What is resilience? – 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

Saturday 29 August marks the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, widely viewed as one of the modern western world’s worst failures for disaster response. Not long after the disaster, President G.W. Bush told the world that they would learn lessons from the disaster. So has this pledge translated into increased resilience for the impacted area?

New Orleans, LA, August 30, 2005 — Neighborhoods throughout the city are flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people.

— President George W. Bush, September 15, 2005

Hurricane Katrina impact facts

  • Deaths: 1,833
  • Land area damaged: 233,000 km2   (similar to the area of the United Kingdom)
  • Damaged homes: 300,000
  • Economic losses: US$125-150 billion (similar to the annual GDP of Hungary)

What is resilience?

In simple terms, it is the ability of a community to bounce back from a ‘shock’ (in this case, a hurricane).

The resilience of a community in respect to potential hazard events is determined by the degree to which the community has the necessary resources and is capable of organizing itself both prior to and during times of need.

— UNISDR, 2007

So, does this translate to the Hurricane Katrina impact area?

Much has been made of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and certainly many lessons have been learned. Most of these lessons are concentrated on emergency response, as this has been viewed of as the greatest shortcoming leading to the disaster. But there is much more to resilience than emergency response. Recovery, for example, is a fundamental aspect of resilience.

Recovery is something that New Orleans seems to be particularly struggling with. After 10 years, the population is still 100,000 people below 2005 levels. This suggests that opportunities in New Orleans have not been sufficient to entice people to the city. Additionally, less than half of the homes that once stood before the hurricane have been rebuilt. Those that have been rebuilt are often out of the price range of those at lower income levels. As a consequence of the concentration of damage on the affordable housing stock, rental costs are relatively high when compared to the relatively low wages. It is no wonder then that the city has struggled to encourage people to the city.

Renters with severe housing cost burdens has increased due to Hurricane Katrina. Source: The Data Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from American Community Survey 2004 and 2013

This all raises an important question: If another disaster were to strike New Orleans and destroy the leftover affordable housing, given the current issues with housing affordability, would this force even more people to leave the city permanently? 

Surely, if large quantities of people are forced to permanently leave a city, a resilient city it is not.

It is a common occurrence after a disaster for developers to concentrate efforts on property types that will yield them the most returns. Often this means higher cost housing. A report published in 2007 identified the impending housing affordability crisis for New Orleans, but it has taken until recently for action to be taken to address this issue. The New Orleans City Council has recognised the issue of housing affordability, and is experimenting with a zoning strategy aimed at giving developers an incentive to create low cost affordable housing. The idea is that in exchange for allowing developers to develop on smaller lots, a proportion of the units created will be set aside for low income earners.

No doubt there are many cities around the world (particularly the so called “Global Cities“) where housing affordability is getting drastically out of hand. This raises some serious issues of resilience, particularly with recent studies suggesting climate change related sea rise of at least 1 m over the next 100-300 years is inevitable.

So while we take remembrance of the impacts from Hurricane Katrina, let us not forget that resilience is not just about having the best emergency response practices (although that is important), it is also about what makes a city livable in-between disasters.


Western US Ravaged by Wildfires

Western US communities are experiencing a tougher that usual wildfire season. Here is a short summary of events. 

Wildfires in the US from satellite imagery aquired 5th August 2015 (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=86366)

Wildfires in western parts of the US are not uncommon. However, it appears that this years wildfire season is particularly difficult, and has fire crews stretched throughout the region. There are many dozens of wildfires occurring, which is resulting in some US$150 million per week being spent in an attempt to control them. Some 12,000 firefighters are battling at least 17 wildfires in California. Nearly 70,000 acres of land has be subjected to wildfire in Oregonand concerns have been raised about air quality levels sweeping across urban areas. This can be particularly problematic for those with asthma. 

The sky is yellow and you can barely see downtown from here. – Portland resident, Amber Ackerson

Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks found at hardware stores are inadequate, and do not filter out the fine particles in smoke that can harm your lungs. – Department of Environmental Quality

Sadly, three firefighters lost their lives while attempting to control a fire in Twisp after a sudden shift in the wind. 

200 houses have been destroyed in Washington, with over 12,000 still threatened.

President Barack Obama has declared a federal emergency in Washington State where fires are becoming out of control. As a result of such stretched resources,  volunteers are being trained to help (a first in state history), and Australia and New Zealand have sent personnel to assist with the emergency response. 

See the video below to get an idea of just how widespread the wildfires are.

Unfortunately, wildfires in the western part of the US are likely going to be a regular occurrence, and probably become longer and more frequent due to climate change.

June 2015 Wanganui flooding

The June 2015 flooding event which struck the lower North Island of New Zealand last week caused widespread flooding and landslides. This has resulted in significant disruption to transportation networks in the area, with some communities (some 200 rural propertiesnearly completely isolated. A photo gallery of the damage can be seen on the Wanganui Chronicle webpage here and here

Some have expressed frustration at being denied access to begin clean-up activities, but Wanagnui district councillor, Jenny Duncan said:

“There are many unseen issues including electrical safety, potential contamination, security and safety.”…

“In addition, there is heavy machinery working in the area, with sanitary and drainage problems to consider.

“This is why it is necessary for a cordon to be in place, and those tasked with manning these must comply with the instructions they are given.”

In other areas as the mammoth clean-up effort continues, the damage caused by the June 2015 Wanganui flooding event is becoming apparent. Current estimates put the cost of recovery at around NZ$120 million, with the New Zealand Government pledging to help local councils with the recovery bill. RadioNZ is reporting that close to 120 homes have been “yellow stickered”, meaning that some work is required before people may inhabit them, and about a dozen properties have been condemned. For those that will be able to return to their homes, it is likely that a significant wait could be in order before they can return as the properties must be cleaned, dried, and have restoration work completed.

The clean-up effort for housing will be huge (Photo: RadioNZ)

Those that are likely to be without housing for an extended period of time are being urged to contact Housing New Zealand (social housing provider) regardless of whether they are a current HNZ tenant. Area Manager for Housing New Zealand, Keith Hilson said:

“It may take some time to reinstate properties that have suffered significant damage, and in some cases the occupant may not have longer-term housing options.”

In addition to the current damage, there is concern that further rainfall could overwhelm already fragile systems.

Here is the latest media release from Wanganui Coucil detailing the latest information.