After Hurricane Betsy, Louisiana Governor John McKeithen pledged that “nothing like this will happen again” and asserted that his administration would “establish procedures that will someday in the near future make a repeat of this disaster impossible.” Forty years later a storm of lesser magnitude caused far worse damage and fatalities. “Had the lessons of Betsy been retained?” asked Colten during his presentation. “Had they been woven into hurricane preparations and used to make the city more resilient?” The answer has to be no. Resilience eroded in the city of New Orleans between the two events, Colten said. The city did not retain the lessons of past hurricanes, and it did not plan or prepare adequately for future events. This erosion of resilience has implications for any other city that faces repeated disruptive events.
Colten defined resilience as the ability of a community to rebound after an extreme or stressful event to either the same condition or to a functional state. This definition can apply to either ecological or human communities, he observed. But human communities have the ability to learn, adapt, and adjust to subsequent disruptive events, so long as they retain lessons learned in previous events and use those lessons to adapt to future events.
Given this definition, the term resilience implies a community that anticipates problems, reduces vulnerabilities, responds effectively to an emergency, and recovers rapidly to a safer and fairer functional state. To achieve resilience, communities need to make deliberate efforts to infuse preparations with historical perspectives and to convey lessons to each generation of leaders, Colten said. They need to preserve, nurture, integrate, and perpetuate social memories of past events and use these memories as growth points for the renewal and reorganization of socioecological systems (Adger, 2000).
Changes Between 1965 and 2005
One area where there was significant improvement between the two hurricanes was in storm forecasting. The forecasting tools in 1965 included early radar systems, hurricane hunter flights, and networks of ship reports. Two days before the landfall of Betsy, the city of New Orleans and federal officials had already launched full preparation for the hurricane. A day before landfall the warning area extended from Texas to Florida.
In 2005 the National Hurricane Center produced a nearly perfect track for the hurricane 72 hours before landfall (e.g., http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/special-reports/katrina.html; accessed May 30, 2011). This emphatic warning provided impetus for the evacuation of able-bodied people and the provisioning of shelters, although many people with special needs still did not have enough time to evacuate from the city.