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.