These past weeks, you’ve likely found yourself struggling to stay afloat in a storm surge of ten-year Hurricane Katrina remembrance. News/social media outlets have been awash with reflections on the 2005 storm itself, which killed 1000-2000 people (yes, the range of estimates is that great), and inflicted $100B of losses in the form of property damage and business disruption. Media coverage has explored the subsequent enhancements to flood-protection infrastructure; recent improvements in weather- and storm-surge warnings; the progress of the recovery with respect to housing, demographics, poverty, education, the economy of the region, and the lives of individual survivors (those who have since returned and those permanently displaced); and much more. No aspect has gone ignored. The narratives have been poignant and gripping.
The Katrina retrospectives come on top of a worldwide tide of recollection. This past month has also marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed tens of thousands, and brought a close to a decade of conflict which saw 50-80 million deaths (50-70% civilian), some 3% of the world’s population of the time. And, these days, each week calls to mind centennial reminiscence of particular World War I events, which killed another 15-20 million people over the period 1914-1918.
Statistics such as these impoverish the respective discussions. It is the individual deaths that consecrate the events. Abraham Lincoln famously captured this point in his Gettysburg address, saying about that Civil War battlefield:
“…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Some might wonder, or even take umbrage, with the idea of lumping together those who died from so-called natural disasters with those who died heroically in war, but the reality is that there’s no clear dividing line between the two groups. Many who have died in combat were drawn in by degrees – through accident of birth and position and a series of small decisions and a process of acquiescence – rather than making any dramatic, conscious decision to sacrifice their lives for others or for a cause. And many who die from so-called natural hazards find much the same thing – that it was the last climactic consequence of the poverty and associated assumption of risk imposed on them by life’s circumstances and the actions and failures of others as much as any personal shortsightedness of their own making. They had, in effect, been in a war all along.
Back then, Lincoln noted that there was (and is) only one decent way for the living to respond: through renewed and enlarged determination, to avoid any repetition of the tragedies of wars and natural disasters.
As we look around, we see evidence that we’re doing a far better job of remembrance than such rededication. Media coverage on Katrina and its aftermath has been thorough and eloquent. Katrina recovery efforts – still underway, and likely to be needed for yet another decade – on occasion provide reasons for cheer. But New Orleans hasn’t seen the back of the hurricane threat. Those risks are ongoing – if anything, growing. That is even more true of the hurricane threat to the United States more generally, and truer still of the broader risk exposure – to floods and drought; sea-level rise; earthquakes and volcanism; pandemic; acts of terror; and cyber-vulnerabilities. Disasters, like snowflakes, are all different. Each day we draw 24 hours closer to a diverse range of catastrophes that we’ll then add to our growing calls to remembrance.
Often it feels that we’re sleepwalking into this problematic future. But there’s good news buried in this reality. First, not all future disaster scenarios are hidden from us. Thanks to advances in the geosciences and social sciences we know where many of the vulnerabilities and risks lie. What’s more, we don’t have to “guess exactly right” when it comes to the next disaster. We can take many measures now to build a generalized resilience to those future events, whatever precise form they may take (much as our immune system provides continuing protection against infections we’ve survived, and as an autumn flu shot provides added protection not just to the few strains in the serum but to a broader class of viruses). What’s more, to enlist in and prosecute the effort to build societal resilience to hazards can be profoundly satisfying. Ask any emergency manager, or NOAA National Weather Service forecaster, or anyone working toward a weather ready-nation or emergency healthcare or business continuity; they’ll tell you.
But this doesn’t have to be a spectator sport for the rest of us. We actively build societal resilience whenever and however we work to create a more equitable and just society, to provide health care to all, to enhance public education, to create meaningful jobs, to protect habitat and the environment.
And at the core, it’s about values. As we respect others, love each other, make opportunity for action and participation available to all, both locally and nationally – in short, as we respond to Lincoln’s age-old call for a new birth of freedom – we’ll find community-level resilience to hazards arises as a co-benefit. (By contrast, attempt to build hazards resilience while refusing to address or even acknowledge the challenges posed by basic human values, and we’ll likely fail at both.)
Are you in?
closing note: I started the blog LOTRW back in August of 2010. One of my earliest posts was on Katrina five years on. If you’ll compare this post with that, you’ll find a similar perspective… including drawing on Lincoln’s remarks. In the five years since, I haven’t really been any more successful in putting my arms around that tragedy.
At the time, I followed the Katrina post with a short series of posts outlining broad policy recommendations:
- No adverse impact (an ASFPM analog to environmental impact statements)
- learning from experience (an NTSB analog)
- keeping score of losses in the national economic statistics
- building a strategic-level public-private partnership
- making fuller use of the U.S. Department of Commerce remit and connectivity toward these ends
You can reach these by clicking on the old Katrina link and then scrolling forward in time through the successive string of posts. The same recommendations are in my 2014 book by the same title. All of these ideas continue to merit further attention and work. Hold a serious national and international conversation on these ideas, and we’d progress toward a safer, happier, more satisfying world.