Remembering Katrina (and the human condition).

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.

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10 Responses to Remembering Katrina (and the human condition).

  1. Bill:-

    Always a great pleasure to re-read Lincoln’s measured words! And how apt.

    But Lincoln didn’t have to deal with the complexities of modern society. As you rightly point out, we all can participate in the needed rededication; but I’d go you one further – we all must participate if we’re going to truly be successful. And there’s the rub. How many communities have the resources to do all that needs to be done ? Relatively few. How many have the collective leadership – business, government, public, NGOs – in alignment to take action? On anything? Not many. And let’s not even talk about the problems of scale and bounded rationality in communities.

    That leaves us with a federal government that has to become the public’s sword to cut through the Gordian knot of conflicting complexities. Unfortunately, too many hands are grabbing for that sword; too few are grasping it firmly – and it seems as if the knot gets a little tighter each year.

    But in your wise words I see hidden a scalpel that may be the instrument we need. Ignore the complexity of all the challenges you referred to – just pick a problem and band with others to solve it. Because fixing the things that ail us requires concerted campaigns not crusades; requires that Big Government gets out of the way of the Little Guy who is involved in his or her community. In other words, we don’t try to fix this nationally, but just one problem one community at a time.

    In the course I teach on “Applications of systems thinking for emergency managers” I present strategies that can be used to solve the complex problems we face. The above is one of my favorites – I call it the Ant. Many of the problems you’ve referred to are manifested at several levels in a community. For these, nibbling on one small piece and then moving on after that one piece of the problem is gone – solved – can actually work. But, of course, it requires “ants” who want to take on the problem, which is why all of us need to participate.

  2. Michael Cunningham says:

    “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 …” Bill, granted I’m not an expert, that’s not the message I get from Judith Curry’s current blog on the issue – one of her areas of expertise – which examines recent research and historical data.

    • william hooke says:

      Thanks, Michael:

      Good catch, great contribution, and I commend the link to Judith Curry’s blog to everyone. Very well researched, thorough, and thoughtful.

      Short answer is that I’m referring to the societal risk, not the incidence, or location, or intensity of the hurricanes themselves. Fact is our coastal populations continue to grow along with our property and economic exposure. Our land use and building codes don’t reflect the risk, and our critical infrastructure remains fragile. As Pielke and Landsea argued long ago, that’s the contribution that matters.

    • Fernando L. says:

      Most of New Orleans is built on the wrong spot. The long term prognosis is bleak simply because the sediments under the city are compacting, and this means the city is slowly subsiding. The urban area is spread out, and this means sea defenses are very long and expensive. They are also inadequate. The best response to the Katrina disaster would have been to abandon large portions of the city and build four high speed commuter rail lines, two from downtown New Orleans to an area near Mandeville, north of Lake Pontchartrain, and two to Baton Rouge.

  3. Neil Stuart says:

    Bill and all,

    The Nelson D. Rockefeller Institute of Government, The Public Policy Arm of the State University of New York has written numerous research reports on the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina, especially commentary on successes and failures of various levels of government and business. There are also recommendations on what can be done in future disasters.

    Below is a link to the most recent report and I encourage you to access the previous reports as well. Just some food for thought again on some specific observations and recommendations resulting from studying Hurricane Katrina (and Rita in other reports).

    Most recent report below:

    List of previous reports below:

    Disclaimer – Reference to any specific commercial or academic products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not constitute or imply its recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or NOAA/National Weather Service. Use of information from this website and publications shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.


    Neil Stuart – NWS Albany, NY

    • William Hooke says:

      🙂 Many thanks, Neil, for these thoughtful comments and the valuable links.

    • Michael Cunningham says:

      Neil, Queensland, Australia, has had several cyclonic and flood disasters in recent years. In general, the State and Brisbane governments have responded well (although the 2011 Brisbane flood was severely exacerbated by earlier State inaction and slowness to act as the situation became critical). Re Landy’s OIC suggestion, on several occasions, post-hoc, an army general has been put in charge of rescue and recovery efforts, at times with sweeping powers and authority – effectively the OIC role with executive authority. This has been very effective.

      Major-General Jim Nolan, who the US put in charge of Allied forces in Iraq at a critical time, has been scathing about the nature of the Australian military in terms of preparing for its most critical missions, in major overseas conflicts. But they have been good at peace-keeping and relief actions, which might help to explain their competence in disaster recovery. US military personnel I’ve met over the last 48 years have been courteous, confident, capable and committed. I don’t know what role they’ve played post-disasters in the US, but they’d probably be a very effective recovery force.

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