Sunday, August 15, 2010

Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans

Robert Cates, one of the authors of Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, is working on a follow up article that makes explicit a number of general lessons about the creation of resilient communities.

The 8 lessons, listed below, are described in greater detail by Andrew Revkin.
1. The United States is vulnerable to enormous disasters despite being the richest and most powerful nation on earth.
2. Creating community resilience is a long-term process.
3. Surprises should be expected.
4. The best scientific and technological knowledge does not get used or widely disseminated.
5. Major response capability and resources were invisible, refused, or poorly used.
6. Disasters accelerate existing pre-disaster trends.
7. Overall vulnerability to hurricanes has grown from multiple causes.
8. Efforts to provide protection reduced vulnerability to frequent small events but increased vulnerability to rare catastrophic events.

While the work uses the term resilience, it is more in the ordinary language sense than in the technical sense developed by Holling and other resilience science researchers. Conceptually, the analysis is closer to Perrow's treatment of system accidents (see Normal Accidents) than to resilience theory.

Since I've got a chapter "Disasters as System Accidents" in the forthcoming Earthscan Press book Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response and Recovery that covers some of the same territory, I thought I'd point out the major differences between this analysis and my own.

First, the concept of a system accident refers to an accident resulting from the unanticipated interaction of multiple failures in a complex system. While both Cates and I agree on the importance of multiple causes and the impossibility of perfect foresight (hence, the importance he places on surprises), I have a broader view of the types of causes that should be examined. Cates emphasizes two broad types of factor: natural factors (e.g., hurricane) and technological factors (e.g., levees). The central point of my chapter is the need to incorporate a third type of factor, socio-cultural, into the analysis. I don't think it is possible to fully understand what happened in New Orleans without taking account of both the specific culture of the city and the longstanding history of racism in the region.

Second, Cates argues that disasters accelerate pre-existing trends. Specifically, Katrina accelerated the economic and population decline that New Orleans was already experiencing. While Katrina does appear to have had this effect, I don't think it is safe to generalize from the single case. Naomi Kline, in her book The Shock Doctrine provides a number of examples where natural and human induced disasters alter the situation and provide the opportunity for a dramatic re-organization of the existing state of affairs. These cases illustrate not an acceleration of pre-existing trends but, rather, the replacement of the old trend by a new one. Thus, for example, the tsunami that hit Thailand and wiped out a number of small local villages that had been intractably opposed to tourist development became an opportunity for large corporations to move in and build resorts in those areas.

Third, as the following quote illustrates, Cates clearly understands that there is a potential relationship between adaptation and vulnerability.
A major concern in adapting to climate change is whether successful short-term adaptation may lead to larger long-term vulnerability. This seemed to be the case from the 40 year period between Hurricane Betsy and Katrina, when new and improved levees, drainage pumps, and canals — successfully protected New Orleans against three hurricanes in 1985, 1997, and 1998. But these same works permitted the massive development of previously unprotected areas and the flooding of these areas that resulted when the works themselves failed were the major cause of the Katrina catastrophe.

However, while noting the potential relationship, he doesn't provide any conceptual ideas to help us make sense of it. Individuals familiar with panarchy theory will recognize the similarities between the situation described above and the rigidities present in the conservation phase of the adaptive cycle.

1 comment:

  1. right on, Gary: the conservation phase. Everybody wants to avoid the big breakdown. Even groups like Transition Towns can't seem to grasp the inevitability of failure and collapse, at least on some levels. So they're not prepared for it.