, government should step in to protect people. But that is hard when regulated businesses and single-issue lobby groups press (sometimes fiercely) for policies that benefit their shorter-term economic interests. The surrounding neighbors can’t compete in this political marketplace because, again, they lack information and, in addition, they lack political access.

…At this point you might be saying, “Well if people just thought about the long-term consequences, businesses and politicians wouldn’t fall for this market-failure trick.” True enough, and this brings us to my point about psychology. Natural disasters are, for the most part, low-probability, high-impact events. Such events — called “black swans” — are notoriously hard to plan for. In the normal course of public protection, government officials are used to managing threats to safety or the environment according to a loose formula in which risk is the product of an event’s probability multiplied by its potential harm. This equation helps set government priorities and in some cases dictates the amount that the public and private sectors will spend on protective measures, including levees and dams, and risk-pooling arrangements like subsidized flood insurance (to refer to your examples from the Times articles).

But if that’s your only decision-making tool, a black swan will eat you for lunch. One reason is that human beings are not very good at evaluating low-probability occurrences and routinely underestimate their significance. We’re pretty good at comparing, say, a 50 percent risk to a 25 percent risk. But when risks fall below 1 percent, we stare at our shoes and reduce all likelihood to zero.

That’s why you probably don’t think much about a major earthquake striking Manhattan or a tsunami battering the Oregon coast, even though each has happened and will probably happen again. It’s why most people never even consider buying insurance for long-term nursing care, although it makes sense statistically. Even experts fall prey to this bias. While assessing flood-control measures before Hurricane Katrina, scientists used a model storm that included data from decades of past events, but that intentionally left out data for two of the strongest storms (Hurricane Camille of 1969 and the Keys Storm of 1935) because they were not judged “reasonably characteristic of the Gulf.”

A second difficulty with black swan events is that because they come in so many shapes and sizes, it is hard to imagine how the next one will be triggered. Too often, we look only in the rear-view mirror, preparing to save ourselves from the last disaster we still remember. We imagine we can avoid our problems with a narrow set of fixes. Worried about tankers leaking off the Alaska coast? Require double-hulled vessels. Terrorists with shoe bombs? Slide your heels and loafers through a scanner. Later this summer, we’ll probably be debating the need for sonar shut-off valves on blowout preventers. By all means, let’s fill the safety gaps revealed in hindsight. But in preparing for the next worst case, what we need more than anything else is imagination.

The full second post can be found here.

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Tags: Preparedness Interviews · Preparedness Lessons

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